Monday, November 7, 2016


Counterfeit Caesars: The Criminal Genius of Coin Forger Carl Wilhelm Becker (1772–1830)

WHEN: on display through February 6, 2017
Zimmerli Art Museum in the Class of 1937 Study Gallery (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ—a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.

The Zimmerli Art Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and select first Tuesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays, as well as the month of August.

The United States Department of Treasury estimates that about $70 million dollars in counterfeit currency is currently in circulation. Counterfeit money is a tremendous problem in modern economies, but it is not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination.

This month, Rutgers University Libraries, the Zimmerli Art Museum, and the Rutgers University–New Brunswick Department of Classics are teaming up on a display of counterfeit coins from the Ernst Badian Collection of Roman Republican Coins.  While the gallery is dedicated to showcasing works that supplement Rutgers academic courses, it is open to all visitors. Currently, the Study Gallery also includes a display of American prints and an ACT UP Art Box.

The exhibit presents 13 counterfeits of silver denarii of the Roman imperial period. The coins, selected by classics professor Corey Brennan, represent issues of emperors and empresses from the reigns of Caligula (37–41 C.E.) through Caracalla (211–217 C.E.). The style of these counterfeits is stunningly close to their authentic prototypes and all seem to be hand struck—as opposed to stamped on a press or created via electrotyping.

So, how do we know they are counterfeit?

With high quality forgeries like this, coin collectors and historians rely on both metrology and historical research. The first clue that these coins are counterfeit is that they are about 25% heavier than their models. This is likely because they are made of less expensive metals--silver alloys or plating over a base metal core.

Also, while some of these pieces may be contemporary Roman forgeries, in at least three instances we can pinpoint their source. Three of the coins in this collection were created by the most notorious coin forger in history: Carl Wilhelm Becker (1774-1830). Becker was a German engraver, an acquaintance of Goethe, and a trusted familiar of many European nobles.

His side career as a forger was revealed after his death when he left forger’s dies for 360 Greek, Roman, and medieval coins. His superior die cutting skills, ancient striking techniques, and artificial distressing techniques have made “Beckers” practically impossible to discern as fakes. It is entirely possible that more—perhaps much more—of his output has gone unrecognized, making him the continued bane of collectors and museums.


Since 2001, the Special Collections and Archives department of the Rutgers University Libraries has been the home to a significant Roman numismatic collection, the Ernst Badian Collection of Roman Republican Coins. This collection was created by the late professor Ernst Badian of Harvard University (d. 2011), who donated it to Rutgers. The collection is composed at this time of more than 1200 coins, documenting the emergence of coinage and a money economy in Rome and developments down through the late Republic (280 to 31 B.C.E.).


Rutgers University Libraries support and enrich the instructional, research, and public service missions of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey through the stewardship of scholarly information and the delivery of information services. With more than five million volumes and thousands of digital resources located in 26 libraries, centers, and reading rooms in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, Rutgers University Libraries rank among the nation’s top research libraries.


The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.