Review – Faking It!
By James Powell and Jill Moxley
General Store Publishing House, Renfrew (Ontario)
Preface Note: Only days after returning from the October Toronto Coin Expo (and Mike Marshall’s symposium on counterfeit Canadian coinage), I was surprised when approached by the authors of this locally-published book and asked to prepare a review. Having had no prior knowledge of its preparation or impending release, I would have anticipated some timely content on the current scourge of Chinese-produced numismatic counterfeits (some would argue this is a Chinese rather than Canadian issue, and thus outside the scope of this work, however to dealers and collectors, this is the pre-eminent faking issue of our day). This was not the case, and my only point of criticism is that virtually the only group or organization with expertise in this field not seemingly consulted in the authors’ research was the front-line dealers who have to deal with this material. A single additional chapter would have closed this out very nicely.
The late great comedian W.C. Fields once quipped, “Anything worth having is a thing worth cheating for”. While few of us would endorse such dubious ethics, to the counterfeiter and forger, this could very likely be adopted as a mantra for their view on the world. Such is the prevailing theme in Faking It!, the newly-published and quite excellent book by James Powell and Jill Moxley, which aims to present a comprehensive survey of the history, nature, and ramifications of counterfeiting in Canada.
Although clearly focusing on our own domestic context, the book begins with a chronological look at the scourge of counterfeiting, referred to as “the world’s second-oldest profession”, throughout the ages in a more global context. From the first early mulberry bark banknotes of China’s 14th century Ming Dynasty – with their explicit anti-counterfeit warning promising beheading as the punishment for illicit reproduction – to the debased (or “watered-down”) Silver coinage of Henry VIII, the book details not only the processes and motivations of the counterfeiter/forger, but also the characters involved as presented in numerous interesting vignettes throughout its pages.
While these motivations may at first seem obvious – the attempt to enrich oneself through the cheating of others – Faking It! shares with us alternative agendas that may not normally come to mind. From the British Government’s counterfeiting of French revolutionary banknotes in the 1790’s, to the legendary German forging campaign of British banknotes during the Second World War, Powell and Moxley illuminate the practise of state-sponsored counterfeiting as a tool for attempted destabilization of an opposing economy through the erosion of confidence in one’s only monetary system. This is a critical theme in the book, as the authors clearly detail how the practise of counterfeiting can and often does leave three potential victims in its wake. The first, he or she being duped through the acceptance of bogus currency, is obvious. The second, very often the innocent consumer who endures not only embarrassment and financial loss but in some cases actual arrest for even the simple act of possessing a counterfeit coin or note. And, finally, the currency system itself, which can be severely impacted by a lack of confidence brought about a scourge of bogus currency and the government’s perceived inability to guarantee the integrity of the circulating money supply. This in turn leads to increased costs of production and enforcement, as well as the resistance of both consumers and merchants to freely accept notes whose legitimacy may have been compromised.
This last theme runs through the core of the book, and effectively clarifies the true driving force of anti-counterfeiting strategy and enforcement policies. The profound efforts put into currency design and technology today are a result of this fundamental focus on integrity and confidence, and it is also interesting to read of the continuing efforts to align the priorities and policies of the various central banks with their national and regional policing authorities, who have not always shared a common vision on the overall importance of anti-counterfeiting enforcement activities. And as the authors illustrate, this complex relationship swings back and forth from extremes – with the Finance authorities often pressuring the Policing authorities to take a more aggressive stance on counterfeiting, to a delightful excerpt near the book’s end which details a recent attempt by the RCMP to lay charges against a national Canadian newspaper for printing an image of a new Fifty Dollar note issue – regardless of the fact that the note was pictured being held by the hand of an anonymous Bank of Canada officer!
In addition to neat, often local stories of many “baddies” from counterfeiting history, Faking It! also illuminates some of the heroes throughout history who have been tasked with thwarting the efforts of forgers. Who knew, for example, that as Warden of England’s Royal Mint, Sir Isaac Newton was personally responsible for the capture of the country’s most notorious counterfeiter of the time? Or, 165 years later, that the United States Secret Service was created not for the purpose of protecting the President, but rather with the exclusive mandate of protecting the integrity of the nation’s currency supply through anti-counterfeiting enforcement?
As a life-long collector and dealer of coins and banknotes, two things ultimately impress me the most about Faking It!. First and foremost, Powell and Moxley have managed to accomplish the challenging task of taking a subject that can unfortunately come across as fairly dry when presented from a purely academic approach, and turned it into a truly engaging read through the interweaving of factual data and historical vignettes and anecdotes. Secondly, the shear level of “insider” detail, both on the technological and policy side of the field, is simply unprecedented, right down to their very ability to reproduce many of the images and facts contained in the book. This clearly speaks to both the level of research conducted and the confidence earned on the part of the departments and institutions that so zealously protect this material. As in my case, this would undoubtedly raise the eyebrows of even the most veteran coin dealer. All in all an enjoyable and compelling read, and very likely the definitive accessible survey on the history of counterfeiting in Canada available to us today.
We picked this up as a Christmas gift for a family member, but reading this review reinforces the fact that I should read this book too.
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