Friday, December 18, 2015

Imitations of the bronze coinage of Pontos

Some time around 95 BC Mithridates the Great ordered a massive emission of bronze coins depicting on aegis of Athena with the Medusa's head at the center to be struck at seven of his mints in ancient Pontus on the Southern coast of the Black Sea.

The obverses of these coins depict a gorgon with flowing human hair, lips somewhat frowning, collar, within aegis of six to nine sides, aegis tied at corners, aegis edges sometimes dotted. The reverse names a city and shows Nike, wearing chiton with robe, advancing right; a palm branch held in both hands resting on her shoulder.

These coins must have been minted in massive quantities. They appear in many collections and are often sold inexpensively at auction.

In addition to the products naming the seven official mints we sometimes see crude examples with blundered inscriptions.

In this case the AMI of Amisos has been cut to resemble a W, and the ΣOY is reduced to Σ·. I have not been able to find scholarly literature in the imitations. Michael Mitchiner calls these imitations “Sarmatian”, perhaps because of the fint spot or because Mithridates was allied with those tribes and could have authorized the issue. The Sarmartians were a people who lived in western Scythia along the north cost of the Black Sea from the mouth of the Danube.

The crude issues seem to come scattered and mixed in hoards of mostly official style issues. In published hoards they don't seem to be distinguished. Commercial dealers seem to acquire the crude examples with the good examples. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell an official-stye issue from an imitation, so it can be difficult to be sure how big an issue the crude mints supplied.

Because the crude types are mixed together with the official style, it suggests merchants accepted them evenly with Mithridates own coinage. Why? One possibility is that the crude type represents an eighth official mint. Mithridates controlled Scythian territory on the Northern coast of the Black Sea, in present-day Russia and Ukraine. He had a Scythian wife, Hypsicratea. There is no reason why he couldn't have taken over or set up a mint in Scythia.

About three-fourths of the official-style aegis/Nike coins that I see on the market have an Amisos inscription. (Michel Amandry found 72% in a hoard of 409 specimens he published.) Perhaps the crude issues copied the ΑΜΙ-ΣΟΥ of Amisos on purpose, or had only a few coins for a model. I wondered about this for a long time and then I found a specimen that seems to have a poorly-drawn aegis and poor version of the ΑΜΑΣ-ΤΡΕΩΝ inscription of Amastris:

It is possible a die cutter at a Southern Black Sea mint in Pontos or Paphlagonia was having a bad day and struggled with the aegis and the inscriptions. I suspect instead a Northern Black Sea imitation with style good enough that I can never be certain.

Why was the only the aegis/Nike type imitated? Mithradates had many common copper-alloy coin types. Besides the type we have been discussing there were large bronzes of Athena head/Perseus, large Perseus/Pegasos bronzes, Zeus/eagle, Dionysos/cista, Ares/sword, “Head in leather cap”, and Artemis/tripod. (The mythological figures are all identified by style; there is no certainty that Nike, Ares and Artemis are the correct identification.) Yet the crude examples are always aegis/Nike.

One possibility is the alloy. Mithradates seems to have used different alloys to color his bronze denominations differently. Perhaps one was easier or more profitable for the unofficial mint or mints to strike.

Another possibility is that the aegis/Nike type had special appeal for the unofficial mint. Michael Mitchiner thought it was a “Sarmatian” tribe that issued them. This tribe was named after lizards (sauros). Perhaps the snakes of Medusa were considered kin to sauros.

However, I recently purchased a bronze coin of Amisos from this period that seems to be in an odd style and is not an aegis/Nike.


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

CN 22 from Poland

Yesterday I received a silvered bronze plaquette depicting a WWII event by the Polish artist Bohdan Chmielewski (1927-2014). The medal is interesting but instead of blogging about the medal I will show the Customs Declaration.

The CN 22 form tells us that the item is a 'Podraunek' (gift), a medal, weighing 26 pounds (or 261 grams?). No value is given. The seller paid 18.30 zł (Polish Zloty, equivalent to US$4.83. ) It came in a 9"x7" padded mailer. It was delivered by the US Postal Service and I had to sign for it.

It was not a gift weighing 26 pounds. It was an eBay purchase, costing me $35 plus shipping, weighing 0.22k (about 8 oz.)

Americans usually don't have to pay customs duty for parcels worth less than $200. So I didn't skirt any payment requirement. I believe I am supposed to keep all Customs documentation for five years — so I cut the form 22 off the envelope and put it in the mylar 3.5x3.5 along with the medal.

