Another forger in north Hampshire?

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by Chris Rudd

On 5 August 2012 a late iron age coin punch was discovered by a metal detectorist near Andover, north Hampshire, not far from the tribal borders of the Belgae (‘the swollen’) and the Atrebates (‘the settlers’) who lived in this land two thousand years ago.

Forger’s(?) bronze matrix punch, 15x16mm, 23.25g, for Lyre-type silver unit (cf. ABC 647, 650), c.55-40 BC. The only British punch with a positive image (if it were a normal die, the head would be incuse and face left). Found near Andover, N Hants, 5.8.2012. Photo: Chris Rudd.

No bigger than a small thimble and cylindrical in shape, the punch is made of bronze and can be dated to the mid first century BC. It carries the image of a stylised Apollo head with crescentic locks of hair and a diadem. Similar heads can be seen on two early silver coins of the Regini (‘the tall ones’ or ‘proud people’) who occupied West Sussex.

Sussex Lyre silver unit, 13mm, 1.29g, ABC 647. One of the first silver coins made in Britain, c.55-40 BC. Engraved by Gaulish die cutter? Ex Arundel hoard, W Sussex, 1994. Photo: Chris Rudd.

Copied from Apollo-and-lyre coins of central Gaul, these two silver coins are known as the Sussex Lyre (ABC 647) …

Chichester Lyre silver unit, 15mm,1.30g, ABC 650. Locally engraved version of Sussex Lyre, c.55-40 BC. Both prototypes for the Andover punch. Found at Tangmere, near Chichester, W Sussex, 1996. Photo: Chris Rudd.

… and the Chichester Lyre (ABC 650). Both types are closely related, the second being a crude imitation of the first. Both were probably struck near Chichester sometime around 55-40 BC.

However, no coins have been directly struck from the Andover punch because its image, like the image of a coin, stands out in relief – a positive image, not negative like a regular coin die. So, if the Andover punch isn’t a coin die, what is it and how was it used? I asked Dr John Sills, co-author of Ancient British Coins (ABC), who knows more about iron age coins and how they were made than I do. He says:

“The impression on the punch is that of a Chichester Lyre unit, ABC 650, although the nose/mouth area is closer to the Sussex Lyre type, ABC 647. The overall shape of the face and especially the form and layout of the hair curls are almost identical to the Chichester Lyre silver, and on ABC 650 itself part of a beaded border can be seen behind the hair, as on the punch, in contrast to the Sussex Lyre units which have no border. The Chichester Lyre copies the Sussex Lyre issue and it is reasonable to see the punch as representing a Chichester Lyre bust from early in the series, perhaps the very start, which would explain the relatively well engraved nose and mouth.
The precise function of the object is uncertain and there are several possibilities. It may be a trial or apprentice piece, made by a British die cutter who had been or was being trained by a Gaulish engraver. This would agree with the fine style Selsey type having been engraved by a Belgic die cutter, who then trained a native British replacement who went on to produce the dies for the noticeably crude Chichester Lyre silver, and is also consistent with the typologically early bust. Another option is that it is a punch used for hubbing obverse dies before they were touched up by hand. The great difficulty with this is that the bust is badly off-centre; a punch to make genuine dies ought to be well-centred, as is the Pegasus punch from Manching. Using this piece as a punch would create a rim immediately in front of the face on the die, which would have to be ground down before the motifs in front of the face and the rest of the beaded border were added.
This is unlikely in the context of an official mint and opens up the possibility that it is a punch made from a cast impression of a genuine coin, or struck from a genuine die, which was then used to make a die or dies for producing plated forgeries. This would explain why it is off-centre: if it was cast the genuine coin used to create the mould may well have been off-centre and if struck it would have been a simple error in positioning the die.
It is important to note that the small crack on the barrel of the piece and the slight widening at the base can not only be used as evidence that it was used to strike impressions, but may equally indicate that the impression (though not the drum itself) was struck rather than cast. If the latter is the case an old die may have been ground down at both ends to receive an impression, from which it follows that the signs of stress on the shaft may be, at least in part, the result of this earlier use. The faint hint of a filed projection, possibly a spike used to anchor a die in to a wooden anvil base, is visible on the base, although it is just as likely to be a casting flaw.
Until a genuine or plated coin with the precise bust of the Andover object appears it is difficult to narrow down the above options and the possibility that an apprentice piece is attractive; on balance, however, I would slightly favour its being a punch used to create forgers’ dies.”

John Sills could well be right in proposing that the Andover punch may be a trial or apprentice piece or used for hubbing obverse dies. I’m more inclined to fancy that it may represent a botched attempt at forgery, perhaps discarded because it didn’t work. I favour this interpretation for five reasons:

1. The punch was found outside the heartland of the Regini, some forty miles from where both the Sussex Lyre and Chichester Lyre coins (its prototypes) are thought to have been minted. If it were an ‘official’ master punch of a ruler in West Sussex, I’d expect it to have been discovered within ten miles of Chichester, unless of course it had been stolen.

N Hants borderland between Atrebates, Belgae and Regini seems to have been a focus for coin copying and counterfeiting c.150-40 BC, until Commios took control of minting in this region. Source: Chris Rudd.

2. This part of north Hampshire – a no man’s land between two tribes? a safe haven for rogue moneyers? – appears to have ‘previous form’ for forgery, or at least for imitating Gallo-Belgic coins (see below).
3. The image looks too off-centre to me to be convincing as an ‘official’ master punch, though I take John’s point that it might be experimental.
4. The Sussex Lyre type – one of the first silver coins struck in Britain – is almost pure silver (up to 95 per cent, with a trace of gold), which must have made it worth forging in a baser alloy or with a bronze core.
5. An easy way to forge a coin was to make cast copies of it in clay moulds. The technique was well known in southeast Britain and the Andover punch may have been designed to make multiple impressions in clay at high speed and comparatively low cost. Isn’t this the simplest and most obvious explanation for its positive image?

