Banker's Marked Fourree. Reprinted from the June 2005 issue of The Celator, Vol. 19, No.6, where it appeared as my regular column The Other Side.
This column marks five years of the appearance of The Other Side. Who'd of thunk it? Certainly not me. When Kerry first asked me to write about my experiences working as a dealer after many years as a collector, I thought it might be fun for a while, something to keep me off the street, but TOS keeps going and going... This may sound like the beginning of a Safiresque farewell essay (not a moment too soon, in some people's minds!), but you won't get rid of me that easily. Nor is it a retrospective examination of five long years of growth and change, half a decade standing in for eternity in the Age of Blogs. No, when I commence a column about the column, it typically means I can't think of anything else to write about, and hope springs eternal that the crocusing of words on the monitor will in the fullness of time lead me somewhere coin-related.
Now, I've been in this pickle before. In the past, I've had two main strategies: I mine the Internet discussion groups for annoying posts, or I ask my wife for suggestions. But the online groups are full of discussions of actual ancient coins, of all things. Nothing there for me. I want gripes about prices and buyers' fees, or grumbles because those darn furriners can't just speak English, not insightful dialogue about the stavrata of Constantine XI. A couple of columns back, I tried to bait the anti-forgery wing nuts into providing grist for a column right around now, but as expected, they failed to answer my dare. My wife as always is full of good ideas, but this time they seem a bit, how shall I put this, educational: Displays of ancient coins in museums, the effect on the market of the worthless dollar, themes for collections. Writing those columns would feel a lot like work.
So now what? Two solid paragraphs and not a clue. Nothing earth-shattering in the spring auctions, too soon to rant about the ANA convention. I am an award-winning columnist, and I have the plaque to prove it, but still... Even the Unpaid Journalists Guild has standards of a sort. I should write about something.
Well, there's always imitations of Republican denarii, though I seem to recall touching on these once or twice before. I did in fact recently obtain an interesting fourrée (see Ne9.), an ancient forgery of Crawford-494/23. P. Clodius Turrinus struck the prototype around 42 BC. This new coin is a nice example of a class of plated counterfeits I describe as "Near-Roman Style". In my opinion, many ancient fourrées are struck from dies transferred from official coins, although this point is controversial and unproven, but plated coins of the class under discussion are different. They are most likely struck within the borders of the empire, but from unofficial dies engraved by forgers operating outside the mint of Rome. The style of these coins is in no sense "barbarous", but neither does it quite replicate the style of the official coins it copies. In the case at hand, Apollo has an unusually long neck, with prominent lips and jaw line and a somewhat bulbous chin. Diana Lucifera on the reverse is tall and thin, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror or seen through the eyes of Modigliani. The legend is accurate but slightly crude, with several letters terminating in dots, a feature not generally present on official coins of this type. The coin weighs only 2.63g, and the plating is broken at the base of Apollo's neck, revealing the core. No question the piece is not solid silver.
What fascinates me about this coin is the presence of three small bankers' marks on the reverse. This is not a feature I've noticed on other ancient fourrées, although probably other examples exist. I find these marks evocative, a welcome reminder of how little we know of the mechanics of daily commerce in antiquity. I should have expected that, once a banker or merchant punched a coin and discovered the core, he would have removed the coin from circulation and destroyed it. Certainly, the latter act wasn't performed in this case, since the coin survives. Was the coin indeed removed from circulation by the person who punched it, but hoarded rather than destroyed? The penalties for possession of counterfeits would seem to make the benefits of this not worth the risk, but this would be neither the first nor the last time greed overcame good sense. Other explanations of the coin's survival after it was punched (as a keepsake? stolen by an ancient burglar? lost down a drain? eaten by a goat?) I reject as working hypotheses on the basis of Occam's Razor. It seems more likely that the coin was simply returned to circulation by the person who punched it, eventually to be buried as part of a "normal" hoard.
If this is true, it invites all sorts of unprovable speculation. Is it possible that the nature of the coin was simply not noticed by the person who marked it? A member of the Ancient Coin Club of Chicago drew an apt comparison to a bored teenage clerk at McDonald's, going through the motions of examining a $20 bill for authenticity without really looking. The subsequent handlers of the coin must not have looked either, at least not until it was too late to angrily refuse to accept it. Perhaps the banker's marks lulled them into complacency.
That's the simple version. The coin has three distinct marks though, each made by a different punch. I can't think of any satisfying economic explanation for this. One banker punching the coin three times, using a different punch each time, and still returning the coin to circulation? Three bankers, each punching the coin once, each inept or greedy? A better answer may be historical. The chaotic military years following the murder of Caesar were not a time of glory for the Roman mint. Fabric, strike, even weight standards suffered, victims of the endless need to pay the troops. Perhaps such niceties as testing for good silver were continued by rote, but even a plated coin was a better tidbit for the voracious appetite of the army than nothing at all. No wonder men like Cicero yearned for the virtues of the lost Republic. No need for a dainty banker's mark to prove the worth of an aes grave as!