My understanding is that Customs documents should be correct, but that if it isn't there is nothing I should do about it. I do not believe the US Customs Service expects me to inform them that I actually paid $35 plus shipping, or that the declared weight is wrong.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Grading Parthian Coins

Many Parthian coins in very high grades are available for purchase. I have no data but it seems like dealer inventories are larger than usual. I wondered if this indicated new hoards had been found. I wanted to see if I could measure a change in the average grade of dealer advertised stock.

I was unable to do so because the letter grades given the coins do not correspond well with the coin's actual grades (as measured by the visible dots on the cheek straps of the helmet of Parthian coins.) With ancient coins, the dies degrade during use and some dies are higher relief than others. So unlike modern coins, which can be graded according to rules like 'number of stars visible', ancient coin grading involves looking at the entire surface of the coin for wear. I do not do that here, focusing only on the cheek strap of the Sinotruces' helmet. The grader of the coins below might have considered other parts of the coin that you don't see.

I could find no coins in Fine or lesser condition on There are some available elsewhere, but shows only coins good enough to make it into auction catalogs.

Here are most of the Parthian Sellwood 33s on, sorted by grade.

About Very Fine

Very Fine

Good Very Fine

About Extremely Fine

Extremely Fine

Good Extremely Fine

About Uncirculated

Mint State

What's important is what we are NOT seeing. There is no more than a weak relationship between the definition of the individual dots and the dealer's chosen grade for the coin.

Because the seller's grades don't seem to line up well with the quality of the cheek strap, it is hard to say if there are better coins for sale or looser grading standers. I cannot therefore make any statistical claims about the true grades of coins being offered for sale. This data should warn buyers looking for a quality specimen to look closely at the photograph rather than trusting a dealer's letter grade.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Conflict Coins

Last Wednesday Ute Wartenberg Kagen spoke on a panel at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I didn't get to see the panel, as the US State Department's live stream was down. The American Numismatic Society has posted a paper in which she gives her views, entitled Collecting Coins and the Conflict in Syria.

You should read the paper. It's good. It is not difficult to read. Graphs are included which show extremely rare types of coins from ancient Syria are on the market in greater numbers since around the start of the Syrian conflict. Mostly likely all kinds of ancient Syrian coins are on the market in larger numbers.

At the same event, Deputy US Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced a US$ 5,000,000 bounty for disrupting ISIL's antiquities trade.

Personally I suspect many of the antiquities come from the private collections of four million Syrian refugees, used as bribes to escape Syria, rather than a few ISIS looters. Yet it doesn't matter what I speculate. Dr. Wartenberg Kagan apparently shared the stage with the general counsel of the auction house Christie's and eBay's head of global regulatory policy. I suspect change is coming to the ancient coin market. What kind of change should we expect?

Germany is considering a law that will make it illegal to see ancient coins worth more than $100 without twenty years of provenance. Companies are free to go further than the law requires. eBay doesn't allow any Cuban coins to be sold on eBay, even ones that left Cuba before Castro's revolution cannot be offered on the site. My fear is that folks who are looking for something, anything, to do are seeing few options besides these kind of blanket bans.

Dr. Wartenberg's paper points out in a footnote that the American Numismatic Society rejects gifts of ancient coins from eBay and other online sites that have have no permanent record of their sales, unless older provenance is available. This has an important financial consequence, as such gifts would have been tax deductible.

Viewed as a purely technical problem, it wouldn't be difficult to create a permanent record of coin sales. A simple way would be create a printable report of newly offered coins, 20 coins to a letter or A4 side of paper. That's 40 coins on a double-sided page. currently offers 140,262 ancient coins, so that means 3500 pages or a nice 10 volume set of 350 page volumes. For perhaps $1000 the entire site, 140k coins, could be printed on demand and with copies sent to the the ANS in New York, the British Museum, and perhaps Paris, Berlin, Athens or Jerusalem. The receiving librarians stamp and catalog the books when they arrive, creating a permanent, personalized, physical record.

Such a record would be very good for resolving future, but not current, legal disputes. The obvious choice is to have sales portals voluntarily do this, but of course anyone with $1000 and HTML skills could do it, perhaps anonymously of copyright concern on sales text was an issue.

Of course, a permanent record isn't going to have a direct effect on the problems of smuggling. Printing out sale and auction catalogs in editions of five has the nice property of making low quality provenance available to collectors for less than one US cent per coin, generating data for future scholars, and making it harder to launder conflict antiquities with established antiquities.

Recently National Geographic ran an amazing cover story about a phony elephant tusk containing a GPS tracker. The mock tuck was acquired by a smuggler, and spent the spring of 2015 reporting on the smuggler's route across Africa.

