Counterfeit and Clipped Coins: Historical Insights
The humble coin. A monetary object used in daily commerce, frequently exchanged between buyer and seller. Coins are also in danger of eventual phase out in lieu of electronic, touchless payments via chip cards, both for sanitary and convenience purposes. In 2022, many see coins as heavy, noisy, inconvenient and dirt accumulators.
Let’s go back to a time when we had no electricity and coins were the only game in town. We’re considering the centuries after beads and tulip bulbs (seventeenth century Holland) were used as currencies, back to times when coins contained high percentages of precious metals, thus having melt down value (note that debasing currency was and still is illegal). Gold sovereigns and silver dollars contained precious metals that stimulated many a nefarious thought from history’s ne’er-do-wells. Defacing the national currency is a punishable offense and offenders were given heavy sentences, with some convicted of the crime being sent to their death by burning.
Coiners: criminals involved in counterfeiting and clipping coins.
Clipping coins: shaving or cutting off thin edges of a coin and melting down these metal slivers to resell as precious metal or used to make counterfeit coins. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methods_of_coin_debasement for coin clipping imagery.
Counterfeiting coins: making one’s own ‘dies’ (molds), to reproduce coins. There are stories of coiners fooling the system by manufacturing coins with cheaper base metals and coating them with gold to pass them off as the real deal.
Counterfeiting and clipping became so rampant in the seventeenth century that “milling” was introduced. Milling was the act of using a horse-powered mill to ensure consistency and accuracy on stamping coins. Raised edges and side striations were the historical equivalents of holograms and chips on modern day credit cards. Mints sought every avenue possible to deter criminals from producing coins via their own illegal production lines. Many counterfeiters worked from the comforts of their own home, and some even sent their children out to innocently exchange counterfeit coins for legitimate ones taken from high street shops.
Soft gold metal made it easy to clip and re-mold coins, something the national mints noted. Some collectors altered the patina of their coins to make them appear older (read more valuable) at auction. All of this underhanded activity resulted in a development of portable scales people used to ensure the coins they received were of legal weight. There are incidents where the coins were found not to be even at half their expected weight once coiners had done their damage. Onboard pirate ships, circulating debased coins was considered a significant breach of trust amongst colleagues. One likely does not want to know what happened out on the high seas if a pirate was caught defrauding his fellow crewmembers!
No matter one’s budget, coin collecting is a popular hobby around the globe. Every once in a while an incredibly rare coin is sold for a stratospheric sum at auction, likely to an anonymous telephone bidder, thus adding even more mystique to an already niche collectors’ market. With coin collecting’s rise in popularity, unfortunately comes the need to verify prospective new acquisitions. Science has provided numerous answers to cautious investors: metal analysis as well as tests to see if a coin was properly cast or simply struck with a counterfeiter’s sledgehammer. There are people who actually collect forgeries, reveling in the craftsmanship used to fool the authorities. Regardless of one’s particular interest, coin production and circulation offers a fascinating history that entertains for hours.
Clain-Stefanelli, E. and V., “The Beauty and Lore of Coins”, R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co., 1974.
Cooper, D., “Coins and Minting”, Shire Publications Ltd., Buckinghamshire, England, 1996.
Holdsworth, B., “Coiners Chronicle”, Peacock Books, West Yorkshire, 1984.
Linecar, H., “The Observer’s Book of Coins”, Frederick Warne (Publishers) Ltd., Great Britain, 1977.