Fakes and forgeries

Fake, forgery, counterfeit: all these words describe coins and banknotes made in imitation of genuine money and passed off as the real thing. As long as there has been money, people have tried to imitate it illegally and for their own profit.

Coin Forgeries

Modern replica denarius signed ‘WRL’ (Westair Reproductions Limited) Forgeries of the earliest Greek coins were made by covering a base metal core with a layer of a precious metal called electrum, so that they looked like genuine coins. The process of covering a less valuable metal (such as lead, iron or copper) with gold or silver is known as plating. Throughout history plating has been one of the most widely used methods of creating a forgery.Modern replica denarius signed ‘WRL’ (Westair Reproductions Limited)

Another way of forging coins was by casting. Counterfeiters would use a genuine coin to make a mould, which they would then fill with molten metal. When the metal had cooled and hardened, it would form a cast imitation of the real coin.

Sometimes, forgers would obtain the metal needed to make forgeries by clipping it from the edge of genuine coins. The melted silver or gold clippings may be used for plating. Otherwise, the precious metal might be debased (‘watered down’ with base metals to make a larger quantity) and used to make forgeries which were either cast or struck using forged dies. In medieval England, that process was known as ‘multiplying the coin’ since it could use one genuine coin to create lots of fakes.

Testing coins

Plated copy , showing damage to the surface platingPeople have always wanted to test the coins they are given, to avoid accepting worthless counterfeits. By cutting (or biting!) through the surface of the coin people could check that the coin was made of solid gold or silver.

Gold is one of the heaviest metals, so people could test gold coins by weighing them. If the coin was not made of pure, solid gold it would not be heavy enough to tip the scales, and people would know it was a fake. Some balances also had slots to test the thickness and diameter of the coin.

If a coin has been cast from a mould of a genuine coin, marks from small air bubbles trapped inside the mould may be visible on the coin. A cast forgery may also be slightly smaller and lighter than a genuine coin, since the molten metal will shrink inside the mould when it cools and solidifies.

Preventing Forgeries

£6 mpte. New Jersey, AD 1776

The authorities who issue money officially have always had to find new ways of keeping ahead of the forgers, and making money that is hard to forge.

The introduction of machines was important to this aspect of the production process, as it resulted in coins of more consistent shape and design. Milled and decorated edges, such as those on a gold sovereign, were an important development in the prevention of clipping. Since milling is difficult to imitate well, it also protects against forgery.

Early banknotes had simple designs in black and white and were relatively easy for a skilled calligrapher to forge. Because of this, more detailed designs and images were included which were more difficult to forge. Some of the earliest of these were based on the natural world.

Today’s banknotes have very complex, colourful patterns. Metallic security threads, holograms and luminescent ink are just some of the devices which are extremely difficult to copy and so help to prevent forgery.

Counterfeiters do not only imitate money which is in circulation, however. Coin collecting is a popular hobby, and many coins are worth much more to collectors than their intrinsic value. Because of this, it can be very profitable for forgers to imitate old or rare types of coin. This type of forgery can easily fool an inexperienced collector, and many are sold over the Internet or to tourists. 


Punishments for forgery have always been harsh. In medieval times, convicted counterfeiters in Germany were boiled alive in oil, and in Russia they had molteGeorge Cruikshank, Bank Restriction Note, a satirical note, England AD 1819n lead poured down their throat. In the seventeenth century, women involved with forgery could be burned at the stake.

In 1819, George Cruikshank drew this imitation banknote in protest at the harsh punishments in Britain, when he saw a woman hanged for passing a forged note. The details in the cartoon parody the complicated vignettes used as security features on banknotes, and are much more gruesome. The signature, which would normally be of the head of the bank, is of ‘Jack Ketch’, which was a common nickname for the hangman. Although the death penalty is no longer used in the United Kingdom, forgery and counterfeiting are still punishable by a prison sentence.

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