Ancient coins are too small to hold the batteries needed for GPS trackers. I suspect the smuggling routes for conflict antiquities could be mapped in a different way. Unlike ivory, which is usually carved before being sold, coins get no more than a bit of cleaning. There is no reason anyone couldn't photograph 100 ancient coins and just leave them out near recent digging activity. A few years later photographs of dropped coins could be released publicly, with a contest to find them online. This technique would establish entry and exit points of the smuggling. If a government were interested, subpoenas could then be deployed to explore the route more fully.

I don't think this kind of mapping would be enough to earn the reward Deputy Secretary Blinken mentioned. It might be enough to get a cover story in the major numismatic publications.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Meet me in Atlantis

Mark Adams, Meet me in Atlantis

It's good!

I will depart from my usual practice of covering coins and technology and mention a recent book I enjoyed that has little of either.

Mark Adams' Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City documents the charming cranks and visionaries who are searching for the ruins of Atlantis.

This is a semi-serious book, with a bibliography and index, yet simultaneously functions as a travel book. 300+ pages. No knowledge of Plato is required to understand the book. The author visits Santorini [= Thera], Doñana National Park in Spain, and Morocco. Candidates in Antarctica and Michigan are rejected.

The Atlantipedia website and its operator are also featured.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blundered inscription (?)

SYRIA, Antioch. Imperial Times, I-II Century AD? AE14 (2.00 gm).
Obv: ...NITOIN (blundered ANTIOXEWN?); Laureate head of Apollo
Rev: A; Lyre.
References: Lindgren and Kovacs, 1949v. SNG Copenhagen Syria #125.

I wanted to briefly mention this coin because when I tried to look it up I only found two examples, one from the Lindgren collection and one in Copenhagen. Neither published the inscription, as it was illegible on their specimens.

The visible inscription seems to be NITOIN, or possible ΛITOIN. I found a larger Apollo/Lyre with the inscription ANTIOXEWN in the BMC catalog.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Jane Jacobs

Mystery novels about private detectives often include a plot element where the detective and police have to work together. Both sides loath the practices of the other side. Unless the private investigator has some useful information or a long relationship with the fictional police no progress can be made on the plot. Often someone’s life is in danger because of withheld information.

Why would two groups looking to catch bad guys dislike each other’s methods so much? A person might think that both private investigators and police detectives have the same goals and should work together.

I believe this antagonism is related to the Systems of Survival concept of Jane Jacobs. In her 1992 book she explains that there are two styles of organization. Wikipedia explains:

One system is the Guardian Moral Syndrome and contains 15 precepts, like “Shun Trading,” and “Adhere to Tradition.” This system arose primarily to satisfy the needs of organizing and managing territories. It became the code for warriors, governments, religions, and some private organizations.

The other system is the Commercial Moral Syndrome and also is made of 15 principles like, “Shun Force,” and “Compete.” It came into being to support human activities around trade and the production of goods.

This mutual antagonism is in so many detective novels that I assume it is real. I haven't verified this idea with detectives of either syndrome. I have seen the principal in play among people interested in ancient coins. Today there is antagonism between coin dealers (who have a commercial moral code) and archaeologists (who follow the guardian moral code.) Archaeologists believe honor comes from publications and training grad students. They want to guard ancient coins for the future and aren’t above requesting the force of law. On the other side we have collectors and dealers who want everything to be voluntary, who shun fancy titles and seek profit through efficient business practices.

It should be expected that the two groups interested in ancient coins dislike the methods and organization styles of the other. We should not expect collectors and scholars to praise each other’s practices. If one side does something that indirectly helps the other, such as putting thousands of images online or deducing a clever attribution for an enigmatic ancient coin, respect from the other camp will not always follow. Neither side will willingly bind its own conduct to help the other.

My hope is that scholarly organizations that accept both guardian-style and commercial-style attitudes will continue recognizing the achievements of both kinds of member. Eventually out of these one-on-one interactions perhaps some new ways of collaborating will be discovered.

Retoning recommendation

I recently acquired this Indo-Greek AE tetradrachm from a dealer in Missouri.

I love the detail, but the cleaning method left some really ugly colors. It looks much worse in hand than the picture.

I was wondering what folks would recommend for fixing?

  • Leave it on a window sill for six months
  • Darken using a product such as Deller's Darkener
  • Artificial patination product such as JAX Green Patina

Leaving it alone is also an option, but I feel this particular coin could be very beautiful with an even tone. I am asking because I have never retoned a coin.

I am also curious to know if people feel this coin was cleaned chemically or by electrolysis.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A new way to profit from counterfeit coins

This story is three months old and was discussed by Paul Gilkes on but otherwise I haven't seen much on it.

