Counterfeit Coins

Rhianydd Biebrach

The last execution for forgery took place in 1830 and Victorian forgers were punished by transportation, imprisonment and hard labour. The punishment for counterfeiting today is several years’ imprisonment.

Have you ever been guilty of passing fake coins?
A forged Charles I half-crown. The corroded base metal core can clearly be seen through the thin silver plating.

A forged Charles I half-crown. The corroded base metal core can clearly be seen through the thin silver plating.

Your answer will hopefully be, “no, of course not!”, but would you be able to spot one if you saw one?

According to the Royal Mint, just over 2.5% of the £1 coins circulating in 2015 were counterfeit, so how many of us have unwittingly broken the law by handling fake money? But far from being a modern problem, you may be surprised to learn that counterfeit coins have been causing headaches for the authorities for thousands of years – for as long as we have been using money, in fact.

Occasionally, metal detectorists who unearth coins and report them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru), are told that what they have found is not what it seems to be – it is in fact a fake. In 2015, out of 679 coins reported, seven were judged by experts at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to be contemporary counterfeits. Many more were described as ‘irregular’ and therefore also produced under suspicious circumstances.

One of the fakes was a Charles I half crown, discovered by Mr Nick Mensikov at Miskin, Rhondda Cynon Taf. A half crown is a silver coin, but Mr Mensikov’s example gave itself away as a fake because corrosion revealed it to have only a thin coating of silver over a copper alloy core. In ‘mint’ condition it would have looked sound enough to the untrained eye, but its real value would have been well below the two shillings and sixpence (or one-eighth of a pound) that the half crown represented.

Twelve fake coins from the reign of Charles I found in Wales have been reported to PAS Cymru since 2009, far outweighing those of any other monarch, but the great majority are much older than this and date from the period of Roman occupation, from the first to the early fifth century AD.

One of these Charles I half-crowns is also a fake. Can you tell which one?

One of these Charles I half-crowns is also a fake. Can you tell which one?

Who made counterfeits, and why?

Counterfeit coins were made for several reasons in the past. Sometimes, when supplies of the smaller denomination coins were inadequate, unofficial production took place to make up the shortfall. In Roman Britain this happened to such an extent that at some periods there may have been as many fake coins in circulation as real ones. After Claudius’s invasion in AD 43 the Roman army itself may have been responsible for much of this ‘irregular’ coinage, which was sometimes tolerated by governments as being something of a necessary evil.

In other cases, people forged coins purely and simply for monetary gain. Of course, this was not an easy process. It required access to supplies of metals, a furnace or crucible, and various other bits and pieces of equipment, including dies or moulds on which had been engraved a passable copy of the coin to be reproduced. This meant that forgery operations generally involved more than one person, as well as some initial financial outlay, and so they were not the last resort of a poor man or woman with no other way of getting cash.

Some ‘coiners’, as forgers were sometimes called, were already wealthy individuals. In 1603 a coining operation was uncovered at Duncannon Fort in Ireland. Moulds, pieces of brass, crucibles, as well as chemicals and charcoal, were discovered in the desk of the fort’s commander, Sir John Brockett. Sir John had been producing counterfeit English and Spanish coins, for which he was put on trial for treason.

Some forgeries were never intended for use as cash, however. As early as the sixteenth century antiquaries and collectors began to be interested in old coins, and consequently some unscrupulous individuals went into business supplying fakes to tempt the unsuspecting or naïve. In early Victorian London, one Edward Emery was responsible for passing a possible 5-700 fake medieval and Tudor coins onto the collectors’ market. Roman coins were also highly collectable, and a modern era replica of one was found by a Mr Rogers in Usk in 2007. Made of a white base metal alloy designed to look like silver, was it thrown away in disgust by its owner when he realised what he had bought?

How were counterfeit coins made?

There were two main methods of producing fake coins – striking them from stolen or forged dies, or casting them in moulds. A coining operation in Ireland in 1601 used metal and chalk dies to strike the coins, which were made of an alloy which included enough tin to create the necessary silver colour, although the coins, of course, contained no precious metal. This was obviously a noisy activity and so coining dens were often located either in busy areas such as town centres where the noise and activity would be masked by the hustle and bustle of the streets, or in out-of-the-way places where people were unlikely to go. The latter option was chosen by the Roman forgers at work in the lead mine at Draethen, near Caerphilly. Discovered here were coins, the ‘flans’, or blanks, from which the false coins were struck, as well as the metal rods from which the flans were cut. These items were found around a hearth, and we can only guess at the hot, unpleasant and dangerous atmosphere that this subterranean forging operation would have created.

Casting was a different process, but it still required access to a powerful heat source as molten metal was required. An impression of both sides of a genuine coin was made in clay, wax or ashes. The hardened moulds were then fixed together and filled with molten metal alloy. Some cast coins are given away by the tell-tale remains of the channel through which the metal was poured and which wasn’t properly broken off or filed down. There has been plenty of evidence for this forging method from Roman London, consisting of both the cast coins themselves (often in a silvery-looking alloy of bronze and tin) as well as hundreds of moulds.

The appearance of precious metal necessary to pass off a fake coin was not only achieved by cunning uses of alloys (some of which included arsenic for a whitening effect!). Some coins – like the Charles I half-crown mentioned earlier – were made from base metals which were then plated with a thin coating of silver or gold to achieve the desired effect. Medieval forgeries often used a technique called fire gilding. A base metal blank was rubbed with a mixture of gold and mercury which was then heated. The mercury was evaporated and the gold was bonded to the surface. The coin could then be struck between the dies.

