Friday, August 26, 2016

US Department of Justice settles with accused counterfeiters

See part 1


Real or fake US coins?
Photo: FORMERFEDSGROUP.COM via blogs.wsj.com

Joe Palazzolo, writing for Wall Street Journal blogs, reports that the United States Justice Department has settled with three scrap metal importers.

The importers had been accused of sending counterfeit coins with a face value in the millions of dollars to the US mint for reimbursement through the mint’s Mutilated Coin Redemption Program.

The settlement terms were not disclosed. The Justice Department had wanted five million dollars and a Porsche.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The gorgons of Mallos part 2

Part 2: The uninscribed Earring Gorgons

See Part 1.

In 1883 Imhoof-Blumer published a rare gorgon/sphinx obol in his book Monnaies grecques and proposed that it was minted at Nagidos. 130 years later there is still no agreement on the mint of origin. In the catalog for Obolos 5, Alan Walker speculated that the sphinx/gorgon obol type could be from Mallos.

This is the type I wish to discuss:


Classical Numismatic Group e-Auction 174, October 2007, lot 57

Mallos has been suggested before. Jan Six offered Mallos as a possible mint for the gorgon/sphinx and gorgon/head obols in his 1885 thesis. Although his suggestion is no longer cited I believe his attribution is correct. This gorgoneion greatly resembles the gorgoneion on bronze coins of Mallos. The arrangement of the hair is identical, and the triple earring matches. Those bronze coins are dated to 400-300 BC. It’s tempting to assign these fractions to the same period due to the resemblance and the lack of an incuse reverse. These pieces lack an ethnic and could perhaps be earlier.


The bronze type with ΜΑΛ inscription has the same style gorgoneion

Six’s suggestion of Mallos was not accepted. George Hill pointed out in 1900 that the sphinx is depicted identically to the throne-supports on the staters naming a Persian satrap Pharnabazus with inscription ΝΑΓΙΔΙΚΟΝ for Nagidos "confirming" the Imhoof-Blumer's Nagidos attribution and overshadowing Six's. Imhoof-Blumer’s recanted the Nagidos attribution in favor of the mint Aphrodisias in 1931. Mallos was not mentioned again.


The throne supports depict a similar sphinx

This style of gorgon is unusual. It also occurs on similar obol.
SNG Levante #249

There are two unique coins that also match the style, a tiny fraction gorgon/sphinx and a unique gorgon/eagle from the D. Klein collection.

It's tempting to consider the uninscribed gorgoneion obols as originating at Mallos based on similarity of style to the bronze coin. The obols of Mallos demonstrate huge variety so it is clear the mint had the desire to make a lot of different issues instead of repeating the same type. Yet it would be more satisfying if we could connect the gorgoneion to Mallos for some reason so let us now enter the realm of wild speculation.

Homer’s Odyssey places the gorgoneion in Hades. A hot spring may seem to be an entrance to Hades. The scholar J. H. Croon believed coins depicting gorgons correlate with mints near hot springs. Croon noted twenty-seven Greek cities with Gorgoneion coins; out of these there are eleven where hot springs occur. Croon followed E. S. Hartland’s theory that Perseus was linked in ancient times to hot springs and believed those legends confirm his hypothesis. (The folktale connection is dubious; Hartland’s chapter on wells includes only tales far removed from the Perseus myth.) Croon managed to get a paper into the Journal of Hellenistic Studies in 1955 connecting hot springs and Greek mints striking gorgon types.

Was there a real, physical entrance to the mythic underworld at Mallos? I am not sure. The location of Mallos is unclear. It was at the month of the Pyramus river but the river has since moved. The mouth has silted up and thus the coast itself also moved. There is a hot spring at Duzici Haruniye Ilicasi on the Pyramus but I have no idea how far it was from ancient Mallos.

Mallos was founded by the seer Mopsus. The editors of Wikipedia write that at Mopsoukrene, the "spring of Mopsus", [Mopsus] had an oracular site. Was this a hot spring or even a spring emitting mysterious underworld narcotic gasses similar to the set-up at Delphi?

The idea that Mallos used the gorgon as its type to advertise its hot spring or oracle is probably nonsense. I am not suggesting that a hot spring proves Mallos struck the uninscribed gorgon obols, merely adding another mint possibility to Croon's list.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The gorgons of Mallos

Part 1: Was a gorgon featured on the earliest coinage of Mallos?


Classical Numismatic Group, e-auction 174, October 2007, lot 55.

Sometime around 400-300 BC the Greek city of Mallos issued a small bronze coin depicting the gorgon’s head on the reverse.

This bronze type was first published by Imhoof-Blumer. His attribution to Mallos is based on the ΜΑΛ inscription on the reverse of most specimens.

The head on the obverse is identified as the river-god Pyramos, who gave his name to the river Pyramos, because of the letters PY on some specimens. (Imhoof-Blumer identified the young head as “probably” Triptolemos, and that identification appears in older catalogs.)

This wasn’t the only coin from Mallos with a gorgoneion. A very rare obol (four specimens known) in the collection of the American Numismatic Society also features a gorgoneion on the reverse.


The head on the obverse of this coin was identified as Zeus Ammon by the ANS cataloger, but in my opinion could as easily by a river god as on the bronze coin. The silver coin has the inscription Μ-Α-Ρ. It seems strange to see a Greek rho instead of lambda in the abbreviation for Mallos, but the early coins of Mallos did abbreviate the city’s name that way.


Another obol depicting a gorgon was recently sold in a German auction. The type has not been associated with Mallos, but the inscription seems secure. This type is as rare as the first, with only 3 or 4 specimens known.

