If you buy a Greek or Roman coin from a major auction house specializing in numismatic material your chances of acquiring a fake coin are relatively slight and for that assurance you usually pay a premium price. There are far more bargains to be had on eBay and far more fakes (masses of them in fact.) Some of these fakes are pretty obvious, others deceptively clever. The following advice is intended primarily for new or relatively inexperienced collectors but, having said that, I am continually surprised to see some experienced collectors and dealers throwing caution to the wind. Here then are my tips for minimizing your chances of buying fake ancient coins on eBay:
1.Private listings. Alarm bells should start to ring whenever you see that a seller of coins has opted for private listings. Never buy coins from any seller using private listings no matter how tasty the coins look. Nearly all purveyers who knowingly sell fake coins or who routinely mix bad with good, use private listings so that buyers cannot be alerted after the auction closes through their feedback. No doubt some honest coin sellers use private listings as well but let's face it, ancient coins are not blue movies and the occasional arguments coin sellers use to justify private listings are feeble and self-serving. Even if you see 100% positive feedback and strong bidding taking place do not be tempted. One of the most successful sellers of dubious ancient coins and artefacts on eBay had 99.5% positive feedback from over 4000 satisfied and , in many cases, deluded customers before being banned recently by eBay for engaging in schill bidding.
How do you know if a listing is private? Until recently it was dead easy, "User ID kept private" appeared at the top of the listing. Then eBay in their wisdom decided to change the format of listings and the prominence of this useful bit of information disappeared. Nowadays you have to scroll down to the very bottom of the listing and in very small print you'll see "this is a private listing", so many eBayers probably start bidding without realising the auction is private. You can also click onto bid history to ascertain if the listing is private, or you can click onto the seller's feedback to see if they routinely use private listings. The reason the fakes' sellers like private listings is because when the buyer eventually leaves feedback you are not able to see what they've purchased and so they cannot easily be alerted to the fact that they've bought a fake. And if the fakes' seller also opts for private feedback you won't even see the buyer's ID.
Having established that private listings are a no-go area, study the seller's feedback. Avoid sellers with just a handful of feedback ratings especially if they're for penny purchases, or not for ancient coins at all, or are for low grade ancients and suddenly the guy has some mouth-watering stuff for sale.
A little homework on a seller's feedback can make you pause. One prolific purveyor of fake ancient coins appears to be based in Australia and his User ID even manages to sound a bit Aussie. But check his feedback and you find the guy is actually based in Belarus, or at any rate that's where his nasties are shipped from (see tip 5 below regarding exotic locations.) Another seller who caught my eye had a celtic-style tetradrachm of Philip III of Macedon and a tet of Leontini in Sicily, both in high grade. But when I checked his feedback I found he'd bought them recently from a seller in Germany who clearly lists his coins as repros. In re-selling the coins he omitted to mention that they were repros but he didn't say they were genuine either (thus preparing his fall-back position in the event of his buyers complaining.) He sold one coin for £51 and the other for £156, absurd sums for the genuine articles but not bad considering he'd paid the guy in Germany just £7.99 for each.
Another useful thing you can do whilst reviewing a seller's feedback is to check whether the seller has changed his user ID at some stage. Click onto "see all feedback" and you'll see in the top right hand corner a box with a number of options, click onto "other options" and you'll see "user ID history", click onto that and you'll see if the seller has previously used another ID. If so, this is a strong indication of a fraudulent seller who has been the subject of discussion on coin forgery discussion sites and whose eBay user ID has been place on a blacklist. Changing your user ID is a way of starting again with an untarnished reputation.
2. The ancient coin that is most commonly and most convincingly faked nowadays is the Roman denarius. I estimate that at least 60-70% of the fake ancients offered on eBay are denarii. So be wary if the seller has nothing else on offer except denarii, especially if you see a sprinkling of scarce or rare emperors in the seller's auctions. One new seller caught my attention recently. He had only denarii for sale, including emperors Claudius, Galba, Otho and Pertinax whose coins normally sell for high figures. The denarii were attractive and looked totally convincing. But his feedback of 35 were all marked "private". Even so it was possible to discern from the comments that he'd built the feedback on selling cheap items of clothing, so was his use of private auctions intended to disguise the fact that he hadn't sold coins before? And whilst his listings stated that the coins had been tested for silver content he offered no guarantee of authenticity. I liked the look of the coins but the circumstances surrounding their sale persuaded me not to bid. Others piled in at the last moment and one of them got the attractive Claudius denarius for a mere £133. What a bargain!
