Sunday 1 August 2021

"Nabijem te na kurac, majmune" the "Serbian School" of Fake Early Medieval Coins

Though it's not one of them, my current bad gut-feeling about the look of that ninth century mancus soon to be going on auction reminded me about the 'Serbian school' fakes of Early Medieval coins currently going the rounds. They tend to come from sellers based in former Yugoslavia, usually Serbia, but are also quite frequently sold by short-lived temporary accounts from East central Europe generally (including several in Poland). I've not checked further east. There is a wide selection of coins offered. Sellers sometimes offer them mixed in with what appear to be genuine Roman (less frequently Byzantine) coins, though among their Roman bronzes are some that I think are fakes too. The byzantine silver coins coming from these sellers have the same characteristics as the early medieval western European coins.

The latter are primarily English. They produce some wide-flan sceattas, issues of the archbishops of Canterbury, Viking York. The main thrust of production however are of coins of 8/9th century Mercia (Offa, Coenwulf) and especially (at least at the moment) 9/10th century Wessex (Ecgbert, Alfred, Edward the Elder, Aethelstan, Eadmund). There are also relatively infrequent Merovingian coins and also one or two 'Viking' issues (such as Sweden) being produced by them.

The numbers made from the same dies seems low, very rarely can duplicates be spotted. They are generally sold for prices that begin bidding at a sum that is rather high if you know they are (fairly good) fakes, but ridiculously low for a real one... and of course bidders think "ah, Serbia, I bet there will not be many people bidding against me" - often they are right, so they get to fill that gap in their collection for a low price and have the feeling they got a "bargain" (as they did, in an auction you state how much you are willing to pay for that item).

I think the reasoning is that a cluster of rare types of English coins, even coming from far-off parts of Europe, is plausible, given the number floating around from all that metal detecting in the UK since the 1970s. Another factor is that through resources like PAS and EMC, any Tomas, Dmitr and Bosko can find nice large detailed pictures of any coin they fancy copying - and also an idea of how rare they are.

These coins are probably pressed rather than struck and when you see them as a group the silver ones have a pretty characteristic greyish colour with blotchy patination. I think I know how this is achieved - if you've got one, you might want to wash your hands after touching it. The same goes for the bronze ones, but here I think it mostly comes out of a bottle. The early medieval silver ones are characterised often by spindly lettering, their die cutters are a bit delicate I suspect, there is a sharper more abrupt transition between the letter form and the flan than in many originals (apart from anything, due to die wear). Visually, they have the wrong 'feel' (I've only had a few in hand, but this does nothing to dispel the impression that something is not right with them). The problem seems to be in the spacing, the balance between positive and negative space. Some of the Byzantine ones have a more blocky form and may be from a different workshop (also some of these sellers also have Byzantine issues that seem from the photos likely to be cast). Presumably here the middlemen and dealers have access to products of Bulgarian fakers too.

It is difficult to say how many sellers there are handling this material. Quite often they present the coins on some kind of 'artistic' background, and they get the attribution right (possibly because it's copied from the online material used as the model for the dies) but there is often a disclaimer that the seller "is not an expert in such coins" so not "all of the flaws that are important to you may be described, so please look at the photo very carefully". This is usual for sellers of fakes (as well as the authentic coins). 

None of them give any information at all - fictional or otherwise - about where they came from. That is you are buying an 'ungrounded' artefact. This is entirely deliberate, because "I've got this thing, look at the pictures, I think it's eighth century Mercian, but have a look at the pictures and decide yourself" is not in any way legally culpable ("..."eighth century Mercian" is what I bought it as, and what I think it is"... is an opinion). But, "it was found in unpublished amateur excavations in 1963 by the Woking Archaeological Field Club", or "metal detecting near Wolverhampton by my Dad when he worked in England in 1982" are facts that are either true or not, and if you are caught out lying, well that is fraud and you can be done for that.   

So if a dealer tries to tell you something without grounding, ask to see the documentation and if the dealer starts making excuses why he's got the find but not the documentation, walk away.  

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