  • Numismatik Naumann, Auction 45, lot 154
  • Classical Numismatic Group, e-auction 338, lot 103
  • Classical Numismatic Group, e-auction 274, lot 160

Incredibly, the reverse looks exactly like the coinage of Athens. The only difference is the inscription, ΜΑΡ instead of ΑΘΕ.

The style of the gorgon is on this gorgon/owl type matches almost exactly the head/gorgon type. Both gorgons have four pronounced upper teeth and then smaller teeth to either side. The nose and brow are similar. The hair is similar.

The similarity with the coins of Athens doesn’t end there. Athens struck obols featuring a gorgoneion as well. For example, here is one in the collection of the American Numismatic Society.

This coinage of Mallos seems to mule two types associate with Athens. Why?

But wait, there’s more! A very mysterious coin of unknown origin looks very similar to the Mallos/owl coinage.


Classical Numismatic Group, e-auction 174, Lot 73

This unique obol has the ΑΘΕ inscription seen on coinage of Athens! One expert thought the Hebrew letter G, for Gaza, appears on it. There is some precedent for the types in the region. For example CNG 63, Lot 780 also features a gorgon/owl.

The gorgon/ΑΘΕ is poorly preserved but it seems very similar in style and fabric to the Mallos gorgon/ΜΑΡ. It does not resemble the Samarian gorgon/owl. It seems likely that it came from the same place the made the gorgon/ΜΑΡ. If so, it must have been very early, before mint officials realized they must use their own city’s name on its coinage.

The coinage of Mallos is traditional dated as commencing circa 425 BC. The gorgon/incuse obols of Athens are dated 520-509 BC, with the Athena/owl coinage starting soon after that. 425 BC seems much too late for a city to strike the wrong inscription on it's coinage. If the gorgon/ΑΘΕ coinage is a blundered product of Mallos it must be commence early in the fifth century BC, and be among the earliest coinage of the city.

Monday, July 25, 2016

New interview with Frank Bourassa

Brigitte Noël has interviewed counterfeiter Frank Bourassa. Bourassa's crimes were previously detailed by Wells Tower for GQ. This World's Greatest Counterfeiter created $200,000,000 or $250,000,000 of counterfeit US $20 bills.
... Frank dropped $125,000 on a four-color Heidelberg offset printer. His arsenal of equipment also included a $24,000 single-color Heidelberg (for test batches); two platen presses for embossing and applying color-shifting foil; an industrial paper cutter; platemaking equipment; counting machines; strapping machines; twenty or so Ricoh ink-jet printers...
The Canadian justice seems is surprisingly lenient. “In the end, he would serve a six weeks sentence and pay a $1,350 fine.”
The world's best counterfeiter now runs his own enterprise, offering consulting services to help businesses thwart counterfeiters.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Provenance search service

A press release from Ex-Numis informs us that a company has been formed to search out lost coin provenances.

The Ex-Numis web site tells us that it will cost 5 Swiss francs (about US$5) to submit a coin image to the service. Then, if provenance is found in the company's database of coin records there will be an additional fee of 25 or 50 francs to learn what the provenance is.

New subscribers to the service can get a 25 franc credit.

I would be curious to know if any readers of this blog have tried the service and what their results have been?

Ex-Numis claims to have a database of nearly one million coin records. For comparison, the free search tool acsearch.info claims to have 2.8 million records. The subscription-bsed CoinAchives.com claims to have 'millions'. Both of these sites focus on recent sales. The American Numismatic Society's photo file, which predates the Internet, has 600,000 records.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Keep The Change: A Collector's Tales by Harley J Spiller

Keep the Change is a curious book written by Harley J. Spiller, also known as Inspector Collector.

The full title is Keep the Change: A collector's tales of Lucky Pennies, Counterfeit C-Notes, and other Curious Currency. 112 pages, softcover. $19.95. The heart of the book is eight essays on Spiller's numismatic interests. His main collection is of damaged coins he received in change at face value. He is also interested in money manipulations by artists.

Spiller seems to be doing well with his hobby. He secured a table at the Wall Street Bourse coin show at the Museum of American Finance just to show off his collection and sell these books.

The book is severely limited by Spiller's emphasis on the material he collects and the events he was physically present for. He doesn't hunt for material on auction floors but waits to receive it in change. The book lacks ancient coins, which I have found much more likely to be damaged and corroded in interesting ways. Spiller's New York focus is also limiting: there are no non-US coins, and the chapter on burning money does not even mention The K Foundation!

I wonder where Mr. Spiller will go next. Ancient coins would be a good fit for him, as they often have very interesting corrosion collectors of ancient coins have a culture of acceptance of fine patinas. I gave Mr. Spiller a copy of the catalog of Stephen Sack's Metal Mirror with best wishes in the hopes of getting him interested.

It is difficult to assemble a collection at face value over a single human lifetime and for that we must commend Mr. Spiller for not losing focus. I recommend the book for anyone interested in either the intersection of Contemporary Art and Money.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

India considers banning the melting of ancient coins

An article by Shakti Singh in The Times of India quotes Indian Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Hansraj Ahir promising to “Pursue with the government the need to frame rules to prohibit melting of ancient coins.”
"I personally believe that melting such precious heritage is a cruel act and the government should work on making strict laws to stop it from happening," he said. "Ancient coins which form a very important proof of ancient civilization have been underrated by several generations. All they see is the value of metal the coin holds," said Ahir while addressing a three-day first international seminar on 'Gupta coinage' organized by the Coin Society of India ...

The article also quotes the former president of the Numismatic Society of India, S. K. Bose, who credits the work of coin societies in raising awareness. “Instead of melting coins [people] are coming to us to know the historic value of such coins.”

(Note that the Indian Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 allows ancient coins to be sold within India. Coins 100 years or older require permission to be exported. Think twice before trying to rescue coins dated 1916 and earlier from eBay.in).