3. Be especially wary of seller statements like "I know nothing about ancient coins but a knowledgable friend tells me this one is genuine" or "I'm selling this on behalf of a friend" or "found recently in granny's attic" or "not sure if authentic please judge for yourself" or "ancients are not my field". And likewise the words "unknown" "unidentified" , "unresearched " and "possible restrike" should give you reason to pause. The coin may be a genuine puzzler, or the seller genuinely lazy, but more likely than not the coin itself will not be genuine.
Here's a classic of prevarication from a generalist coin seller with a seemingly endless supply of identical Leontini tetradrachms in top grade: "Ancient coin specialists including 2 prominent dealers in London and Italy can find nothing wrong with it, I was immediately offered over £600 for it; identical specimens recently sold in European auctions for £1000 each; impossible that it can be other than it seems - a masterpiece of ancient art." But this noble soul hesitates because he has received one dissenting opinion (or so he tells us.) Well, the suckers and opportunists don't hesitate because they pile in every time. When he sold one about a year ago it was acquired by a fraudster who immediately put it back on sale for over £1000 with the spiel "from a recent Sicilian hoard."
Look out for signals in the listing. I recently spotted one Italian seller who had some mouth-watering Sicilian tetradrachms for sale of relatively high grade and they were frighteningly convincing. But when you looked at the small print the seller stated that although the coins were from a 70 year old collection and he believed them to be genuine he was unable to guarantee them and he would accept no returns. The look of the coins proved too much for some eBayers and the coins went for hundreds of pounds. But frankly I think this half-honest seller was giving out signals that he knew the coins weren't kosher.
Or what about the prolific UK seller of fake denarii who likes to mix their fake Othos, Pertinaxes and Diva Paulinas with genuine but common Roman provincials and low grade imperial issues? "This coin is genuine but cannot guarantee" they tell us. Well, if the coin is genuine why can't they guarantee? Despite the contradiction implied by this very clear signal people insist on bidding. Interestingly, when I pointed out to this seller that they had sold 3 die-matched Julius Caesar denarii and that they appeared in a blacklist of notorious fakes sellers they switched overnight to private listings and changed their user ID.
Beware also of dodgy stories alongside dodgy coins, especially spurious tales of inheritance. Like the case of the California student who was putting himself through university and was selling off some of grandpa's collection of Seleukid tets which the old boy amassed in Beirut many years ago. When his buyers were alerted to the fact that all the coins were fakes, this shameless lad bounced back immediately with "User ID kept private".
Beware also of sellers who play the false-innocent card by pretending they don't know what they've got. One listing featuring a cast fake of a Sicilian tet of king Agathokles gave me a chuckle a couple of years back when I read "I think this is an ancient coin, it was found by my son with a metal detector." Well, this seller was based in the UK and your chances of finding a genuine Agathokles tet in the UK are pretty remote, as are your chances of digging up a fake one. Wherever this coin came from it certainly wasn't the ground.
On the subject of metal detector finds, be cautious especially if the coin is exceptionally attractive or rare. One UK seller of coins and collectables, who likes to slip in a few fakes, tells us that he's found some of the coins himself and is very specific about locations. Odd, then, that with his recent listings ("found in Warwickshire") I was able to find identical die matches in an online fakes' gallery. This seller's latest wheeze is to claim that his ancient coins are "estate lots" or "estate sales" and most of the coins are fakes, so those are two more terms to add to your repertoire of dodgy terms that may denote dodgy coins. This seller clearly has a regular source of fake ancient coins and keeps on thinking up ways of dressing up his listings to snare the unwary novice.
Another UK-based seller of fakes who uses private listings states that his coins are found in Lincolnshire, Devon and Eastern Europe. The only part of this that's accurate is Eastern Europe where the coins are freshly minted. This seller recently sold a fake Caligula/Agrippina Senior denarius for £368 to some collector who clearly hasn't stumbled across this guide yet. I must say it's quite galling to see attractive genuine coins selling sometimes for peanuts whilst fakes of rare coins often enjoy frantic bidding.
Yes, some of these con artists are really quite brazen. The banned seller mentioned in tip 1 with the 99.5% positive feedback actually warned you in his listings about the abundance of fakes on eBay and urged you to take all coin purchases, including any from him, to your state museum for verification. Since he used private listings to hide the identity of his bidders he knew full well that none of his customers would ever receive a fake coin alert from the likes of me and it may take years before some of his customers find out they've been conned. And anyway how can you possibly suspect a seller who's positively beseeching you to hammer on the doors of the British Museum or the Getty (and you're not going to bother are you?)
