The Sceptical “Amateur Scholar of Numismatics”. 1/2 English Version

 I approached numismatics as a lover of history. I look each coin of which I’m interested in with curious eyes not of the esthete, but of the historian who goes in search of useful elements for understanding the past.


R. Boyle (1627-91), picture by J. Kerseboom (c. 1689). From:

But there is nothing wrong in those who appreciate a specimen only because nice or eye-catching.
It ‘also possible, even spending modest sums, to take possession of a small part of it: there is indeed a thriving and lucrative trade of all kinds of coins, from the oldest to most recent, from the rarest to the most common, which has found its natural place in the reality of Internet.
I approached confident this world, but gradually the darkness prevail over. It was not overnight, but this radical change of perspective is the result of daily attendance, for over a year, of online auctions and numismatics’s forums.
I think, like a new Fox Mulder aiming at the emergence of truth, that there is a kind of oligarchy interested in possessing knowledge, in order to exploit it to his own advantage and to maintain the things quiet to avoid the collapse of the market.
I am not saying that there is a worldwide conspiracy but simply a kind of caste, in which, more or less voluntarily and one independently from each other, lobbying and often immoral attitudes (although mostly not illegal) are part of the daily agenda. I came to the conclusion that those who attend this world can be grouped into three basic categories: pure collectors, that is those who, more or less prepared, however have not ulterior motives; sellers, whose primary purpose, and often the only one, is profit; collectors/sellers, that is an intermediate group certainly interested in the subject, but not entirely foreign to the interests of sellers and therefore ready to support them.
Let’s take a step backwards. There is a so obvious problem of forgeries in numismatics that it would be foolish to deny it. The normal behaviour is to try to give the sop, to staunch the leaks when the dam begins to crumble, to spread a sense of security in the prospective buyer stating that the issue of forgeries is restricted and the risks are minimal if you rely on a trusted seller. But honestly I’ve seen such things… and now consequently my opinion is that the best you can get is a seller of less distrust.
These people advice on purchases, warranties, helps to establish if a single specimen is authentic or not, but show an obvious difficulty in explaining why of the things and share knowledge: a kind of conspiracy of silence.
Their motivation? Not facilitate the work of the counterfeiters.
My motivation? Have a monopoly on knowledge in order to influence the market. A customer ignorant and uncritical is like a goose that laid the golden eggs.
You often hear that coin collecting can be an investment. Using an hyperbolic metaphor, but someway realistic, because of the high number of circulating fake stuff, I think it would be an investment equal, or almost equal, to spend money on lottery tickets.
I was told that if the system does not suit me I should devote myself to something else, maybe to collect Kinder surprises. Why? Not to bother who presides over this world and from it draws sustenance in an often unjust way? This is my passion and I want to do everything that is in my limited possibilities to try bringing benefits to it. I don’t believe that someone should give up his love when times get hard. I think rather that he should try to fix things.
But there is no concord even on what is meant by the term fake. Coins newly created are evidently fakes for everyone, but those reconstructed or minted on original flans? And those heavily retouched? And the average retouched? Not to mention those little retouched.
Since the different national laws, most (as currently in Germany) or less permissive (like in Italy), are vague in this regard, many interventions on the coins for sale and known to the seller itself are not even mentioned: ripatinature (frequent and obvious to the most), engravings, lowered fields and various other corrections…
The seller, voluntarily, doesn’t give complete informations about the article for sale. Why?
“Because no one forces me to do so.
Other sellers do not. Why only me? What regular buyer would buy my coins?
Because there is no clarity in the definitions.”
My solution: who is endowed with a certain ethical code should explain exactly, in his own words, every single intervention that the coins for sale affected.
But would it be uneconomical? Certainly.
The point is that not for all who buy coins is true love and if they knew certain things, they would possibly try other “hobbies”.
I also heard some insiders complain because buyers do not study enough and this fact would make the problem bigger, and others say that we should entrust completely to our sellers. The union of these two positions is a truly oxymoron.
It is true. There are people ready to pay any amount of money for each monstrosity, if only a well-known seller told them that those are very rare coins (but this is true even at low levels) and this certainly does not serve the cause. I met a person with a collection of coins worth thousands of Euros (probably) that doesn’t know anything but what he was told by the seller and in some cases he had no idea what they were. He liked them and had money to spend … but we can blame him? But it would be fair (clearly not illegal) take advantage of him or people like him?
I wondered for a long time whether to write what I’m writing and somehow in the “motivation” of “do not facilitate the work of the counterfeiters,” there is something true. But various factors have led me to this choice:
-it is important that people that buy a coin when have full knowledge of the risks and in my opinion the problem of counterfeits is much larger than normally is affirmed;
-is not fair that there are people who exploit the ignorance (without attributing a negative connotation to this word) of other people;
-the counterfeiters will evolve anyway towards increasingly refined techniques. We have to face problems one at time. The solution in my opinion is linked to the universalisation of knowledge (at least relatively to those who are interested) and not in the elitist management of it.
Once a seller of coins expressed the concept that even a professional, because he is still man, can always make mistakes, but instead the superficiality is not acceptable. I totally agree in (theoretically) with the second part of the speech, but is clear, however, that in many cases the superficiality overflows everywhere. This arise mainly from the fact that the normal buyer doesn’t care of a lot of things and consequently (consequence however, in my opinion, unacceptable) the normal seller has adjusted to him. As professional, he should remain professional in all circumstances.
It was also said as excuse that they have to adapt to the quantities of coins required by the buyers, they have (have? Who is forcing you?) to treat large amounts of material, of which often they are not particularly expert (What ??? Should not one rely completely on the seller?) and therefore mistakes necessarily increase.
Instead I totally disagree with the fist part of the speech. Mistakes aren’t always excusable, even if in goog faith. There are many mistakes that, spending time and doing research, can be avoided.
But it would be uneconomical? Certainly.