The Andover punch is by no means the only evidence of irregular coining, copying or counterfeiting to come from north Hampshire.

Forger’s bronze die,15x18mm, 33.96g, for obverse of Gallo-Belgic Biface gold stater, c.early 1st century BC (cf. ABC 13), like this small, eroded, gold-plated forgery from nearby field. Found at Rotherwick, near Basingstoke, N Hants, c.8.8.1993. Photos: Jeffrey May (coin), British Museum (die).

On about 8 August 1993 metal detectorist David Walsh discovered a worn obverse die for a Gallo-Belgic Biface gold stater (ABC 13) at Rotherwick, east of Basingstoke, and in a nearby field he found a gold-plated Biface stater, which suggests that it may have been made locally.

Forger’s bronze die, 23x18mm, 46.80g, for reverse of Gallo-Belgic Crossed Lines quarter stater, c.mid to late 2nd century BC (cf. ABC 37), like this gold-plated forgery from France. Found near Alton, N Hants., 22.4.2003. Photos: Trevor Evans, Hampshire County Council Museums Service (die), Chris Rudd (coin).

Ten years later, on 22 April 2003, a forger’s die for striking Gallo-Belgic Crossed Lines quarter staters (ABC 37) was found by metal detectorist Christopher Stephens on his parents’ farm near Alton. That’s not all.

A gold-plated forgery (4.63g) of a Gallo-Belgic Broad Flan stater, c.175-100 BC, Sills Ab1 class 4b, like this genuine gold one (7.39g) from Leighton Buzzard, Beds., 1849. Found near Andover, N Hants, 27.2.2011. Were both made in Britain? Source: F W Fairholt for John Evans, 1864.

On 27 February 2011 a gold-plated forgery of a Gallo-Belgic Broad Flan stater (ABC 4) was found by another metal detectorist near Andover; no other plated examples of this variety (Sills Ab1, class 4b) have been recorded – not from Britain, not from the continent – so there’s a fair chance that it is a British forgery, perhaps made in north Hampshire. In the light of these finds, particularly the Alton die, the Rotherwick die and the Andover punch, and the fact that they were all found within twenty miles of each other, I’d suggest that north Hampshire was a focus of coin-copying or counterfeiting in southern Britain – a forger’s paradise perhaps? – possibly from the mid second century BC to the mid first century BC, until king Commios and his heirs brought most southern minting, from the Solent to the Thames, under their strict regal control.

Iron age coin dies are rare. Iron age coin punches with a positive image are exceedingly rare. Apart from the Andover punch – the sole insular specimen – I know of only two or three others: one from the Bavarian oppidum of Manching (cited above by John Sills) …

Bulgarian bronze matrix punch, 32x22mm, for producing obverse dies or casting moulds for imitation Sattelkopfpferd silver tetradrachms (cf. Göbl OTA 300), c.late 2nd/early 1st century BC. Like the Andover punch, its image is positive. Found in Russe, NE Bulgaria. Photo: D Draganov, 2007.

… one from Russe in northeast Bulgaria and possibly a third from Corent, near Clermont-Ferrand in central France. The Russe punch is thought to have been used as a ‘matrix’ or ‘mother coin’ in the production of (probably clay) casting moulds.

The great rarity of the Andover punch, its unusual form, its reliable provenance – we know precisely where and when it was unearthed – and the fact that it was found in the same ‘forgery infested’ area as the Rotherwick and Alton dies all combine to make its discovery an event of conspicuous numismatic significance.

Was the Andover punch used to cast coins in clay moulds, like Britain’s first coins? Or to make obverse dies for striking coins? Until coins carrying its exact image are found, we won’t know. Source: Chris Rudd.

The Andover punch provides valuable new insights into the minting technology of some of Britain’s earliest irregular or counterfeit coinage. It deserves to be displayed in a public museum, accessible to future students, rather than concealed in a private collection as the Russe punch is. So I’m pleased to report that the British Museum and Hampshire County Council Museums Service have both expressed an interest in acquiring it. “An important find”, says Dr Ian Leins, Curator of Iron Age and Roman Coins at the British Museum. “An exciting find,” says Robert Webley, former Hampshire Finds Liaison Officer.

What is the commercial value of the Andover punch? That’s hard to say because there are no direct precedents to guide us, at least not from Britain.

Forger’s iron die, 33x20mm, 77.46g, for reverse of Mark Antony silver legionary denarius, after 31 BC (cf. RRC 544/19, CRI 356). Gemini Numismatic Auctions X, New York, 13.1.2013, $4,500. Photo: Gemini Numismatic Auctions.

On 13 January this year two ancient forger’s dies of Mark Antony’s legionary denarii were auctioned in New York for $4,250 and $4,500. But this is comparing apples with pears because the market for Roman coins and Roman dies is much wider, and therefore stronger, than the market for iron age coins and dies. On the other hand, one might argue that ancient British coin dies and punches are considerably scarcer than their Roman equivalents and thus proportionately more precious. But of course the real world of coin trading doesn’t work like that and the prices of great rarities can never be predicted with precision. It takes only two rich bidders to compete aggressively to break all previous records for an ancient coin. I thank the finder of the Andover punch and the landowner for letting me and my colleagues examine it. I thank John Sills and Ian Leins for their help.

For more information on Chris Rudd and his auctions, please visit his website.

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