4. Don't be impressed by certificates of authenticity issued by the seller himself. The banned seller from tip 1 with the 99.5% positive feedback (yes, him again) happily issued them backed by his "private museum". Unless the certificate is issued by an authority like David Sear or David Hendin they're worthless (except possibly as a means of getting your money back.)
5.Avoid buying from exotic locations even if the country is the sort of place where you might expect the coin to be dug up.In my vocabulary exotic locations are anywhere between and including Eastern Europe and China. In particular avoid BULGARIA, a prolific producer of some pretty convincing material. Virtually all coins I see from sellers in GREECE are fakes. Middle eastern sellers (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, UAE and US based sellers who source out of Jerusalem) get only a minor exemption from me. Most of their stuff is authentic but not terribly pricey , but I notice that they always manage to slip in the occasional high grade fake tetradrachm or other big ticket item. So if you're thinking of spending $50-100 on a prutah, or denarius or ptolemaic bronze I don't think you have too much to worry about , or at any rate not too much to lose, but if you're resolved to splash out $300-400 on a Seleukid tet ( which if genuine would fetch twice as much at Spink or CNG) then get it independently checked out once you receive it.
6. Do not assume that because a coin is of a common type (e.g. 4th c. Roman bronze) or looks worn or ragged or cracked that it cannot be a fake. Fakes exist at all levels of the rarity spectrum and the fakers often make their coins look a tad unattractive to lull you into a false sense of security.
7. Be very wary of extremely rare coins in high quality especially gold. Ancient coins rarely achieve top dollar on eBay which is why quality tends to migrate to the major specialist auction houses and strange stuff migrates to eBay (I have noticed incidentally that increasingly the finest authentic coins on eBay are being offered at a fixed price.) The advantage of eBay is that you can sell fast and get paid fast. But why would anyone in their right mind short change themselves by selling an aureus of the emperor Pertinax for $500 when with a bit of patience a genuine one would achieve $5000 if auctioned by a major specialist house? Frankly I would avoid gold entirely on eBay as well as rare and super-rare emperors, their consorts and other family members (to name but a few: Caligula, Otho, Julia Titi, Marciana, Matidia, Didius Julianus and family, Pescennius Niger, Gordians I & II, Pertinax, Diva Paulina, Pupienus, Balbinus, Cornelia Supera, Pacatian, Nigrinian, Julian of Pannonia, Nepotian, Eugenius and any western emperor after Honorius.)
Postscript. Shortly after writing the above, I came across an aureus of Pertinax and an antoninianus of Cornelia Supera on eBay. I didn't like the look of the Pertinax (blobby lettering and features) but the seller claimed the coin had been approved by Spink and CNG, the weight was certainly correct and for all I know it was the real thing. The seller rightly surmised that the appearance of the coin would arouse suspicion in certain quarters so in a late addition to the listing he made an offer you couldn't refuse: he would deduct from the winning bid the cost of having the coin validated by the David Sear certification sevice. Well, that got a few fingers clicking on the bid now box. But I couldn't help wondering why he didn't get it certified himself and enhance his listing by offering the certificate, after all this was a coin with the potential to go into the stratosphere.
The attractive looking Cornelia Supera antoninianus was a blatant fake and was offered by a UK- based prolific seller of ancient coins and artefacts (they know who they are.) I pointed out to them that identical specimens could be viewed in an online fakes gallery. No answer! (Never a good sign when sellers can't be bothered to defend their merchandise.) The listing casually stated that the coin "books at £3350". In fact the coin books at an eye-watering £6700 in the high grade exhibited by this fake. Let's face it, when the average ant in EF condition sells for about £30, your chances of finding a genuine Cornelia Supera on eBay are about zilch. Still, someone with money to burn thought they got a great bargain with a winning bid of £826. Ask yourself: why would anyone accept £826 for a genuine example when at Spink or CNG it would achieve close to its catalogue value?
8. Avoid sellers who betray a lack of true knowledge by regurgitating a mass of historical bumph culled from some reference book rather than giving you hard facts about the coin itself, and avoid those who give you hardly any information at all other than screaming at you "this coin is guaranteed 100% authentic" (as opposed to 50% authentic?) Look for knowledgeable sellers who give proper attribution and guarantee of authenticity. If I sell an ancient coin I will give a full description with the weight, the place and year of striking, a reference from a standard catalogue (eg if a Roman coin the RIC number from Roman Imperial Coinage) and just a brief historical context. I will also offer a guarantee of authenticity without limitation of time. If you don't see a guarantee ask for it before bidding.
