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… Pompeii: Frozen in Time Athens, predictably enough, had proven dry in the coin department. Greece takes its antiquities very seriously now and has a strict “hands off our history” policy in regards to most things ancient. Other Mediterranean cultures shrug when it comes to their ruins and will, literally in some cases, tell you they’re just piles of rock. You can touch them if you want, walk on them if you’re able, and even abscond with random bits of rubble if you’re so bold. Few things are very well guarded and many aren’t even particularly well cared for. I come from a young country that reveres anything more than a couple of centuries old. In much of Europe and the Middle East, that wouldn’t even register as particularly antique. Two-thousand-year-old structures and artifacts are so common, they’re almost a nuisance, blocking developers who want to build something new, thwarting farmers who simply want to plow their fields. Greece, however, after being looted for centuries, has come to revere it all. Roped-off ruins and “Do Not Touch” signs abound. And although there are plenty of souvenirs celebrating Greek heritage to be had, I found nothing, coins or otherwise, trying to pass itself off as even potentially real. The Greeks don’t even want to suggest that any of their antiquities might be for sale or export. In fact, they’re fighting battles with international museums to get a lot of their stuff back. You can look at their ruins and statues and frescoes and, yes, even coins. But don’t touch. And don’t think for a second you can leave with any of it. Although there’s an entire museum dedicated to Greek coins in Athens, the only ones I saw in my whirlwind tour were in one of the buildings of the Agora. It was a simple display, under glass of course, featuring a lot of the usual suspects when it comes to ancient Greek coinage. It was a nice enough display case, well lit, respectfully presented, but I found myself rather disinterested. Frankly, I’d seen and even handled better at coin shows. Athenian Owl tetradrachms are very beautiful and cool, but seem less impressive in a museum setting when you happen to know how common and even affordable they are on the international coin market. I’m sure the most militant of the heritage preservationists would like to see all the Athenian Owls brought home, but the fact is it’s a very common coin, minted for centuries, circulated throughout the known world, with more than enough samples traded today to satisfy the needs of every collector and museum curator in the world who would care to own one. Or two. Or a dozen. They aren’t cheap, but they are very getable. The final stop of my trip was Naples, with a half-day excursion to Pompeii. Pompeii has the dubious distinction of being the best preserved Roman city in the world. Dubious because it got that way by being utterly destroyed. Frozen in time under a deep layer of volcanic ash, this former resort town was excavated many centuries later and now shows us how an entire Roman settlement was laid out. Unlike other ruins, which usually only preserve major landmarks like temples, palaces, and amphitheatres, Pompeii retains everything from its past -- right down to the lowliest, most basic residences. As you walk the streets there, you get a real sense of what it was like to live a day-to-day urban existence two thousand years ago. For obvious reasons, Pompeii is also kind of creepy. It’s the ultimate ghost town and a great many people died there quite horribly. And if you ever forget that fact, all you have to do is look at one of the plaster casts of victims that were made when the city was first dug up. Although the bodies were long gone by then, the empty shells of where they died were preserved in the hardened ash and served as convenient molds. Now, images of their final moments of suffering are preserved for all time. Although we’re spared specific facial details in these casts, the body language is still evident and speaks disturbingly of resigned doom. Sure, it makes your skin crawl, but nothing will cure that faster than a trip to the gift shop! Because gift shops are happy happy places. This particular gift shop made me happy because there were a number of cheap reproductions of denarii to be had. They were obviously fake to a collector like me, but I immediately noticed that none of them were stamped “COPY.” I don’t know where tourist-fake vendors get their supplies, but this sort of museum shop seems to almost willingly act as middleman. I know if I were trying to con unsuspecting tourists, I’d be quick to stock up there for one Euro each and then try to fob off the wares on some unsuspecting mark at a huge profit. I picked some up for myself even though no one was trying to cheat me. I figured that even if they weren’t actual tourist fakes, someone could easily have tried to sell them to me as genuine, which made them qualify. Tortured logic I know, but like I said, it was my last stop. After two weeks of being led around by the nose on shore excursions, I had decided to break off from the group and tour Pompeii on my own. As a result, I got to see more of the city at a quicker pace and arrived back at the rendezvous before the others. Just outside the grounds, there were a number of simple stands set up, selling a variety of souvenirs, but nothing of particular interest. I decided to kill some time browsing anyway. And that’s when I spotted the ultimate tourist fake. My eyes bugged out. