Vitrina Cero: Fake! A history of deception, art and greed. (EN)
Created on May 26, 2021
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FAKE! A HISTORY OF DECEPTION, ART AND GREED
The coin counterfeiter is the ultimate deceiver. A crime punishable by the harshest sentences, counterfeiting was born at the same time as coinage, around 600 BC. In addition to financial necessity and pure greed, counterfeiters have been motivated by a desire to cheat the art market and even invent chapters of history that never happened.
Instruments of war, indicators and instigators of crises, evidence of competitive trade, tokens of social status and the interests of scholars and aristocrats, all of these fake coins are now cultural assets which, if properly studied, can expand our knowledge of life in the past.
Successfully counterfeiting legal currency requires technical and organisational skills. When the value of coins was determined by their metal content, counterfeiters could make a profit by using cheaper methods or materials: reducing the metal’s purity, creating pieces of bronze with silver or gold plating, or casting coins in moulds instead of minting them.
Maravedíes of Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158–1214)
Cast. Low-karat gold
With gold plating (lost). Bronze
Gold and silver coins were usually counterfeited by covering copper alloy cores with precious metals. If well-made, these plated coins, known as fourrées, were quite hard to detect unless the outer layer wore off. Many fake coins were made by official mint employees.
Denarii (genuine and fourrée) of Arekorata
Muro de Ágreda (Soria)
Silver / Silver-plated copper
Circa 140–125 BC
Fourrée caliphate dirham of ‘Abd al-Rahman III
THE COUNTERFEITER'S WORKSHOP
Counterfeiting coins of lesser value was also common practice, as Roman moulds for everyday currency attest. In late 19th-century Spain, so much counterfeit change was in circulation that it even caused public disturbances. The counterfeiting business did not end in the workshop: it required a distribution network to place its products on the market.
|Moulds for counterfeit Roman folles |
|Fake follis of Diocletian (cast)|
Materials seized from a counterfeiter detained at the Barcelona port in 1928
Glass bottle with metal samples
Gold and silver ingots and planchets
Céntimos of reales and pesetas, some invalidated
STATE OF FRAUD
Even governments can act as counterfeiters. By imitating a strong currency on the global market, states can benefit from its reputation in trade circles. They can also reduce purity in times of crisis, maintaining the face value of their coins while saving on precious metals. They can even counterfeit enemy currency and use it to destabilise their adversary’s national economy, as occurred during the war between Aragon and Castile in the late 14th century.
|Almohad dirham |
|Millarés (a Christian imitation for Mediterranean Muslim ports)|
Silver. 13th–14th century
Reales of Henry II of Castile (1367–1379)
Low-grade silver. No mint mark
FROM COINS... TO PAPER MONEY
Once the use of paper money became widespread, it was inevitable that counterfeiters would try to copy it. Furthermore, notes were far easier to imitate than metal coins. In Spain, paper banknotes were widely counterfeited until the quality of the paper improved and security features were added.
Fake 1000-peseta note of the Banco de España
Paper, invalidated with drill marks and a stamp
Madrid, 15 July 1907
4000-billon real note of the Banco Español de San Fernando
Madrid, 1 February 1835
Beside the border: DEATH PENALTY FOR THE COUNTERFEITER
Many of the technical advances and features of coins and notes are a product of efforts to prevent counterfeiting. One of these was the milled edge, invented in the early 18th century. A design was added to the “third side” of coins so that any attempt to clip or shave them would be more noticeable. This milled design is also hard to imitate without the proper machinery.
8-real coin of Charles III with laureate edge
“Lince” test note with all current security features
GOOD OR BAD?
It can be difficult to identify fake currency. Intuition and experience are important factors, from the classic technique of “sounding” a silver coin by letting it fall on a marble surface to checking weight, purity and design. Some fakes are glaringly obvious, like these Asian counterfeits of the Spanish “piece of eight”, the dominant currency in eastern markets during the Early Modern Era.
Piece of eight of Charles III
Counterfeit piece of eight of Charles III of Mexico
Far East, circa 1770–1800
Illegible imitation of a piece of eight of Charles III or IV
Far East, circa 1770–1800
Fake 5-peseta or duro coins represented a huge economic and social problem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were so perfect that not even the national bank could distinguish them from the genuine article. They flooded the markets, creating such widespread distrust that they practically caused the system to collapse in 1908. Though popularly called “Sevillian duros”, Barcelona was actually the epicentre of this counterfeit industry.
5-peseta coin of Alfonso XIII countermarked LEGITIMATE
5-peseta coins of Alfonso XIII, genuine and fake
The most successful means of detecting counterfeit coins is the touchstone test, still used today to determine the purity of gold and silver. To determine the amount of precious metal a coin contains, it is rubbed on a black stone, lydite, and the colour of the mark it makes is then compared with that created by the “touch-needles”, a set of standardised samples.
Bronze (precious metal tips no longer extant)
Portable precision scales
Wood, iron, brass
In the 18th century, the growing interest in constructing national histories from the texts and ruins of ancient cultures gave rise to a new numismatic practice: retouching. It was inconceivable that famous cities should not have had their own currency, and if hard evidence was lacking, it had to be invented. This piece of Roman Carmona was transformed into a coin of the legendary Tartessus, which never minted money.
Coin of Carmo retouched with the legend TARTES
1st century BC (coin) / 18th century (retouching)
ARTISTS OR CRIMINAL MASTERMINDS?
In the 16th century, owning ancient coins was a sign of social distinction as well as a necessity for studying antiquity. Acquiring such pieces was expensive, and many medallists saw making “Roman” coins as a means of supplementing their income. The most famous was Giovanni da Cavino, whose “sestertii”, long regarded as genuine, can still be found in many museums today.
“Sestertii” of emperors Caligula and Lucius Verus
Giovanni da Cavino (1500–1570)
“Sestertii” collection of Charles d’Orléans de Rothelin (1691–1744)
Made with Cavino’s dies
Paris? Before 1744