Now, one of the cleverest and most prolific UK sellers of fakes on eBay, whose current user ID is identical to that of a Roman emperor (although like most of these fakes merchants he periodically changes his user ID) and whose coins are often rare or scarce types which are convincingly worn, ragged or aged in some fashion, adheres to the foregoing principles. He really knows his Roman coins, gives several catalogue references for each one and the weights are usually correct. "Authenticity is absoluetly confirmed and guaranteed" he tells you reassuringly and even adds "Provenance: private collections and metal detector finds." So what can the inexperienced collector do? Look at his feedback and you'll see that every one of his auctions has been a private listing. And all of his auctions are for denarii with a sprinkling of rare emperors like Otho and Didius Julianus. Yes, adhering to tips 1,2 and 7 above would save you from falling victim to this clever fellow. As well as consulting the fake sellers' lists mentioned below.
9.On the subject of weight, if you don't see it stated then inquire. Now, it's true many fake ancient coins are the correct weight so it's not an infallible guide, but if you see one that's exceptionally light or heavy then alarm bells should start to ring. I was amazed recently to see a well-known UK dealer bidding on a massively subweight tetradrachm of Alexander the Great (an isolated aberration he assured me.) Of course you'll need to know the weight range of the coin you're bidding on but all hobbies entail a bit of homework. And you'll need to know how the weight range changed and usually decreased with the passage of time. If I see a denarius of Augustus weighing 2.5g it'll bother me (I'd prefer to see 3.5-4g)) but it won't bother me so much if it's a denarius of Severus Alexander. But the Severus Alexander denarius of 1.9g which I saw recently ( said to be a "UK metal detector find") did bother me.
Fake tetradrachms of Alexander the Great appear frequently on eBay. One private listing caught my eye recently, a Lysimachos tet bearing the head of Alexander, in which the weight was given as 13g. Now, I would expect to see a weight of about 16-17g for the genuine article and I sent 2 emails to the seller pointing this out. The seller then added the following tirade to the listing: "I'm being plagued by one eBayer who says mint examples should weigh 16g, my coin is worn and hence weighs only 13g, I hope this shuts him up." Well, I suppose you could call this seller half-honest, although she wrongly reported the drift of my argument because there's no way a moderately worn specimen would lose 3-4g in weight. The coin fetched only £45, an absolute bargain for a genuine specimen but about £44 too much for a fake. Still the damage wasn't too bad, so perhaps I did some bidders a favour. Incidentally, when I checked this seller's feedback I noted that she'd recently purchased some fake ancient coins from Germany and that alone would have put me on my guard.
The moral should be clear: know the weight range of the coin you're bidding on, if you see no weight given then ask for it, and if you don't get given it then don't bid. And don't forget to weigh your coins once you've received them - reliable digital scales are easily found on eBay and they're not expensive.
(In response to a couple of inquiries I have now added as a separate guide the correct weights of the most commonly faked coins on eBay.)
10.Do an Internet search and find out about such topics as Toronto Group forgeries, Bulgarian Lipanoff forgeries, Becker and Slavey forgeries all of which are regularly offered on eBay sometimes aged or distressed in some fashion to make them look old and authentic.
11.There are at least 2 very good sites devoted to the discussion of ancient coin forgery and their correspondents often quickly identify the latest dodgy offerings on eBay. According to the eBay rules for these guides I'm not allowed to mention outside links so do a search like "CoinForgeryDiscussionList" or "ForumAncientCoins". Once you've located them you may even find it fruitful to trawl through the previous postings - that's how I found I'd bought a fake denarius of the emperor Macrinus (it weighed only 2.1g and came from Croatia so you can tell which bits of my own advice I ignored!) And if you ever have any doubts about a coin that interests you, you can always ask the correspondents for their opinions. The aforementioned CoinForgeryDiscussionList and Forum sites each maintain a blacklist of the serial delinquents who are waiting to mug you (some of the names may come as a shock to you!) There are also at least 2 excellent online illustrated galleries of fake ancients which you shouldn't have too much trouble locating, one is to be found in the Forum site, for the other do a search for Forgerynetwork. Join the groups and refer to the galleries on a regular basis.
Incidentally, for the novice collector studying the specimens in fakes' galleries is one of the best means of familiarising yourself with the stylistic markers and surface characteristics of fake ancient coins. You will eventually begin to sense when a portrait doesn't look "quite right" or that the coin has the slightly flat "smudgy" appearance or fine pitting characteristic of a cast.
