*This article is the first in a three-part series on counterfeiting.
The act of counterfeiting is as old as money itself. Plaguing ancient Rome, empirical China, newborn America, and many other nations over the past 2500 years, the illegal activity came hand in hand with the creation of money.
Even prior to the invention of coin and paper currency, counterfeiting was a popular form of trickery. In Prehispanic Mexico, for example, Cacao traders would extract the contents of the bean and substitute the valuable innards of the plant with soil.
In the ancient world, of course, currency was invented hundreds of years before these Mexican ruses. Real currency made its debut in the form of coins around 700 B.C. and counterfeiting soon followed. Coins had not yet been marked or etched with images or slogans, so reproducing coins out of less valuable metal was easy.
The problem became so severe in places like ancient Rome, that “it was considered treasonous and punishable by death if the perpetrator was caught. This was because many believed that anyone who disturbed the market with fake money was putting the nation’s economy and its general stability and strength in serious jeopardy.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the Chinese upon the invention of paper money, which appeared on the global currency scene during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century. In order to prevent counterfeiting, “the Emperor ordered that the following be printed on all banknotes: ‘Counterfeiting shall be punished by death. Informers shall receive 250 taels of silver and the criminal’s property.’”
Throughout history, however, counterfeiting has not only come at the hands of criminals. The British government “produced large quantities of bogus assignats to undermine revolutionary France,” and helped the process of devaluating “Confederate paper money by printing it themselves and sending it to the South” in pre-revolution America to the point where Confederate banknotes were almost worthless.
By the end of the eighteenth century, counterfeiting was flourishing. During the Civil War, “one-third to one-half of the currency in circulation was counterfeit.”
Coin counterfeiting had become so advanced in the United States that “when the first federal coins were issued by the US government in the 1780s, they had the dies cut by an ex-counterfeiter in order to deter the practice.”
Paper money in the US was also being easily counterfeited because of merchants’ inexperience with the currency. One historian explains: “Rural colonists were not very familiar with paper money because their daily lives did not revolve around commercial transactions; furthermore, they had a deep prejudice against it because they did not regard it as ‘real’ money. Because merchants lacked familiarity with authentic paper money, they could be fooled by some surprisingly amateurish counterfeits.”
Though anti-counterfeiting measures were being developed throughout the world by the nineteenth century – particularly in America – counterfeiting continued.
One of the most professional cases of counterfeiting was carried out by the Germans in World War II who “had control of expert counterfeiters imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and even manufactured very convincing paper, which can be more difficult to forge than a banknote’s appearance.”
The counterfeits produced by the Germans in the first half of the twentieth century were so good in fact that when The Bank of England managed to obtain some falsified British pounds, they said “the only way in which [the fake banknotes] differed from the real thing was that the real thing wasn’t as good.”
Today, thanks to modern advances in scanning and printing technology, counterfeiting paper banknotes is perhaps easier than ever. Because of this, security features are becoming an – if not the most – important part of banknote design.
In Part 2 of Counterfeiting: A Three-Part Series, we will take a look at the history of security features and identify how different security features have evolved over time to prevent counterfeiting.
“History of Counterfeit Money”
“A Short History of Money”
“History of Counterfeiting”
“History of Counterfeiting”
“The History of Counterfeit in Russia”
“The Golden Age of Counterfeiting”
“History of Counterfeiting in Mexico”