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The History of Counterfeiting

January 13, 2014

The concept of counterfeiting can be traced to ancient times, and it evolved together with the history of mankind. Counterfeiting actually appeared the very moment people started manufacturing and trading goods, developing, extending its territory and improving its techniques. The more the manufactured products evolved and the more complex they became, the more sophisticated the counterfeiters had to become.

A step behind, the war against forging started centuries afterwards, when the impact of counterfeiting upon economy became obvious. If in antiquity the best way of stopping forgers from copying a product was keeping it hidden, nowadays we have laws that protect trademark, patents and intellectual property. However, this hasn’t succeeded to put a stop to the counterfeiting activities and the whole industry surrounding them.

Counterfeiting in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece

Counterfeiting money was a wide spread phenomenon in the early days of the Roman Empire, as well as in Ancient Greece. In Diocletian’s time, for instance, the high inflation rate resulted in drastic coinage changes that consisted in reducing the amount of precious metal the coins contained. Initially made entirely of silver, the denarius had only 1% silver in its composition.

Studies have shown that the first cases of forging currency appeared in Ancient Greece, and they happened almost at the same time with the minting of the first coins in the Greek province of Lydia. The reputed fourrée was born in Ancient Greece as a a form of forging the Greek drachma by replacing the silver coin with a plated one.

Paradoxically, the practice of counterfeiting had positive consequences for the Roman economy. As the state had no rules regarding this matter, and no pricey metals were necessary to manufacture fake coins, counterfeiters flourished. A high amount of counterfeited coins looking very similar to the real ones entered the circulation, thus helping the economy recover.

But coins were not the only goods that made the subject of counterfeiting. Wine was an important product within Roman culture and the Greek wine was a lot more appreciated, therefore more expensive than the locally produces one. Although common practices required bottles of wine to have quality guaranteeing stamps on their corks, counterfeiters found a way to reproduce them.

Counterfeiting in the Middle Ages

The counterfeiting phenomenon was a true impediment that manufacturers and traders had to deal with in medieval times as there was no legal frame for what we know nowadays as patents, trademarks and intellectual property. This kind of laws first appeared in the 14th century in Italy, and spread to other European countries during the following two centuries. The most frequently counterfeited products in the Middle Ages were textiles, household objects and tools, and weapons.

The art of forging was at such a high level during this historical period that consumers feared purchasing durable goods, preferring the cheaper ones. For instance, recent research studies have shown that most of the pottery manufactured in Europe in medieval times was counterfeited.

Counterfeiting in America’s Early Days

The New World was affected by this bane from the times of the first English settlements, even before the first American currency was minted. The coins used by some of the Native American tribes consisted of dark colored shells called wampum. Forgers had the idea of dyeing ordinary white shells, pebbles and other objects in order to make them look like the ones used as currency.

Favored by the wide range of circulating coins on the American territory, counterfeiting became a wide spread phenomena in the 18th century. Forging currency became even easier with banknotes, and the American government had to fight on two fronts: on one hand, finding solutions that would make counterfeiting more difficult, on the other hand, trying to persuade people that they can trust paper money.

The whole war against counterfeiting became more serious when the legal frame was created in the 19th century and a special institution – the US Secret Service – was founded on July 5th 1865 to this effect.

Historical proofs speak mainly about money counterfeiting, but the forging phenomenon referred also to consumers’ goods. The more technology evolved and the products became more sophisticated, the same thing happened with forging techniques. The evolution is more evident when talking about currency. The stakes being high, more and more efforts were invested into making the coins and banknotes harder to forge and easier to spot when counterfeited.

Another area in which counterfeiters thrive and manufacturers struggle to make their products more difficultly forged is that of luxury goods. Expensive watches, for instance, come with special traits and features that cannot really be copied. The same goes for designers’ clothes and jewelry, electronic devices and shoes. However, these features or their absence, remain, for their greater part, unnoticeable to the consumer’s eye.