US Coins

Carl Wilhelm Becker among most prolific, famous forgers

Editor's note: The following is the second of a multi-part Coin World series about the market for ancient coin fakes and forgeries prepared by Jeff Starck for the December 2014 monthly edition of Coin World.

Becker was one of the most prolific and accomplished counterfeiters of the 19th century.

No early forger was destined to become as famous as German engraver Carl Wilhelm Becker would be.

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Born in 1772, he was making fake coins and other antiquities as early as 1806, apparently as a sideline to a trade in genuine antiquities. His buyers were the wealthy princes of Europe, who filled their cabinets with Becker’s work.

George F. Hill explored the 360 or so examples of fake Greek coins created by Becker in Becker the Counterfeiter, published in 1924.

“Some of his efforts are of course wide of the mark; but others are as near to the original as anything that his successors have produced,” Hill wrote.

Besides Greek coins, Becker also produced fake Roman, medieval and modern coins. While many of the Greek coins were in bronze, he used silver and gold for his fakes, as well.

Although Becker was periodically accused of forgery, he defended himself by claiming his productions were “instructive” in nature and never sold with the intent to deceive. Notes found in his diary after his death suggest this was not quite true, as Hill provides multiple instances where examples were sold through third parties at or near full prices.

The deception even extended to the metal that he used — when available, Becker acquired cheap ancient coins to serve as the planchets for new creations because the coins were of the right metal and weight, and had an aged look and feel.

After production, Becker would take his pieces “for a ride,” placing the “coins” in a box with other metal, attached to the axle of his carriage, so the movement of the ride jostled the pieces, wearing away some of the newness of freshly-struck pieces.

Lincoln W. Higgie, writing in the preface to a 1977 reprint of Hill’s book, noted that “Becker is probably one of the most skilled forgers who have ever cut a die with the intention of forging a coin. He succeeds in most cases in capturing the style of the ancient coin very nicely.”

His lettering was particularly skillful, Higgie wrote, and this was important, because many other forgeries could be identified by less skillful lettering.

When Becker died in April 1830, financial troubles that consumed his life continued for his family. The family used his dies to strike sets of coins in a poor quality pewter alloy, with the examples sold to collectors and institutions. At some point Becker’s family sold the dies to the Saalfeld Museum, and they finally were placed into of the collection of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin in 1911.

The Berlin museum used the dies to make and sell to collectors off-metal sets of the “coins.” Sometimes, pieces would be plated with the same alloy of metal as real examples, for use as a substitute in a collection for an otherwise unobtainable coin.

The practice of museums issuing replicas or reproductions for supposed educational benefit extended even to the vaunted British Museum.

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