Late last fall, I took a three-week trip to the Mediterranean. My goal: to find and buy a selection of fake ancient coins from shady dealers in distant lands (and to soak in history, visit ancient ruins, eat awesome food, drink amazing wines, and generally have a fun time -- but that’s incidental). Each week I will post a new entry in this five-part series for entertainment and discussion purposes. These were my adventures… Ephesus: City in Ruins For two days at sea I had to satisfy my coin-collecting bug by feeding bills into the ship’s laundry room change-makers and cherry-picking American State quarters. What had I sunk to? It was too horrible to contemplate. Although Rome had offered some tantalizing flirtations with tourist fakes and some nice museum reproductions, the “real” fakes continued to elude me. With two weeks of hunting opportunities still ahead of me, I had set sail for Egypt, Turkey and Greece with high hopes but reduced expectations. Egypt was a bust as far as coin collecting was concerned. I hadn’t expected much, considering money as we know it was a concept brought late to Egypt by the invading Greeks and continued by invading Romans. Although coins of the Alexandria mint had their own style and feel to them, they didn’t look Egyptian. They looked like the product of occupying forces. Perhaps because there was never a strong cultural connection with ancient coinage, none of the multitude of vendors I saw in Alexandria, Cairo, and the Giza Plateau seemed to be offering anything in the way of tourist fakes. Rather, they seemed to specialize in tourist-tacky. If you were after any number of plastic and plaster pyramids, sphinxes or sarcophagi, you would not be disappointed. They were there by the truckload, aggressively and mercilessly peddled to any tourist who so much as paused within sight of the shops and stands. But I came up empty on coins. Not that I really gave many of the shops and vendors a fair shake. I was too worried about being dragged into a protracted sales pitch followed by much stalking. Mostly I walked around, sparing sly glances at the stock, never making eye contact, and repeating “No thank you, no thank you” a lot. By these means, I successfully navigated the Egyptian tourist economy for two days before leaving port. A few weeks later, the whole country exploded into revolution, but that’s another story. The Greek isle of Khios proved even more futile for my coin-hunting excursion as did, surprisingly, Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a rabbit warren of more shops than anybody could ever care to count. They say you can get damn near anything there, but mostly I saw the same groupings of Turkish staples for sale over and over and over again -- especially rugs. I had limited time to navigate the maze, and kept my route simple for fear of losing my way and missing the tour bus departure schedule. With more time -- or, better yet, several days -- I might have been able to dig deeper and find more specialty shops. Surely there must be some tourist fakes up for grabs in the city that used to be called Constantinople when it was the heart of the Byzantine empire and its mint production. If they were there, I missed out. The last stop in Turkey was Ephesus, by way of the port at Kusadasi. Ephesus was once a major Greek and then Roman commercial centre, but died out slowly as its port got choked with silt, turning the coastal city into a landlocked one. At this point, I’d seen lots of Roman ruins, some Greek ruins, and some Ottoman Turk buildings from the Middle Ages that were very well preserved and still in use. But I hadn’t encountered a single tourist-fake peddler. At least, not one who met my strict criteria. As the tour bus approached the Ephesus site, I dared to hope. A shop advertising “Genuine Fake Watches” in big letters on its sign seemed to indicate a certain element of scam-artistry. Stepping off the bus, I found the gates leading onto the grounds were flanked by gift shops. Most of it was cheap junk and rather too many Priapus statues to maintain a wholesome family-entertainment vibe. I was about to give up when I spotted a bunch of small metal discs sitting on one shelf, low to the ground, right at one shop’s entrance. The shopkeeper immediately knew what I was looking at and came over to ask, “You want see coins?” “Sure. Show me what you have,” I told him. He leaned over, plucked up a bunch and, one after the other, handed me exactly what I was looking for. They were big bronze fake copies of various Roman and Greek coins. Despite assurances that they were from Ephesus, they were all obviously mass produced in some anonymous shop in Turkey. Even if they had been real, none of them would have originated in Ephesus, but that didn’t stop the lies about how they were dug up in the surrounding area. “The problem is,” I said to the shopkeeper, stating the painfully