Friday, 18 April 2014

The strange case of the Syracusan dekadrachm ― part two

Forgery of a coin of Ambrakia by Carl Wilhelm
Becker, 1772-1830. Becker went to great lengths to
get his surfaces to look right
After about thirty years my main collecting interest had shifted from the Greeks to the Celts. One day, a friend came to town and brought with him a copy of Syracusan Dekadrachms of the Euainetos Type by Albert Gallatin, 1930. I was looking through its plates and fantasizing about which one I would pick if I had my choice and when I saw RXIII/FVI, I knew I had found my favorite. I wondered how many had been recorded and, looking at the catalogue, discovered that only one coin was known to Gallatin and it had been in the Danish royal collection since about 1845. "So much for that idea", I thought. Gallatin also reported that because of  certain strange features in its design, some had thought it to be a forgery, but he also said that through looking at a cast and a die linked coin he was sure it was genuine, and besides, a few other dies also had some strange features.

I did not think much more about it until, a couple of months later I received an auction catalogue from London in the mail and, to my great surprise, one of the lots was another example of RXIII/FVI. The auction house was a bit of a newcomer on the scene, and perhaps one of the cataloguers had been in a hurry that day, because it was dscribed as a 19th century forgery struck on a curious wedge-shaped flan and that Gallatin had condemned that die pair.  I knew that this was a misreading of Gallatin, but more importantly, I was sure that all of them were real. I also discovered that, since Gallatin, another example had appeared and was purchased by Arthur S. Dewing (whom, as I said yesterday, had owned more of these dekadrachms than anyone). His collection had gone to the American Numismatic Society Museum and he was no slouch on the subject of Greek coins. Furthermore, I had seen a lot of fakes of Syracusan dekadrachms and knew that the head on the reverse of the coin was noted to be one of those things that forgers just never got quite right on their dies. I was always able to spot the fakes with no difficulty at all.

To be sure, though, I got a copy of Gallatin and the Arthur S. Dewing Collection of Greek Coins, and spent a few days studying that die pair. I also compared them to the example in the auction catalogue. While my "gut feelings" have never failed me, I always subject things to more scientific scrutiny. Sometimes. though, I just don't see, exactly, what makes something a fake. A few years ago, I saw a Celtic gold stater on a dealer's list that I knew was fake, but didn't know why. After looking at some other dealer lists, I saw that the same dies appeared there too. This, alone, is not enough to condemn, a coin ― many coins are known only from a single die pair, and many Celtic coins were very small issues. A friend of mine, Robert Kokotailo, of Calgary Coin Gallery collects, and is very knowledgeable on ancient coin forgeries. He has a reference guide to them on his website. I showed him the photos of the suspect Celtic coin, and he spotted what made it a fake: when cutting the legend on many ancient coins, holes are drilled at the end of each letter and then are connected by lines to make the letters. On the Celtic fake, however, the die cutter had not understood that and had cut the lines first, and afterwards had drilled the holes. I suppose that one can unconsciously see that, and all that is revealed to the conscious mind is a feeling of wrongness. If a collector or dealer handles enough coins over the years, and does not have to rely just on photographs, this can become second nature. Even then, though, mistakes can sometimes happen.

The public at large (poor dears) believes that if you want something authenticated then the best place to take it is a museum. If you happen to pick something that is a specialist and published interest of a museum worker and show it to that person, you will almost certainly get the right information. Unfortunately, such people are quite rare, and most museum cataloguers have a more general knowledge pertaining to everything in their department. Not only that, but they usually do not see enough examples and the details of your object can also be forwarded to someone who actually knows almost nothing of the subject. My decorated Celtic spindle whorl was utterly misidentified by a Roman specialist at the British Museum as Roman and commonplace, but the Ashmolean Museum had picked the right person and had forwarded the details to Martyn Jope, who was at Oxford at the time. Even so, I cannot understand the BM error. Perhaps it was a busy day and  someone had told that person "I have a query about a lead spindle whorl" and got a reply like "Oh, those are so common, I'll send him a note".