Thomas Zambito, writing for, reported on March 24th that federal investigators discovered metal recycling companies attempted to turn in over $5,000,000 in counterfeit but corroded dimes, quarters, and half dollars to the US mint to be redeemed at nearly face value.

The US government pays $19.84/pound for dimes, quarters and half dollars that are bent, broken or corroded. For example, a Kennedy half dollar weighs 11.34g. $20 face in these coins is about a pound, thus the broken coins are redeemed at nearly face value.

“A metallurgical analysis by a [Customs and Border Patrol] laboratory from a sampling of mutilated coins taken from circa 2010 and 2011 shipments by one of the suspect firms determined that not only was the percentage of copper and nickel off from genuine U.S. coins, the composition also included aluminum and silicon, neither of which has been used in a circulating U.S. coin.”

The counterfeits were “uniformly mutilated by mechanical means, before being subjected to chemical treatment to corrode” them. What was the scale of this counterfeit operation? Approximately $5.4 million in face value for 2014. This has been going on since 1999, when the mint started scheduling quarterly melts because of the vast amounts of coins being turned in by Chinese recyclers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lakshmi Srinivasan Herman wrote a forfeiture complaint claiming that “There would have to be approximately $900 in coins in every vehicle ever exported to China as scrap metal in order to account for the total amount of waste coins imported from China for redemption.”

Counselor Herman also is quoted as claiming “more half dollars have been redeemed by China-sourced vendors in the last 10 years than the United States Mint has ever manufactured in its history.” In the 1970s the mint cranked out hundreds of millions of half dollars each year. I have a hard time believing the Chinese are counterfeiting on that vast a scale. It is also difficult for me to comprehend $900 of fraud at US Treasury expense for every car scrapped to China.

If a reader finds any photographs of these mechanically mutilated Chinese fake coins please let me know.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Congratulations to Arthur Brand

I suspect several of my readers know Arthur Brand, who used to frequently post on numismatic discussion boards under the name of the ancient Greek die engraver Euainetos. Others may know of his Dutch-language book Het verboden Judas-evangelie en de schat van Carchemish (“Forbidden Gospel of Judas and the treasure of Carchemish”) which discussed a hoard of archaic Greek coins including Athenian Dekadrachms.

Brand has been working on stolen art for a while. His recent success, finding Hitler's hoard statues [], is bringing him much-deserved fame.

A 4:46 minute NPR piece lets Arthur tell the story.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Looking at the early cruciform die over time

Several things make studying the reverse “Parion” dies challenging.

It is a simple geometric design, and the die cutters are cutting new dies to imitate the old. In this example, the design is very similar. The lines on the right are thicker, but this will happen as the die degrades. The die on the left could have had an additional line cut and then degraded to the line on the right. I don't believe that is what happened. I believe the die on the left deteriorated into a different shape, and then a new die was made copying the old.

The die is either soft or in use for a long time and slowly degrading. The die on the left degraded into the die on the right, and they kept using it.

The die cutters are tracing and enlarging die cracks. Here we see two impressions that look dissimilar, but I believe are from the same die, and closely related in time. The ancients seem to be widening either cracks or lines they traced themselves. I don't know if this technique would stop the crack from spreading.

Fakes. There are some casts out there. There are also some coins that seem to be unrelated to the main group. It is unclear if these are from short-lived dies, are ancient counterfeits, or are modern counterfeits.

I believe the reverse die I have been studying struck some of the earliest specimens. I could be completely wrong. It could merely be of poor style and soft. But it seems to be connected to the least-degraded obverses, and obverses of the most archaic style.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Archaic gorgon/incuse drachms said to be minted at Parion

(Price and Waggoner, Archaic Greek Coinage: the Asyut hoard, #612)

One of the most common archaic Greek coin types is the gorgon/incuse type. Unfortunately very little has been written about it. Poor specimens are common. Common and ugly coin types can be overlooked, especially without a story backed by a literary source. A very rare and beautiful coin might get several papers speculating upon its origin, even if only a few are known and it had little economic significance at the time. These gorgon/incuse types, which must have played a big role in someone's economy 2500 years ago, are nearly ignored by English-language scholarship. Perhaps this is because nearly all of the 60+ specimens currently offered coin collecting sites are wretched.

In 475 BC someone buried many silver coins near Asyut in Egypt, including the coin I show above. So we know the type was circulating in 475 BC. But where? The Asyut hoard contained only one specimen mixed with coins from all over the Mediterranean. The hoard evidence for this coinage is surprisingly is slim for such a common type in the coin trade. The editors of An Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards cite just six hoards. No hoards including the type were found anywhere near Parion in Mysia, the supposed mint city given by every cataloger for the past 100 years.