obvious, “these aren’t real.” He put on his best insulted face and insisted, “No! Is real coin, Ephesus!” A few times back and forth of him trying to con me and me looking like I actually knew what I was talking about and the price dropped precipitously. Coins that had once been priced at sixty, eighty, even a hundred Euros, were now being offered for three or four Euros a piece. I still didn’t like the price, especially after such a blatant attempt to rob me. When he wouldn’t come down to five Euros for four, I walked away. To my surprise, he let me go. We were the last tour group of the season, and the final chance for local vendors to make some sales before a long, barren winter. We’d been alerted that the shops would be eager to make deals. Apparently they were eager but not desperate. I was worried I had just lowballed my way out of the one and only opportunity I’d have to buy some “Genuine Fake Coins.” What I didn’t realize was exactly how the site was laid out. What’s left of Ephesus is a long L-shape. You can enter or leave from either end, the only difference being whether your tour group is going to end up walking slightly uphill or slightly downhill. After a few hours of strolling through the spectacular ruins, our group arrived on the far end of the site where the tour bus had arranged to pick us up. The bus was waiting, sure enough, but so were a dozen more shops. And nearly every single one of them was selling tourist fakes. “You want coin, Ephesus?” said the first vendor when he saw where my eyes had wandered. They were more fake bronzes, much like the ones at the other entrance to the site. “Real coin, Ephesus,” he said. “Hundred Euros.” “Yes,” I replied, “but they’re fake.” “Is not fake, is real,” he insisted. “Except that they’re not. These are cast fakes.” It was about that point he realized I was a little sharper than most of the other coin-purchasing tourists he encountered. It was time for plan B. “You want real? Come. I give you real,” he said and gestured for me to follow him into his lair. He led me deep inside his shop, through a door in the back, and into a dingy little staff-only room. I was only slightly concerned I might be murdered for my shoes. I had heard some rumblings about how these tourist fake transactions were supposed to go down. There was a whole script that remained fairly consistent from scam dealer to scam dealer. I was getting the complete experience in this shop, and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything. Once we were alone in the little room, hidden away behind a beaded curtain, he retrieved a small ornate box and opened it to show me the contents. “Real coins, Ephesus,” he told me in a hushed, almost reverent tone. And, of course, they were more fakes. In fact, many of them looked to have been made from the exact same molds as the bronzes outside, only these were cast in a shiny silver metal that had less than zero chance of being actual silver. “Yes,” I said, “but those are fakes too.” “No, no, these are real coins, Ephesus. Eighty Euros.” “Thanks anyway,” I said and turned away to head back outside. I was having fun baiting this guy, but I was still a tad uncomfortable being tucked away alone in a room with someone who was trying very hard to fleece me. Outside we came to an agreement about the bronzes which we were now both willing to concede weren’t real. I selected four I particularly liked for ten Euros. I was still overpaying, but I knew I had a limited time before the tour bus left. Haggling is a way of life in Turkey, and I had gotten quite good at it in a short amount of time. Anybody selling pretty much anything in Turkey expects you to haggle, and they get very disappointed if you don’t engage in a lively round of price negotiation with them. It’s like a national sport and they’d much rather get into a heated debate about a final sum than get the full amount they’re asking for. Sure, they’d have more money in their pocket if you gave them full price, but where’s the fun in that? Given more time, I would have merrily bargained another fifty percent off the price. But I didn’t want to miss my ride and I didn’t want to leave empty-handed. Luckily, time wasn’t quite as pressing as I had initially thought. Not everyone from the tour had returned yet and many were probably still in line for a bathroom somewhere. An extra ten minutes gave me enough time to get roped in by another tourist-fake dealer. It was almost, word-for-word, the exact same script as the last dealer. Again, I was led into the back of the store to take a look in the special ornate box of “real” coins. Again, I found myself looking at more silvery copies. “Yes,” I told this shopkeeper, “but they’re fake too.” “You want real coin?” he asked. Again the hushed tone, this time almost a whisper. I was delighted. This seller had a whole extra level to his scam. Delicately, he pulled back a corner of