When I was satisfied that the dekadrachm was either genuine or the best die cut forgery in existence I placed a bid double that of the high auction estimate and won it (at a slightly lower price). It cost me about $350 in all. When it arrived, I started to study it in greater depth. It was slightly double struck so the legend actually appeared twice. You would think that a forger would just try again on a new blank, as this would reduce its value, but perhaps he thought it might add some authenticity to the production, so it was not a definitive feature. What was more definitive, though, was that all of the details of the figure of Nike above the driver (who is mostly off the flan) were not present on the other two specimens. That is one thing that a good forger never does. If a detail is missing on the coins he is copying, he never then adds them. He only copies what he can see. It is too easy to make a mistake with such a cavalier attitude. (I had noticed on the Celtic coin, that the same details were visible on each of the fakes  ― no more, no less.) Now, if the fake had been produced before Gallatin's study, the forger would not have known that the Nike was perfectly cut for coins of that variety, alone. Although only two obverse dies  were shared,there were a few others of that part of the production which shared details not visible on the specimens in question.

I also noticed that the coin appeared to have been cleaned, on the higher surfaces with a metal brush, and I knew that this was a typical bad habit before the twentieth century. The auction cataloguer had likely seen the same thing and had accordingly, after misreading Gallatin, labeled it as a 19th century forgery. There was also a little harder cleaning on Arethusa's neck that fell just short of tooling. The edges were fine, though, and the weight was correct.

Among my knowledgeable friends, opinions varied and no one was absolutely certain. This did not come as a surprise, because so few people have handled many of this type of coin because of its great value. After the death of my wife, I had run up a few debts and my expenses had increased so I decided to sell it. This was a problem, though: any coin that has once been condemned as a fake, regardless of the expertise of  that person, becomes a difficult sale.  This made it a problem for one auction house. I decided to let David Sear have a look it it  ― He is considered by most to be the world's premier authenticator of ancient coins, and when at Seaby in London, wrote all of the catalogues that are given as references by dealers and collectors. Few people in the world have handled as many ancient coins as David. Robert, was going to the U.S. and suggested that he take the coin with him to give to David Sear for certification. David kept it for a couple of months as he knew the history of this die pair and wanted to make sure of it. He issued the certificate including the statement that the incrustations were perfectly characteristic for other Syracusan dekadrachms.

Robert sold it for me to one of his customers (an oil man), and my $350 investment turned into thousands of dollars and I became debt-free.

But this is not the end of my story, the dekadrachm is but one of my very successful purchases such as important pieces of Celtic art and even the hitherto unknown example of the seal of Alexander the Great and more. Things come to me. In the antique business, such a person is called a Divvy. But what does that term really mean? Why does this phenomenon even exist? I have a few ideas about that from my studies of Jung, and I will share them with you on Monday.


  1. Mr. Hooker,

    I have been reading your posts for many months now. I just want to say "Thanks" as this blog is such a delight.

  2. Thank you, Andy -- you made my day!

    I'm very pleased that you find it enjoyable and, please, call me John.

    All the best,


  3. Mr John Hooker

    I came across your blog while researching 2 coins I own, (a Syracusan dekadrachm and a 1783 nova constellatio 1000). I've been trying to find out if they are real, but there are so many places that offer authentication and I don't know which ones I can trust. I am not a collector, I just came across them by luck, I actually was planning on turning the 1783 into a necklace.. I would appreciate your advice.

    Best regards.

    1. Hi Jorge,

      Two very different coins,two very different solutions. For a start, don't even think about turning the nova constellatio into a necklace unless it is definitely a fake. The chances are that it is but strange things do happen and I wouldn't want you to lose a huge amount of money because of a little ill-advised jewellery making!

      A place to start is this web site: and the contacts that it lists, especially the American Numismatic Society.

      There are a lot of fake Syracusan dekadrachms, but most are easy to identify. To start, join the Yahoo Moneta-L discussion group:

      Then post a decent photograph of both sides of the coin to some photo-sharing site. Send a message asking for help about its authenticity to the groups and try to include the weight of the coin in grams to at least one decimal place. If it is an obvious fake, you will find out right away. Most fakes of these coins are obvious to experienced numismatists. Sometimes there are copies called electrotypes. These are easily distinguished by their flat edges. Clever fakes are pressure casts, and if there is doubt about that then contact David Sear:

      David Sear wrote the Seaby price catalogues of ancient coins, and is highly respected.

      In both cases, start with good photos and the weight in grams.

      I wish you the very best of luck, but don't order that new car just yet...