Furthermore, the hoard evidence is a bit muddled because these coins come in three fabrics. The vast majority have a medium-thick flan and relatively low-relief gorgoneion with soft features. Medium-thick examples typically weigh 3.1-3.4g There is also a very thick type, with sloping sides, weighing 3.5-4.0g. Finally we have light specimens of a thin cupped fabric. For the hoards other than the one buried at Asyut we don't know which variety are being discussed. This is important because the fabric, style, and weights of the three types are so vastly different that we don't know if they are from the same period and mint.

I have attempted to do a die study of the very-thick specimens. I will post my preliminary results here soon. I have been hesitant to post, because what I am seeing is so strange, but there are so few specimens of very thick fabric examples that it seems pointless to sit on the data waiting for confirmation.

I also have a proposal for a mint city that makes a much better candidate than Parion. I had thought it was my own idea, but after much research learned it had been proposed in the early 19th century.

I have always been interested in the type but I recently had a chance to inspect the specimen from the Roland Maly collection. Maly's example looks artistically superior to most other examples. I believe it is from an early state of perhaps the first die. In upcoming posts I will attempt to show why I believe that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A token with strange script

Four months ago a user on the forum /r/coins posted a machine-struck token or coin with an unusual inscription.

I cannot identify the script. It seems like each letter (or syllable) is made up of one or two parts of a square plus a curve. That's unusual. It doesn't show up in any of the examples my browser can render in Wikipedias list of writing systems. Because of the lines+curve nature of the script I was thinking an alphasyllabary script or the 'Phags-pa Mongolian script. I thought it looks a little like Tamil but not really.

One side depicts what appears to be a club. The other sign shows a bird, probably a falcon, carrying something odd-shaped. The shape in the eagle's talons could just represent a rock or something but I am thinking perhaps an outline of an island or province. The style of art used to depict the bird is unusual. No coin relief, no feathers. Just a line drawing with simplified wings really. That's unusual … most coin artists like to show off by doing really detailed feathers.

I do not have the item in-hand and I don't know the size, weight, or composition.

I don't believe this is a real coin. For a while I thought it might be a fantasy coin or micro-nation. Maybe it is just designed to confuse. I am posting it here because we all love a mystery once in a while.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Colouring, Bronzing and Patination of Metals

An impressive book on finishing metals is Richard Hughes and Michael Rowe's 1982 The Colouring, Bronzing, and Patination of Metals.

It's a big book. It begins with a 13 page Historical Introduction which covers metal finishing in ancient China, Greece, and Rome, throughout history up to the present day. The surface enrichment of coins is briefly mentioned. There is an extensive bibliography.

The next section is a 23 page discussion of how to actually color metal objects. This is followed by 16 color plates. The plates are quite beautiful in the 1991 Watson-Guptill edition that I borrowed from the New York Public Library. (I have not seen the other editions.)

The bulk of the book is a 250-page section of chemical recipes to get the various color effects. These are historical recipes, which the authors personally carried out “with the exception of a few potentially very hazardous recipes”. Modern chemical names are used for the ingredients. The recipes are dense, four or five to a page, arranged by the desired color of the finished product. For anyone carrying out the recipes, there is an 18 page section on Safety.

The patination technique used by Italian antiquities forgers that I mentioned in March that used Copper Sulfate, Nitric Acid, and Ammonium Choride did not appear in the book (or if it did, I missed it in the hundreds of recipes). Recipe 3.213 (the 213th recipe in the Copper section includes Copper Sulfate and Ammonium Chloride, but used Ferrous Sulfate instead of Nitric Acid. There were several recipes with Nitric acid, such as 1.40, 1.120, 2.29, and 3.132, but not many (perhaps because of its poisonous and corrosive nature). The recipes that did include Nitric Acid combined it with Copper Nitrate rather than Copper Sulfate.

It would be fun to experiment with the patina recipes, perhaps on modern copper coins, but I lack the time to embark on such a project and it probably isn't a good idea to keep such chemicals around the house. If anyone reading the blog has skill in this field and would like my to link to their site or to guest-post here on the topic of producing patinas just let me know.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Form CN 22

This is a completed form CN 22. It is supposed to be attached to the outside of international envelopes containing anything other than letters. This one was attached to an envelope which contained an Indian token I won for ₹220 (about US$3.46) in an auction.

I've noticed that coins sent from India always have such a declaration. I recently received a 2013 coin from Poland of similar value which did not have a declaration. About half of the low-value coins I receive from Europe seem to lack it.

