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Victorian Collectors – v- Victorian Swindlers and Fakers

Cuerdale Hoard coin .. courtesy of WWThe Industrial Revolution sparked the construction of a rail network across much of Britain. It also heralded the demolition of many old city centres to provide land for factories, office buildings and workers homes. The upheavals brought an unexpected surge of interest in ancient coins and antiquities among what we might today refer to as the managerial classes. When labouring gangs wielded their picks and shovels to excavate foundations for city halls, banks, chambers of commerce, railway cuttings, and terminal stations in capitals and major provincial centres of population, they frequently uncovered the remains of Roman structures unseen for one and a half thousand years. Sharp-eyed workmen soon spotted among the black earth large numbers of unfamiliar coins and metal trinkets. When the navvies learned that many of the well-dressed onlookers who attended to watch the diggings would buy old coins for the price of a pot of best porter, the diggers toiled ever more strenuously, their eyes peeled for further discoveries.

During the 17th and 18th centuries coin collecting had begun as a pastime for the aristocracy, who had filled cabinets of curiosities with coins and antiquities purchased in Rome, Athens, Alexandria, and at other exclusive watering holes visited during their Grand Tours. 19 th century Victorian Britain witnessed the rise of socially mobile men eager to emulate their betters, and to acquire some of the trappings of sophistication. Forming a collection of coins offered a popular route, especially at a time when so many ancient coins could be obtained without the need to travel abroad. Hoards of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval wealth, brought to light by navvies excavating for railway viaducts and new river bridges, made headline news in provincial newspapers, adding to and broadening collector interest beyond Roman finds, to include coinage from those cultures.

Rapid and reliable transport between cities and larger towns brought many foreign visitors to Britain. Arriving by paddle streamer at our southern ports after a journey of a few hours to cross the Channel, they boarded fast trains for London and beyond, determined to pack-in as much sightseeing as time would allow. Regrettably, an unexpected consequence of this swift movement of foreigners also brought troubles and woes for coin collectors, as made apparent by numerous reports in newspapers across Britain. For example, the Hertford Mercury (May 1841) carried the headline:
Caution To Coin Collectors above a news item that announced: One of the emissaries of the notorious gang of Parisian ancient coin forgers is now in the south of England with large quantity of spurious Greek, Roman, and Saxon coins brought from overseas. He was, a few days ago, at Chichester, from which town he suddenly decamped by train, suspecting that he had been recognized. He is thin, of sallow complexion, wears spectacles, is handsomely attired, and speaks in a gentlemanly manner. By Acts 7 and 8 of Geo 4, he may be apprehended by anyone who buys his coins, and any magistrate would at once commit or remand him for further evidence, which many who have had dealings with him are prepared to give.

The swindlers and fakers noticed a further boost of interest in ancient coin collecting among the British following widespread reporting of the huge hoard discovered by workmen repairing the banks of the river Ribble at Cuerdale, Lancashire in 1840. Coins in that hoard included examples from the reigns of Alfred of Wessex, Viking kings of York, as well as Byzantine, Islamic and Carolingian rulers. Claims that the finders had kept, and later sold, coins from the hoard, provided an incentive for forgers to supply collecting demands. A report in a December 1842 issue of the London Evening Star carried the headline: FORGERS OF ANCIENT COINS above news that at a recent meeting of the Southampton Numismatic Society it was announced that imitations had been fabricated of the Anglo-Saxon coins discovered at Cuerdale; and that at the present moment persons are travelling to various towns, and disposing of them to coin collectors, and to the curators of museums. As these imitations are extremely well executed, it is to be feared that many will be sold before suspicion is excited.

Spurred on by sales successes with their Cuerdale fabrications, the forgers and fakers achieved further notoriety a month later when, in January 1843, the Ipswich Journal, along with many other provincial papers, gave notice that: Spurious Coins And A Notorious Forger Are Abroad. Their news columns declared: Coin collectors and would-be antiquaries are warned to be on the look-out. A great number of spurious pennies of Alfred, said to be part of a subsequent, but falsely reported, find at Cuerdale, are making their appearance. The notorious Singleton, alias Edwards, alias Carpenter, (with a great many other aliases,) is practising his old tricks of selling counterfeited ancient coins, and apparently with no want of success. Another individual, whose name and person are well known, has succeeded in producing imitations of various rare English coins some of which have been sold as genuine for large sums. Inexperienced and unsuspecting collectors must be on guard against these forgeries.

By 1845 Britain’s coin collecting fraternity had begun to fight back. Numismatic societies throughout the country urged members to seek expert opinion on the identity and authentication of every coin offered to them by any unknown vendor. If expert opinion was not at hand, permission should be obtained from the vendor to take impressions in sealing-wax of both sides of the coin, which should be simply pressed into melted wax dropped onto a card, as if sealing a letter. From those matrices, plaster casts could then be taken. For most purposes the casts served as well as the original coin.

As a present-day potential bidder on any TimeLine Auctions coin lot, you need no longer trouble with sealing-wax and plaster. You have TimeLine’s Vetting Team members to depend upon.

TimeLine Auctions, 29th January 2024