Here's another case study. I recently saw a seller with just 2 rare high grade coins for sale, one a denarius of the empress Orbiana and the other a siliqua of the usurper Eugenius. The Orbiana portrait struck me as unusually sour and pouty-looking and I wondered if I would find it in my favourite fakes' gallery. Sure enough, there it was not once but twice, one example of similar high grade the other looking aged and worn. I couldn't find a match for the Eugenius but on account of the Orbiana I wouldn't have risked my money. I think the seller was acting in good faith but I noticed on checking his feedback that he had purchased many cheap low grade coins and I couldn't help wondering why he suddenly had 2 apparently rare high grade coins to sell (he pulled the sale of both coins but was decidely vexed with me and my "allegations").
Let us take as a final case study the recent activities of eBay seller c**n_p**ch. This seller had entirely denarii for sale seeded with a number of attractive/scarce/rare specimens. His auctions were private listings. His ID history showed two previous IDs. His feedback was built mostly on the sale of inexpensive stamps. His coins immediately became the subject of discussion at the Forum site and the Coinforgerydiscussionlist. His listings said that the coins had been purchased from reliable sources like auction houses but no certificates of authenticity were available (both a "signal" and a get-out clause). This seller scooped several thousand pounds before going silent. One of his buyers, whose feedback indicated that he was quite an experienced collector, purchased four coins so it's not only novices who end up with egg on their face. This seller has been added to Forum's list of notorious fakes sellers but it's only a matter of time before he bounces back with a new ID but probably the same old modus operandi.
12.. My final tip is never to ignore tip 1. The strict application of the simple rule to avoid private listings will eliminate from your consideration at least 50% of the fake ancient coins offered on eBay (as well as some genuine ones unfortunately, but that's something for the seller to address and, for you, better to be safe than sorry.)
To summarize, here's a ten point checklist you should go through every time a coin on eBay takes your fancy and your bidding finger starts to itch:
* Is it a private listing? If so, go no further.
* Have I checked the seller's feedback for at least the past 2 months?
* Where is the seller based or sending his coins from?
* Have I checked to see if the seller is on any blacklist?
* Have I looked to see if the coin is displayed in any of the fakes galleries (maybe in higher or lower grade, maybe a different shaped flan. Identical dies are the things to look for.)
* Have I checked the recent postings on the fakes discussion sites to see if the coin or the seller is the subject of debate?
* Have I obtained the weight of the coin and determined it's in the correct range?
* Have I checked to see if the seller offers a lifetime guarantee?
* Are there any words or signals in the listing to suggest the seller knows the coin is not authentic or may cast doubt on the coin's authenticity?
* Is the coin a scarce or rare type, is it rare emperor or member of his family?
There are honest and decent sellers and dealers on eBay who regularly offer genuine material that's attractive and desirable and as good as anything you'll see at the major specialist auction houses so please don't let me put you off this fascinating hobby. Just use your common sense and follow the above tips and you won't end up unwittingly with an expensively acquired "black museum".
A postscript about tooled coins. Many eBay offerings especially of base metal coins such as Roman sestertii, but also occasionally silver issues, have been tooled or modified. Rough fields may have been smoothed or portrait details ( usually the hair but also the eye, nose, mouth and drapery) , figures on the reverse and even the lettering may have been enhanced by re-engraving. Other modifications may include filling in of pits, flakes, unsightly cracks and recreating missing letters with some form of plastic material and then covering the whole with a new patina. A major specialist auction house will usually draw attention to these modifications or avoid selling the coin. On eBay hardly anyone obliges. These coins are not exactly fakes but they do involve deception - the seller is hoping to get you to pay more for the coin than it's really worth. A rare or sought-after coin in poor condition which might fetch, say, £100 can sell for ten times that amount with skillful tooling to an unsuspecting or inexperienced bidder. In my opinion virtually all highly attractive or apparently high grade sestertii that appear on eBay show evidence of smoothing or tooling. So if you see an apparently high grade sestertius or dupondius on eBay with perfect glassy fields, sharp grooves in the hair, beard or drapery and crystal clear legends there's a 90% chance it's been extensively tooled. Still, it's worth remembering that in the past most of the classical statues we admire in the great museums were extensively and sometimes incorrectly restored although nowadays such restoration is frowned on and you may feel that a tooled coin, especially if it's skilfully done, is no different to a restored statue.
If you would like an opinion on a Greek or Roman coin offered on eBay then you are welcome to get in touch with me.