BULL STREET - The art of the Con

A Brief History of Plagiarism

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Minting Coins

Quickly on the heels of art collection as a hobby came the profitable business of cleverly counterfeiting and selling knockoffs. The first world-class collector was King Attalus I of Pergamum, who lived a couple of hundred years before Christ, and founded the first museum/library of art based on his own extensive holdings. The library was particularly fabled for its time, and when Mark Anthony and his Roman Legions came across it, he gave it as a present to his girl friend, Cleopatra. History says that Attalus was a warrior king and as such, pillaged mightily and then hauled the loot home. He loved beautiful trinkets, but the stuff soon outgrew his apartment and even the garage. When the neighbors began to complain in spite of the pieces’ individual magnificence, he built the library.

When Attalus attempted to conquer a country that had a particular piece that would fit into his collection and was rebuffed, he would offer to purchase the artwork instead of invading the country. This kept the collection pristine, because paintings and sculptures tended to get marred in the heat of battle. Attalus hated scratches on his treasures, and brought artisans in from all over the world to help his people restore works that became nicked and scratched because of faulty transportation or misguided swords and arrows. Amazingly, Attalus’ son followed him in the pursuit of collecting the finer things in life, but it was Attalus II, his grandson, who compiled a directory of all of the better art dealers in the kingdom and beyond, listing the particular expertise and credit preferences of each.

Attalus’ aesthetic heir was Gaius Vernus, Governor of Sicily, who pillaged to his heart’s content. He had gotten into the habit when he started collecting the art of the Aegean Islands in 80 B. C. at sword point. By the time the authorities, offended by his greed, removed him as Governor, collecting had become all the rage among the higher classes.

Forgery goes hand in hand with collecting, and particularly in the case of early coins, it was profitable from the get-go. As people became wealthier and as collecting became more of a rage as time went on, highly skilled forgers made an excellent living in any number of facets of the trade. Forgery on a large scale probably got its start in approximately 670 BC when counterfeiters started making copies of the coins minted by King Gyges of Lydia. Despite coin forgery’s apparent complexity, forgers only made castings from molds of the original coins. Moreover, substantial addition profits were garnered by coloring the coins either gold or silver so that they could be passed off as inherently valuable. This was a particularly timely ploy, because in 670 BC currency was as recent an innovation as was forgery. However, the gold or silver tint tended to wear off after several transfers, and therefore forgery was from its inception an itinerant profession.

Interestingly, copies were made of coins to fill gaps in personal holdings. The first person known to indulge himself in this manner was Jean Duc De Berry, who in the late 1300s and early 1400s commissioned some of the finest silversmiths in France to replicate some of his missing ancient French and Dutch coins, thus completing the collection to the envy of his competitors.


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