This process obviously required some technical skill, and there is evidence that forgers were experimenting with methods that would later be used for more legitimate purposes. A counterfeit coin of William III (1689–1702) was found to have been made by an early example of the Sheffield plating technique. A copper plate was rolled or hammered between two thin sheets of silver from which blank coins were then cut out. The edges were covered with a copper and silver alloy and the blanks were then struck with official dies smuggled out of the London mint.

The gold and silver necessary for the plating were sourced by clipping real coins (an offence in itself) as well as melting down pieces of plate or other coins.


The severity of the punishments for counterfeiting have reflected both the seriousness of the crime but also the difficulty of detecting those responsible. Like many penalties of the pre-modern era, they were physical in nature. In ancient Rome it was a capital offence, equated with treason, and could be punished by banishment or slavery if you were lucky, or crucifixion if you weren’t. In the early 4th century, Emperor Constantine – who is more famous for making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire – introduced burning for forgers.

In 10th-century England, under King Athelstan (927–939), the forger would lose a hand, but one of his Norman successors, Henry I (1100–1135), went one better. Suspecting his official mint workers of producing irregular coinage on the side and unhappy with the standard of the regular issues, he summoned them to a Christmas gathering at Winchester where he took the right hand and both testicles from each of them.

Under Edward I and later kings, death by hanging was the usual punishment for men, with burning and strangulation reserved for women. Three unfortunate 16th century Edinburgh women suffered this appalling punishment, while in 1560 Robert Jacke, a Dundee merchant, was hanged and quartered merely for importing forgeries. Nineteen executions for counterfeiting took place in 1697 when Sir Isaac Newton was Warden of the Royal Mint.

Comments (12)

Alastair Willis Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
20 August 2021, 15:17

Hi Daniel,
Thanks for getting in touch. I'd be interested to see photos of the coin. Is it a coin you have found or one your have bought? I've sent you a direct email too so you can reply to that with the photos.
Best wishes,
Alastair Willis
Senior Curator: Numismatics and the Welsh Economy

Daniel Price
12 August 2021, 07:53
Good morning I hope you're well well I come across your website and I'm very interested in a coin that I have have is a shilling from Charles the First although it weighs an extra 2 grams compared to the normal shilling one-sided still has the the image the other is very very poor! I wonder if you have the time I'm please would you be able to send an email just so I can show you the photo and hopefully you'll find out a little more. I'm sincerely grateful for your time and I hope to hear from you when you are free, take care and have a lovely day kindest regards Daniel price.
Alastair Willis, Senior Curator: Numismatics and the Welsh Economy Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
26 January 2021, 15:18
Hi Scott,

Thanks for your enquiry. Contemporary forgeries are very interesting. A fair amount of academic work has been done on counterfeit coins but it’s not always easy to find the articles. I suggest looking at the British Numismatic Journal. All volumes up to 2016 are available for free online. On the page I’ve linked to, it mentions the separate index, which you can use to find a list of relevant articles. Alternatively, there are articles available on There are a few less academic articles on the internet, but I haven’t got a huge amount of experience using them so I can’t recommend any in particular.

Also have a look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database and search for contemporary copy or copies.

I hope that helps.

Best wishes,

22 January 2021, 01:46
Great piece on forgeries, is there any other online sources on this subject ? I’ve collected UK coins for over 40 years, and over the last 2-3 years started to collect contemporary forgeries. I find them very interesting.

Alastair Willis Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
27 November 2019, 10:50

Hi Steven,
Thanks for your comment. We have recently had two new Finds Officers start here at the National Museum Wales, so there should be improved Portable Antiquities Scheme coverage of South Wales once they have had time to get to grips with their new roles.
It would be useful to see the coin in the flesh to determine whether it is a counterfeit. It would also be useful to record the other coins that you have found. I have emailed you separately so that we can arrange an appointment.
Best wishes,
Alastair Willis
Senior Curator: Numismatics and the Welsh Economy

Rhianydd Biebrach Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
27 November 2019, 09:17

Hi Steven,

Thanks for your email. If you let me know where you live I will be able to point you in the direction of your nearest FLO.

All the best,

Saving Treasures Project Officer.

23 November 2019, 08:08

I have read this piece with interest as I recently found what I believe to be a forged Charles I Sixpence whilst metal detecting. It's silver in colour but has no patina and just doesn't look or feel correct in comparison to other coins that I've found. I would love to find out more about it but my area currently has no Finds Liaison Officer, are you able to recommended someone or somewhere I can take it?
Alastair Willis Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
10 June 2019, 13:34

Hello Reg,
Thank you for your comment. Without seeing the coin, I can't confirm if your coin is a counterfeit. However, 1841 halfcrowns were minted with the reverse (tails) upside down compared to the obverse (heads). Numismatists describe such coins as having a die axis of 6 o'clock. Modern UK coins have a die axis of 12, but US coins have a die axis of 6. One source I have found says that 42,700 halfcrowns were minted in 1841, relatively few compared to the years before and after (386,400 in 1840 and 486,200 in 1842).
Alastair Willis
Senior Curator of Numismatics and the Welsh Economy

reg casbeard
26 May 2019, 15:04
I have been given a 1841 half crown as a present the shield is upside down this must be a counterfeit coin, it is in at least vf condition were there many of these coins produced?
Pat Larkin
23 October 2018, 21:40
Found a Roman coin back in the late 1950s. Sent it to British Museum. They confirmed it was a fake, but of the Roman era. Found near Windsor in Berkshire in back garden. Serious Severax.
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