In the articles that will follow I’ll group the cases investigated into four categories:
-symptomatic situations(of what I have stated above);
-errors (due to sarelessness and /or superficiality);
-horrors (errors so big to be inexplicable);
-possible fakes (in my opinion).
If the first three categories I will try to be as objective as possible and therefore refer only to established situations (at least in accordance to the data available to me), in the fourth instead I will be very subjective in my interpretations, but trying to produce as many proofs and considerations possible as support: provided that they are always the personal opinions of a sceptical “amateur scholar of numismatics.”

These speeches could sound like empty words. Let’s give substance.

I accidentally became aware of some researches (one of which is in Greek and almost impossible to find, so I got it from Greece) that expose the results of laboratory tests carried out on coins of the Macedonian kings prior to Philip II and in particular Amyntas III (393-370/69 BC).
They show how type A staters of this king are mostly, if not all, silver-plated on a substantial copper core (subaerats or fouree).


Amyntas III type A stater. It’s clear that this coin is a subaerat. (Dion Archeological Museum, Greece)

These conclusions are based on the analysis of a large sample of coins of Amyntas III (38 exactly) and the comparison with other coins (22 in this case) of the kings of the period 413-360 BC. Without beeing too specific, using various laboratory tests was studied the actual percentage of the metals and the density/specific gravity (g/cm³) of the coins.
The surface of the coins of Amyntas presented a percentage of silver only in 3 examples less than 80%, but mostly higher than 90%. Instead in 9 specimens, that presented the core in view, the maximum percentage of silver found in the core was 13%, while the remaining part was copper.
Key issue is the analysis of the density, which provides indisputable informations about the metallurgical composition of an object. Each metal has its own density: about 10,5 silver, while copper approximately 9 g/cm³. The coins analyzed had a density between 8,45 (and therefore even lower than that of pure copper) and 9,81, although mostly were around 9 to 9,4 g/cm³.
The logic and sensational conclusion is that a type A stater of Amyntas III of pure silver would be “probably” a fake, while a subaerat would be true and official.

I saw on sale at one of the worldwide most prestigious auction houses a type A stater of Amyntas III and I decided to investigate, being very clear in mind that this type of coins, of which “strangely” subaerats are very common, is always presented by auction houses as made of pure silver or at most debased silver.

I wrote, therefore, to the auction house asking general informations about the modes of purchase and shipping and even more specific about the density of certain specimens, including also that of Amyntas, which is the only one that really interested to me.
Despite being past 10 p.m., in less than an hour I got two different and very kind answers, one of which even by the General Manager.
Regarding the problem of density, if for other examples the values furnished were correct (although expressed in percentage), in the case of Amyntas III the answer was: good metal, silver 90%. If the specimen was actually 90% silver …
Apart from the fact that they had not understood exactly my question, since the density is not expressed through percentages, nevertheless we can say that a coin of 90% silver and 10% copper has a density about 10,2 g/cm³.
So the answer was, or the silver content that they thought the coin had, not being minimally aware of the researches referred by me, or, if they actually made analysis that established a silver content of 90% … you can figure it out yourself.
I pointed out the problem, so as gentle as possible and carefully avoiding the term “fake”, and the kind General Manager, with a sudden change of behaviour, invited me, almost annoyed, to repeat the question in a few days, since they were very busy and concluded that: the silver of the coin looks good and this agrees well with the standard characteristics for that type of issue (it’s a paraphrase).

I wrote again few days later and I didn’t get any response.

You tell me!

M. Lykirdopoulou-Petrou, G. Economou, The debased silver coin of Amyntas III, «Metallurgy in Numismatics», 4, 1998, London, pp. 161-170.
M. Likiardopoulou, S. Psoma, Η αργυρή βασιλική νομισματοκοπία των Τημενιδών της Μακεδονίας από τα τέλη της βασιλείας του Περδίκκα Β ́έως το θάνατο του Περδίκκα Γ ́(413-360). Τεχνολογία κατασκευής, ανάλυση μετάλλου, ιστορική προσέγγιση, in «Οβολός», 4, 2000, Athens, pp. 321-338.
S. Kremydi, Coinage and Finance, in «Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon: Studies in the Archaeology and History of Macedon, 650 BC-300 AD», Leiden-Boston, 2011, pp. 159-178 (165).

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