According to the US Customs web site, a customs duty must be paid for all merchandise worth above $200. (Gold coins have an exception and there is no duty on them but they still need the forms). According to, you must pick up goods worth more than $2,500 in person. I have never imported coins at that level.

Sellers generally don't want to attach the declarations to packages with no duty, as the declarations themselves are believed to encourage theft. If there is no Customs Duty to be paid or high-value reporting requirement it seems a pointless theft risk to affix a declaration. US Customs x-rays the envelops and will open them if it looks like duty might be needed. Yet the web site warns that the forms must be present accurate.

I was surprised to learn from that the weight of the item is expected. The form I show here does include it, but this is unusual in my limited experience. An this case the weight was not accurate: the token I received was about 1/3 the weight listed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mailing coins to and from Europe

The United States Customs Service sometimes seizes ancient coins sent through the mail.

My friend the Cultural Property Observer has been blogging about the legal issues around Customs seizures. I became curious about the statistical properties: how often are the coins seized, does it make a difference what is written on the Customs Declaration, and do the particular source and destination cities make a difference.

My hope had been to send a few coins with sub-$10 market value back and forth with a reader living in Poland to see what happens. It might be interesting to learn if MOU restrictions are being enforced uniformly or are biased.

Surprisingly, my correspondent's Polish Post Office told him US Customs doesn't accept coins sent through the mail. Even more surprisingly, the US Post Office's web site says coin shipments to Poland coins are prohibited by Poland.

I'm not talking about ancient coins. I mean coins and money in general, “including currency in circulation in the Polish Republic”, and silver.

I am curious to see how it this prohibition works in practice. I was unable to convince my Polish archeo-blogger correspondent to enter into an exchange of modern coins with me. Instead I purchased a 2 Złote commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Polish Society for the Mentally Handicapped on eBay for $1.65 plus $3 shipping.

I purchased the coin on March 21st. It was postmarked March 25th. eBay expected it would arrive by April 24th to May 1st. The coin arrived a week early on April 13th. The seller did not declare the coin, so we didn't learn anything about shipping declared coins. I did learn it takes about three weeks for a thick coin-sized object in a Priorytet envelope with 360 Grozy of postage (about US 0.95) to reach New York.

My hope is that I didn't engage in smuggling through this transaction. I did everything above-board: I bought it publicly on eBay, paid with a credit card, received it at my legal residence via the US Postal Service. It was just an undeclared coin with a face value of US $0.53 and a collector value of $1.65. If anyone with a legal background knows otherwise please contact me via email.

If anyone with a Polish address is interested in receiving a few recent US coins from me, with full customs declaration, email me and tell me what kind of US coins you want. No charge. The coins might not arrive. My intention is to fill out declarations with variations of 'coins / gift / value ~$2' and 'numismatic / gift / value ~$2' and just see what gets refused and what gets seized. Anyone in?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Photo Certification from NGC Ancients

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has been offering Third Party Grading of ancient coins for six years. Usually the company slabs the coins. I recently acquired two NGC-graded ancients that couldn't be slabbed. They came with laminated Photo Certificates.

The certificates are huge: 195mm x 120mm. I don't collect anything else this size and had no idea how to store the certificates with the coins. I finally found Supersafe 2 Pocket pages for Graded Currency which hold them and integrate well with a collection stored in a three-ring binder. Unfortunately these 2 Pocket pages don't have any kind of clasp or door and I will be nervous traveling with certificates in this kind of container.

Although the certificates are huge my smaller coin, a 1/64th stater weighing 0.14g, is exceptionally tiny. This coin is supposedly on good metal, with surfaces graded 4/5 by NGC, but blown up to the vast size of the photo certificate it looks painfully rough. I would have preferred a baseball-card sized photo certificate that could be stored in a safety deposit box. (If I had very large coins I expect large photo certificates, and it does make sense to standardize on a size. Just note that tiny coins that look good in hand may appear hideous when 6mm is blown up to 70mm).

As far as I can tell from the web site, photo certificates are only available for coins NGC is unwilling to slab. The web site authors seem not to have considered collectors who prefer the flexibility of certificates over the finality of slabs. I have no clue if it is possible to request only the certificate.

Each coin is given a unique serial number. Entering the number into a form on NGC's web site brings up photographs of the coin and the certificate. For example, my 1/64 stater can be seen at This part of NGC's web site seems poor. There is no population data. The 'Pedigree' listed for my coin is 'rv eagle head r.', which is of course the reverse description, not the pedigree. (So far I have been unable to trace the pedigree of this particular coin myself beyond the auction I purchased it in.)

