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Vol 06 No. 05 May 1992

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About This File

The International Bureau for the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins, based in Zurich, Switzerland, has released Bulletin on Counterfeits Vol. 17, No.1 for 1992. In the current release, the agency unmasks the activities of two clever and extremely competent forgers who had deceived much of the numismatic fraternity for several years. According to the report, the two forgers, who are assigned the pseudonyms "Costodoulos" and "Gulyas", developed an intricate system of production and distribution which included the creation of hand-made modem dies; the re-cutting of dies made from actual specimens of ancient coins which were in turn restruck and enhanced; and the introduction of corrosion and crystallization to lend credibility.

Many of the dies created by the forgers were reportedly made from models acquired in the form of British Museum electrotypes. These pre-WWI electrotype copies were originally made for scholarly research and artistic appreciation and, although no longer produced, arc still widely collected. Because of the many forgeries created from these models, the IBSCC dubbed the duo" The British Museum Forgers", undoubtedly an unsavory term from the museum's point of view. The forgeries, however, were not limited to BM prototypes.

The report lists several hallmarks of the forgers, including higher, more rounded and fuller reliefs: damaged areas on the prototype coins are usually repaired or masked with the addition of some detail; fields on gold coins had to be perfectly flat, like "'melted chocolate"; pattern of wear does not make sense, e.g., sharp detail on high points but wear on lower parts of the relief.

Although 30 specimens were listed in the IBSCC report, one party close to the problem has indicated that more are likely to be announced as the situation unfolds. The bulletin very clearly indicated that this deception was discovered and exposed by members of the numismatic trade who had handled the coins, with refunds going to the disfranchised buyers. The IBSCC is an arm of the International Association of Professional Numismatists, whose code of ethics is among the most respected and best enforced in the numismatic field.

Fortunately, the scope of damage is relatively contained. Although some firms have suffered significant financial loss, the threat to most collectors is minimal. The natural tendency of all collectors, whenever an incident like this is revealed, is to question their own holdings. I am repeatedly asked the same question ~ How can you be sure that the coins are authentic? Whenever a forgery passes undetected for some period of time, it weakens the credibility of the "system" that assures buyer confidence. Basically, that system - in spite of scientific advances - is one of acquired expertise. It is a trite but true statement that detection of forgeries usually starts with a feeling, not with a discovery. The reason that expertise can be acquired in this area is that there are so many coins of absolute authenticity passing through the coin market each year that one who spends a lifetime working in this field cannot help but develop an instinct about these coins. It is probably not far afield from Pavlov's dogs (no offense to coin dealers) that conditioned response manifests itself in the unconscious reaction of an "expert". This suggestion may be hard to accept for those who have scientific and analytical minds, but I assure you it has merit.

So, if these "experts" are so instinctive, how did they miss the BMF forgeries for so long? Well, another feature of the human experience is that we sometimes allow enthusiasm to override caution. In a market craving new and exciting material, it is hard to be cynical when a rare beauty comes along. Much of the market is built on trust, and the source of these forgeries was a highly trusted individual. Defenses were down and trusts were violated - it's an age-old story. On a coin-by-coin basis, with no comparative analysis to guide one, these coins were splendid fakes. As usual, however, greed seemed to get the better hand of common sense, and the forgers dipped into the well a little too often.

Had they not been greedy, would they have succeeded? Perhaps. Have others who were not so greedy already succeeded? Undoubtedly! Is this a cause for great concern? Probably not. The percentage of forgeries residing in collectors' trays has \0 be very tiny, but they are there. Every "old" collection that comes to a dealer will have a few. That's how dealers build their "black" trays. It's kind of an annoyance, but not really a disease unless you have numismatic cardiac arrest from your prize possession going under. The best protection is simply to buy from a dealer where you have recourse if the coin later proves false. If you choose to buy elsewhere, you merely have to evaluate and accept the risk.

Don't lose any sleep, unless perhaps you want to burn some midnight oil sharing your point of view!


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