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was as big as a coaster and as heavy as the beer stein you might place upon it. If actual coins had been made this big and heavy, you’d throw your back out trying to carry enough change to market to buy a loaf of bread. And what’s more, it was ugly. A blobby, disgusting mass of indistinct design, conveying nothing. Absolutely hideous. I’ll apologize right now for not getting a picture to show you, but I was under the watchful gaze of the proprietress of the stall and didn’t want to provoke any sort of dispute. Instead, I engaged her in negotiations to buy a smaller, more manageable piece, that was every bit as ghastly. It was still too big and heavy to be a real coin, but I thought I might be able to slip it into an extra-wide pocket page in my collection usually reserved for oversized medals. “Real coin, Pompeii,” she said in her heavy accent. It was shades of Ephesus all over again. “Uh-huh,” I replied. Unlike the Turkish vendors, I didn’t want to get into an argument with her about authenticity. She was too old to challenge. Very old. Probably pushing a hundred years. And I don’t want to sound mean-spirited here, but the term “wizened old hag” sprung easily to mind at the time and remains the best description I can come up with. If I were Snow White and she approached me with some apples for sale, I’d be very suspicious indeed. I had gotten myself into some epic haggling sessions in Turkey, but nothing compared to this unshakable old lady. Although I was quickly able to bring her down from an outlandish opening price in the hundred-Euro range, it was flatly impossible to move her into reasonable territory. I was running low on Euro pocket change and didn’t want to start flashing any of the bigger bills in my pocket, so I tried to sweeten the deal with a spare five-dollar Canadian note that had made the trip overseas with me. After she took some pains to establish that this was real currency I was offering her (oh, the irony), she still wanted ten more bucks on top of it. American or Canadian would do. Fifteen dollars for this lumpy counterfeit atrocity was much higher than I was willing to go, but I did want it so. It was -- trust me on this -- magnificently awful. I walked away from the deal long enough to browse some of the other stands. No one was offering any more tourist fakes. If ever I wanted a fridge magnet depicting ancient Roman erotica, this was my one-stop shopping hub. But when it came to my coveted fakes, there were only two up for grabs -- ugly and uglier -- both currently owned by the wizened old hag who was quickly becoming my vacation nemesis. Returning to her table to pick up the negotiations where we left off, I found my walk-away strategy had not rattled her in the least. In fact, following the elapsed five minutes, she acted as if she’d never seen me before in her life and started her pitch back at square one. I couldn’t tell if this was a con or senility. Maybe both. Around and around we went, and this time I couldn’t even get her down to the previously agreed-upon fifteen dollars. Reluctantly I walked away again, this time for real. She had just talked herself out of deal with someone who was willing to buy a complete piece of junk from her for many times more than it was worth. We both knew it. Yet somehow, I felt like I was the loser in this failed transaction. Never again, I worry, will I be given the opportunity to buy something that ugly from someone so hideous. My sense of loss profoundly affects me to this day, months later. Returning home, I stuffed my newly acquired collection of tourist fakes and museum reproductions in with my Euro change and American state quarters so they would blend in at the airport x-ray machines. I was terrified of being stopped by customs officials. Not that I had done anything wrong or illegal. But I was concerned that they must see this sort of thing all the time -- moron tourists heading home with a bunch of fake antiquities, trying to smuggle them through customs, not realizing they’ve bought junk. What I dreaded was the conversation I would have to have if they pulled out my tourist fakes for a closer look. “No, really! I swear! I didn’t get conned! I KNOW they’re all worthless fakes. That’s why I bought them. Why won’t you believe me?” I could so clearly picture their eyes rolling back in bemused disdain. There’s a sucker born every minute. A collector too, for that matter. And sometimes someone who’s both. Here ends the quest. Figure 5.1 - Museum display of ancient coins minted in Athens. Figure 5.2 - The coins in the basin are modern, presumably tossed by tourists perversely making a wish next to the frozen image of one of Pompeii’s fallen. Figure 5.3 - Somewhat mushy details on this gift shop Victoriatus. Figure 5.4 - The details are even softer on this Republican denarius.