Laminated with the photograph is a hologram and a 'photo-certificate.' I would have expected the certificate to be intaglio printed but it looks computer printed.

The 1/64 stater came with tiny slip of paper saying 'NGC has not certified this coin' because of 'other' with 'size' written by hand. This paper is wrong: the coin was certified by NGC. The certificate team seems to lack slips saying 'NGC has not encapsulated this coin' and is repurposing 'reject' slips.

My other photo-certified coin, a plated obol, should be visible at but it seems NGC did not upload the picture. The plated obol's photo-certificate includes the annotation 'ancient forgery' and this important information is not present on the verification page. I was happily surprised to learn the ancient counterfeits can be certified, as the web site claims 'NGC Ancients will only grade coins it believes to be genuine.' Leaving the forgery annotation off the web verification page seems like a major omission. It is also confusing to have a certificate that says 'ancient forgery' on one side and 'genuine, original' on the other, even though all serious collectors will understand what is meant.

I have been impressed with NGC's creation of the numerical ratings for Strike and Surface as distinct from wear grade. Acquiring a few NGC-graded coins changed the way I think about a coin's condition. Although I still struggle to understand all the nuances of 'Surface' I find NGC does a good job grading ancient coins.

It is unfortunate the industry hasn't come up with a reclosable slab yet, but NGC's photo certificate has a lot of potential until such a slab is invented.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kushano-Sasanian coins are kind of interesting

Last week I posted on import restrictions on Roman coins. That post got 13 replies -- a much higher volume than my usual posts. Looking over my earlier posts, I see 16 posts that received zero comments and then one on import restrictions on Egyptian coins that somehow got 12 replies. It seems my readership is mostly interested in Customs issues.

When I started this blog I had hoped to write about computers and ancient coins, but those posts seem to attract little interest. In the past I have asked readers what they want to see here, but have gotten merely generic encouragement.

Wayne Sayles recently blogged about collecting coins that others ignore. I think Wayne is on to something so I will write about that. Lately I have been interested in pre-Islamic coins and have applied to join the Oriental Numismatic Society.

My latest coin is a Kushano-Sasanian bronze of Peroz I from Balkh circa 245-270 AD. The obverse is said to read ΠIPΩZO OOZOPKO KOÞANO ÞOYO (Peroz the great, Kushan king) and depicts king Peroz standing facing, head left, sacrificing over altar and holding a trident in his left hand.

The reverse is said to read OOPZAOANΔO IAZAΔO (Exhalted God) but I don't know how they get that — I can't make out a single letter on any of the examples I've seen! It depicts the Exhalted God (Siva?) standing facing, holding diadem and trident, before the bull Nandi. The bull has very odd feet on this coin and several other specimens that I have seen.

For those interested in provenance and import issues this coin comes from the collection of Robert N. Cook, Jr. of Graham, North Carolina. The collection was largely assembled 50 years ago in Indian and Afghanistan. Unfortunately I have no documentation for this particular coin before a February 2015 auction.

Wayne's post advises you to collect what others are not interested in. This particular coin sold, unattributed, in a lot of 24 Kushan coins that went for $2 each at auction. They buyer flipped it on eBay for 10x that, misattributed as the Kushan ruler Vasudeva. It is likely that these coins will be more appreciated in a few years after dealers start using the new reference, Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins: A Catalogue of Coins from the American Numismatic Society, by David Jongeward and Joe Cribb with Peter Donovan. I have not seen that work yet but eagerly anticipate publication.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

False patinas

In Classical Deception (page 54) Wayne Sayles mentions the excellent patinas on Sicilian fake coins starting in the 1990s. After his book was published I noticed copies of the coin Sayles used as an example appearing in the printed catalogs of several dealers.

I was wondering recently if hand-held XRF guns could be used to identify real and false patinas and a web search lead me to a five-year-old post on FORVM by Lloyd Taylor referencing a 2009 paper in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry. The paper is “Ancient Coins and their Modern Fakes: an Attempt of Physico-Chemical Unmasking” by A. M. Mezzasalma, G. Mondio, T. Serafino, G. De Fulvio, M. Romeo, and A. Salici.

They analyze five fake bronze coins. This is the recipe the forger confessed to:

“…one of the most used recipes for fakes artificial ageing utilizes a solution composed by penthydrated CuSO4 [Copper Sulfate] together with HNO3 [Nitric Acid] and NH4Cl [Ammonium Chloride] in distilled H2O [Water]. In this solution, warmed up until 80‐90°C, the just produced fakes (at about 100 °C) are immersed. Such a bath gives them an artificial patina with an “antique green” colour and a deceptive antiquity appearance. Drops of the above CuSO4 solution on clean bronze surfaces may form dendritic structures with the same characteristics of those observed in our fakes.”