the cloth that lined the inside of the box and cushioned the top layer of fake silver coins. Underneath, there was a single bronze Roman Imperial coin. “Real coin,” he said softly. And it was. It actually was. In among these dozens of crooked dealers with their hundreds of fake coins, there was one real ancient coin. It was a Licinius AE3 in fine condition with the ubiquitous Jupiter reverse from the early fourth century. No doubt about it, it was absolutely genuine. And common as dirt. Worth maybe ten bucks retail on a good day. “Well that one’s real,” I agreed. “But I already have a bunch of them.” Which was true. Most collectors consider Licinius coinage boring, especially the endless Jupiter series. It keeps even the nicer specimens cheap, and the organizer in me likes to buy one occasionally to fill out my collection of various mints and all their individual officinas. Even as a Licinius collector, I wouldn’t have looked twice at the one this guy was trying to sell me. I didn’t even ask the price. He’d just tried to sell me a bunch of fakes in the sixty to one hundred and twenty-Euro range. I was frightened to know what he’d want for an ancient coin he actually knew was real. By the time I was back outside, word must have spread that there was some westerner milling about looking for coins. I found myself dogged by one dealer who didn’t even seem to have a shop. He kept producing more and more coins from his pockets, desperate to unload as many as possible in these closing minutes of tourist season. He held out one coin for me to see, lying in his palm, and went into his pitch. “Athena,” he said, pointing at the bust with the winged helmet. “No, that’s Roma,” I corrected, easily recognizing the most common head to appear on Roman Republic coinage. I couldn’t tell if these vendors really didn’t know what was depicted on the coins, didn’t care, or just wanted to tell the tourists some familiar names in order to make a sale. A couple of the others had done the same thing and I’d just nodded like I agreed. This time I was willing to mix it up and argue a bit more. The hard sell continued regardless. He didn’t try to contradict me, he just moved to the next coin in line. “Constantine,” he told me, probably because that emperor was an easier sell to tourists thanks to his role in legitimizing Christianity in the early fourth century. I looked at the portrait on the new coin in his hand. Wrong century, wrong emperor. It was Hadrian. This one was obvious, but others less so. It was hard to say in some cases what the designers of the tourist fakes were shooting for as they cobbled together random legends with random portraits and random reverses. We went through what had now become the usual routine of establishing that they were all fake and I knew it. The price dropped to a fraction of the original asking price accordingly and I ended up buying a handful for another ten Euros. The vendor walked away, momentarily satisfied, but returned less than a minute later to try to unload more of his stock. He may have just realized that the last bus of the last tour of the year was about to depart, and I was going to be his final sale of 2010. With the tour guide and an entire busload of people waiting for me, I rushed through this final transaction. Another bunch of Euros flew out of my wallet to be replaced by a random selection of fakes. He practically poured them into my cupped hands and I was left awkwardly holding two fistfuls of big heavy bronze and pseudo-silver fakes. I hurried to the bus, concerned about keeping everybody waiting. Luckily, they’d all been distracted by yet another vendor who had seized the opportunity to infiltrate the group and sell off his stock of Turkish delight. My fellow tourists were all happily munching on their sweet snacks, so no harm was done. As we hit the road for the return trip to Kusadasi, I felt very pleased with myself. My quest had finally paid off big. Although I had overpaid for my junk trinkets and encouraged charlatans to continue to ply their trade to gullible foreigners, I had at last hit the tourist-fake jackpot with twenty fine examples in a variety of styles mimicking Roman Republics, Roman Imperials, Roman Provincials, and even some Greeks. They ranged from polished with fake toning, to sprayed with fake desert patina. And they were all gloriously and indisputably fake fake fake. Even with a couple of stops left on the trip, I figured it wouldn’t and couldn’t get better than this. And I was quite right. But even after such a climactic success as this, I didn’t know my greatest tourist-fake challenge lay ahead. I was going to square off in a battle of wits with a witch. Next week: The haggler versus the hag. Figure 4.1 - Genuine fakes are good, but beware of those fake fakes. Figure 4.2 - Artificially-toned fake. Figure 4.3 - Artificially-toned fake. Figure 4.4 - Artificially-toned fake.