A History of Counterfeiting

Counterfeiting techniques have changed as technology has changed. Governments continuously try to keep one step ahead of forgers. Collectors need to understand what types of forgery techniques existed for the period in which they collect in order to avoid purchasing bogus coins or bank notes.

Counterfeiting Medieval Coins—Clipping

Although clipping isn't technically counterfeiting, it was an unsavory practice, so we'll talk about it here. Medieval coins were produced by hammering a sheet of gold or silver until it was paper thin, then cutting out coinage blanks from the sheet. The coin images were then impressed onto these blanks with a hammer and anvil. Due to the crude designs and the thin material of these coins, it was commonplace to clip a minor shaving of metal from the edge of a coin, then pass the coin at full value despite it now being underweight. Technically these coins were meant to trade at the precious metal value of their content, which also equaled the denomination assigned to each coin. After the clipper clipped enough metal, he took the metal to the local mint, where it could be made into more coins. The underweight original coin might continue to circulate unless the clipping was very obvious.

When does medieval coinage end and modern coinage begin?This varies from country to country depending on when machine manufactured coins replaced the thinner hand hammered coinage. In general this begins about 1500, however in countries such as Russia modern coinage began two centuries later.

Governments attempted to foil clippers by extending the design of a coin all the way to the edge on both sides. English silver penny coins, as an example, first bore a reverse design known today to collectors as the “short cross” design. The crossbars of the cross did not extend across the entire coin surface, leaving plenty of room to shave metal off the edges without detection. The crossbars of the cross were later extended all the way to the edge of the coin, known as the “long cross” design, to discourage clipping since it would interrupt the design on the coin.

Once modern coinage presses began to replace the earlier hand-manufactured process, coins became more sophisticated both in design and in fabric. Another way clipping was discouraged was adding vertical serrations called “reeding” to the edge of a coin. Clipping would be obvious because it interrupted both the more perfect shape of the coin and the reeding.

Counterfeit coins and bank notes were traditionally made to deceive people in commerce. Today specific coins are targets of counterfeiters because of the high price they may realize if they are undetected as being bogus. Collectors should be aware of which coins are more likely to be counterfeited or altered.

Clipping is rare today due to the fabric and thickness of our modern machine-produced coins, but it is common to find clipped medieval and early modern hand-manufactured coins. These clipped coins are still acceptable to collectors, but they may command lesser prices if the clipping is particularly noticeable. Clipping should be expected to be present on some English colonial period coins struck in what later became the thirteen original states of the Union.

Counterfeiting in China

China is generally credited with introducing paper money to the modern world about A.D. 806. Marco Polo brought the concept of paper money to Europe after visiting China approximately 400 years later. Merchants deposited specie (precious metal) with the government, who in turn gave the merchants paper receipts marked to a specific value. These paper receipts could be traded in lieu of coins, and they were significantly lighter in weight to carry. The government had the actual deposit on hand if the paper was redeemed.

It didn't take counterfeiters long to realize the opportunity this new currency concept presented. In 1207, the Jin dynasty in China recognized counterfeit “flying kite” or paper money as being dangerous in the Bank Note Law Treaty. Paper money has been counterfeited ever since. In 1368, paper notes printed by the Ming dynasty carried a warning that counterfeiters would be beheaded.

What does the term flying kite money mean?Flying kite money is a reference to the early paper money of China, which dates from the thirteenth century. Since paper is light, it could blow in the wind just like a Chinese kite.

Counterfeiting in Merry Old England

Counterfeiting of English coins is documented at least as far back as in 1150 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the right hand and other unmentionable parts of a counterfeiter were to be removed as the penalty for this crime. In 1533, counterfeiting of any foreign coins that circulated in England was added to the list of treasonable offenses.

Only a few years later, in 1578, Eloye Mestrelle, a former Royal Mint employee, was hanged as a counterfeiter. In 1696, master counterfeiter William Challoner advised the English Chancellor of the Exchequer on how to improve the nation's coinage. But then the laws were changed, making counterfeiting a hanging offense, and Challoner was hanged.

England thought it had the ultimate way to deal with counterfeiters, however. In 1770, the English shipped convicted counterfeiters off to Maryland. But there, the forgers continued their illicit profession without having to worry any further about the local constable. England's plan didn't work, and during the 1820s the country withdrew and reissued 1- and 2-pound bank notes because of rampant counterfeiting.

About a century later, in 1928, England began employing color and machine engraving techniques to its paper money in an effort to keep ahead of the forgers. This worked to an extent, but it couldn't hold the counterfeiters off forever. The German government counterfeited British currency during World War II.

Counterfeiting in France

King Louis IV of France earned his dubious title as le faux-monnayeur (“the false moneyer”) due to his less-than-honest activities about 1285. His successors learned from this king. In 1350, King Phillippe VI ordered the coinage of the realm secretly debased for economic reasons. The value of all circulating money at that time was based on its precious metal content, not on the denomination assigned to each coin.

In 1422, the Countess Jeanne le Boulogne et Auvergne was convicted of counterfeiting the coins of France. Perhaps there haven't been any French counterfeiters of such prominence since, but forgers still ply their trade in that nation nonetheless. In 1993, France added innovative security devices to its paper money on short notice in an effort to combat spurious bank note production.

Counterfeiting in America

In what would become the United States, the Maryland Assembly passed an act in 1638 making it treason to counterfeit the king's coin. Only a few years later, in 1645, the English colony of Virginia made it a death penalty offense to counterfeit Spanish silver coins, Spanish colonial American coins being the currency primarily found in local circulation at that time.

Nothing was sacred regarding forging of currency. In 1647, the General Court of Rhode Island ordered fake wampum confiscated. (Wampum are beads made from shells that were traded with Native Americans as a form of odd and curious money.) Pennsylvania prosecuted its first counterfeiting case as early as 1683.

During the 1990s the New Jersey State Police made a major arrest regarding a counterfeiter producing his own casino tokens! Although some of these bogus tokens were used in gaming machines, the intention was to cash them in at unsuspecting casinos in exchange for hard cash.

The British colonies in America had just as many problems with counterfeit paper money as did their Chinese predecessors. In 1735, the Virginia House of Burgesses warned that the Virginia colony's economy might be ruined due to the vast amount of counterfeit paper money that was circulating there. In 1835, Massachusetts offered money to any organization willing to help stop the rampant local counterfeiting. Emanuel “Bill the Penman” Ninger was arrested in 1891 in New York after one of his masterfully hand-drawn bank notes didn't hold up well when it became wet following his payment of a bar tab (for which he received change in genuine gold and silver coins).

One of the more notorious counterfeiting rings in American history operated from Cave-in-Rock in the Ohio Valley. It began in around 1790 and continued until “Bloody Jack” Sturdevant and his gang shot it out unsuccessfully with government authorities in 1831.

In 1865, just as the American Civil War was concluding, the U.S. Secret Service was established with two major missions. One major mission was to protect the president of the United States, his family, and other important government politicians. The other major mission was to prevent counterfeiting. This was followed in 1923 by the establishment of the International Criminal Police Organization, better known today as Interpol.

The list of counterfeiting stories is endless, and counterfeiters are unfortunately here to stay. Despite all the efforts made by the U.S. and foreign governments to eradicate counterfeiting, counterfeiters continue to ply their trade by keeping up with the technological advances in coins and bank notes. As soon as an innovative anti-counterfeiting device is used, forgers quickly work to copy the new device, in turn encouraging governments to seek further technological advances.

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