World Coins

British Museum was once the source for fake ancient coins

Editor's note: The following is the third 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.

Museums have played a major role in the proliferation of coin replicas, according to author Wayne Sayles, and no series is more notable than those issued by the British Museum, which in the late 1850s began selling electrotype copies of coins in its collection.

Read other posts in this series:

The electrotype process, frequently used during the 19th century, involves electroplating a thin layer of metal on one face of a mold. The shell, which duplicates the side of the original coin being copied, is removed and other metal is placed inside to strengthen it. When making a coin through this method, two shells are joined together and the edges are smoothed. 

According to Sayles, in Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and Reproductions of Ancient Coins, “These are not a serious threat to experienced numismatists, but there have been many cases of novice collectors buying an electrotype with the belief that it was genuine."

The tell-tale signs of electrotypes include the casting seam at the edge, sometimes a lack of sharpness in letters and details and often an incorrect weight. 

In 1859, Robert Ready was hired by the British Museum to create electrotypes of the most famous coins in the museum’s collection. He did so until 1896, passing the task to his sons, who continued the family business until 1931. 

The Ready family created electrotypes of more than 800 Greek coins and “a large number” of Roman coins, according to Sayles. 

These pieces are very collectible today, and are occasionally offered by auctions. The pieces were stamped with R or RR on the edge to identify their origin.

These pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were sold to collectors “in the belief that they encouraged scholarship and the appreciation of ancient numismatic art,” Sayles wrote. “In reality, they provided a ready resource for many a forger and were eventually discontinued.” Because the Ready electrotypes sold by the British Museum were inexpensive, forgers could purchase them and use them as models for their own fakes.

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