Note: the fake BR02, which the authors couldn't identify, is a Himera gorgoneion / pellets.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

American collectors should comment on the pending renewal of the MOU with Italy

Under Italian law, all antiquities must be registered with the government. Newly found antiquities belong to the government. So if Italians are digging a well and find some old coins, they must surrender them to the police.

Under US law, countries that have a serious problem with looting / grave-robbing / metal-detecting are allowed to ask for a "Memorandum of Understanding" which lists the kind of artifacts being looted. Currently the US and Italy have one and it covers, among other things, coins of Greek Sicily. So Americans can't just bid in British and German auctions for such coins, because without paperwork showing the coins have been on the collector market for years it is against the law to bring them to the US.

The Italians are asking for an extension. The extensions last for five years. The extension doesn't have to cover the same stuff. It could cover fewer coin types or more coin types. If it covered all Roman Imperial coins it would be frustrating, because these coins would be selling openly in many EU countries, but Americans wouldn't be able to buy them.

Some folks would like to see all ancient artifact sales banned. Others feel the sale of common objects like coins and rings is not a big deal. The purpose of filing comments is so that the US representatives don't just rubber-stamp whatever the Italian representatives ask for.

American collectors should read It's Not Too Late on Cultural Property Observer's blog and leave comments for the US Government's Advisory Committee.

Monday, February 09, 2015

You Thought It Was More

Louis Colavecchio with Franz Douskey and Andy Thibault 426 pages. $24.99, $9.99 on Kindle

Louis Colavecchio's book cover describes him as the "World's Greatest Counterfeiter". That seems to be a standard claim for the genre. Who would want to read a book about the 2nd or 3rd greatest counterfeiter?

Colavecchio counterfeited casino chips, not coins or paper money. He seems to have counterfeited a great deal of chips, enough that casinos have stopped using them.

When I read about counterfeiters I want to see a picture of their fake next to an original. As is typical in these accounts, Colavecchio's lacks coin photography or pictures and drawings of any kind. The cover collage depicts seven casino chips, two steel dies for $100 chips, Colavecchio himself, a slot machine, and a pile of gold-colored coins that look like 1 euro pieces. This is disappointing. Colavecchio claims drafting skills and kept a contraband ruler concealed for years while in prison. I would have liked some technical drawings included in the book.

Chapter 1 is about making and selling counterfeit sweaters in the early 1960s. Chapter 2 is making statuettes using lost wax casting. Chapters 4-6 are about managing jewelry stores. Chapter 8 is about making phone phreaker red boxes and telephone slugs. (The slugs were made around 1980.) 10 and 11 are about importing and modifying sports cars. 13 covers jewelry manufacturing. Chapters 14-17 discuss casino chip counterfeiting (70 pages). Chapters 18-21 discuss jail, court, and prison. The other chapters are about who got whacked in Rhode Island in the 1960s and 70s, and why. Actually all the chapters are about crime and women.

Colavecchio's telephone slugs are only mentioned briefly.

The casino chip dies were made using Electrical Discharge Machining, the process called "spark-erosion counterfeiting" in the numismatic trade. (See Max Spiegel's article on NGC to see an example of a collector coin created with spark eroded dies). A 320 ton Mario Di Maio press was used to strike the chips.

Colavecchio forged both metal and plastic chips. A lot of the counterfeiting discussion in the book concerns getting the correct weight and color out of plastic materials. These discussions may not appear important to the coin collector, but recall that the country or rebel province Transnistria recently started issuing circulating plastic coins.

Colavecchio's writing, or perhaps the writing of his two co-authors, is good. I found all the mob and crime stuff presented in an entertaining way. (The typesetting is poor and there are lots of bogus commas and line spacing issues, but that doesn't reflect on the writing.) The book is well worth reading if you like true crime or counterfeiting. Although Colavecchio brags about having secrets the US Mint needed to consult him on, most of the tips, and that he made amazing improvements to his EDM machine, this book does not go into more detail than other books on coin forgery. This is an entertaining story about criminals, not a technical manual.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Smithsonian now able to digitize 400 numismatic objects per hour

An article by Max Kutner in Smithsonian Magazine discusses efforts to digitize 250,000 bank notes, tax stamps, and war bonds from the National Numismatic Collection.

Twenty people are able to digitize 3500 items per day, suggesting the whole project will take 72 business days. They use a conveyor belt and 80 megapixel imaging system. The team previously had success digitizing 45,000 bumblebees in 40 days.

The cost per object is less than a dollar.