Becker's career

(the follow is abridged from George F. Hill’s Becker the Counterfeiter, published in Great Britain, 1924. It is intended only to make collectors aware of the study. Hill’s monograph contains illustrations of some 360 examples of Becker’s work and should be examined closely.) Carl Wilhelm Becker was born at Speyer on 28 June 1772. His father, Councillor Johann Wilhelm Becker, owned a vineyard and wine-business, and held an honourable position in the city as Syndic.
His mother was Maria Magdalena Tremelius. As a youth, carl showed a taste for art rather than thewine trade, but his father would not hear of his studying to become a sculptor, as he wished, and senthim to a wine-merchant’s at Bordeaux. Here, according to his daughter’s statement, he already beganto make drawings of ancient coins and to cut dies. How long he stayed in Bordeaux we do not know.
But by May 1795, when he married Maria Catherina Tremelius of Mannheim, he was already in busi-ness as a wine-merchant at Frankfurt. From 1798 to 1802 or 1803 he seems to have been established inMannheim as a draper. This business failed in 1803; one can imagine that Becker’s heart was not in it.
He used in later days to praise the opportunities for a life of artistic culture in Mannheim under theElector Palatine Carl Theodor, and it is suggested that his talent first matured in these circumstances.
After his failure he seems to have lived partly at Speyer, partly at Mannheim, with a passing visit toMunich. It was here, at the Royal Mint that he obtained a training in the art of engraving steel dies; andit is to this period that we must attribute a pleasing story which tradition has preserved. According tothis, Becker’s incentive to making imitations of ancient coins was due to a trick which was played uponhim by a certain Baron von Sch***m of Munich. Becker acquired from the Baron a false gold coin ofthe Emperor Commodus. When he discovered its falsity and complained of the swindle, the Baroncoolly replied that it serve him right, for meddling with what he did not understand. Becker then set towork to obtain the necessary training, and eventually had the pleasure of making and passing off on theBaron a gold coin, no less rare than the one which the Baron had passed off on him.
Becker’s work was done entirely freehand; that is to say there was no mechanical copying, nor did he cast dies. Where he could not obtain an original to work from, he copied a cast in sulphur or plaster.
It is possible that some of his less successful copies were made from drawings or engravings. Thepreliminary labour of turning the die and other purely mechanical work he usually got some one else,such as Deibel of Vienna or Bertold at home, to do for him; and he would purchase alphabet-punches(for the inscriptions on medieval coins) ready-made from a maker such as Zeichner of Vienna. Hesometimes himself carved the smaller types or details in relief as punches. The material of the dies wassteel, embedded in soft iron. The metal for his coins was melted down for him by others (sometimesout of ancient coins); deibel did this for him in Vienna, Girard (and after Girard’s death his widow) inHomburg, an attempt by Madame Becker to help her husband in this matter having apparently failed inspite of the invocation of God’s blessing on her endeavour (14 Nov. 1829). The blanks were deliveredin the shape of ‘ Kügelchen’ ‘ boulettes’ or ‘globules’ for coins in high relief, like most of the Greeks,or ‘Platten’ for the flat ones. The blanks for one of the Napoleon medals were made by Rompel inOberursel to the measure of a wooden model which had been turned by Bertold. Better however forBecker’s purposes than freshly made blanks were ancient but not rare coins; and when he could getthem he was glad to use them. Hence we find such entries as (5 Mar. 1825): Fuchs ordered thefollowing Emperors and Empresses struck on old coins” and (I Jan. 1829) “Collin promised me bronze The use of ancient coins as blanks had several advantages. The metal was of the right colour; the coins was of the right weight, supposing that the dies represented the same class of coin as the blankbelonged to—although it is true that, metrology being in its infancy, Becker (in spite of what Steinbüchelsays to the contrary), did not take trouble to get his weights right. Above all, the edge, which is usuallythe most tell-tale part of forgery, looked antique. It has been asserted that he sometimes took genuinecoins and restruck them on one side only, supplying a rare type on that side instead of the banal onewhich was offered by the original. So far as I know, this was never done by him, at any rate not in hisGreek series. It is indeed an excessively difficult thing to do. The sledge-hammer blows required tobring up the relief can hardly fail to obliterate the other side of the coin. The only way to avoid thiswould be to make matrix, to restrike the other side with the newly prepared die. This was equivalent torestriking both sides. I suspect that the cases of supposed restriking of one side only can be explainedin this way, and that, if examined, they would be found to show minute variations from the original onthe side supposed to be left intact.
It has also been asserted that he restruck ancient plated coins, consisting of a core of copper plated with silver, so that to suppose that ‘subaerate’ coins are necessarily genuine is a delusion. I have notseen any specimens of such plated coins that have been under Becker’s dies.
The striking was done with a sledge-hammer, in the ancient manner, not with a press. Steinbüchel makes the statement that in order to counterfeit the appearance of double-striking which is caused bythe blank having shifted its position between successive blows, so that parts of the design show adouble contour, the ingenious Becker actually engraved some of his dies with such a double contour, sothat the impressions had the appearance of being double-struck. If so, his ingenuity verged on stupid-ity. Still, if the youthful Newton made a smallhole for the kitten to issue from as well as a largeone for the cat, Becker may have made a specialdie for ‘double-struck’ coins, when he could haveattained the same effect with much greater veri-similitude by shifting the blank slightly betweentwo blows. This certainly did occasionally, ei-ther on purpose or, more probably, by accident.
Thus the Athenian decadrachm, no. 63 on PlateIV, shows the double contour along forehead and Athens, decadrachm, Becker forgery nose and under the neck. But this is not visible on another impression, proving that the doublecontour is not in the die. The same is true of theCyzicene stater, no. 86 on Plate VI; the doublingof the contour of the shield is not visible on allspecimens. So far as my experience goes—andI can speak for the Greek counterfeits only—thereis no evidence in favour of Steinbüchel’s assertion.
The striking of coins with a sledge-hammer is a laborious process, and how Becker managedit without assistance it is difficult to understand. He reckoned in 1827 that it took him about eightweeks to strike and get out a complete set of his coins.
Becker’s total authenticated output comprised the dies for little under 340 different coins and medals. Doubtless he made some others for the attribution of which there is no direct evidence. Pinderobserves that it is a remarkable record, considering that, although some of his dies for medieval coinscould have been made in a day by a practised engraver, those for his Greek coins must often have taken him from eight to twelve weeks apiece. It is evenmore remarkable than Pinder supposes. The di-ary does not often state the exact time spent oncutting a die. But in July 1825 we have the fol-lowing extraordinary record: M(aximi) M(oduli) and worked at it 3 hours.
16 July. I worked 4 hours at my medallion Agrigentum, decadrachm, Becker forgery 17 July. I worked 7 hours at the M. M.
18 July. I worked 4 hours at the Medallion and finished the same before dinner.
That (if he has not omitted anything) is a total of eighteen hours only for a die. It was the obverse die of the decadrachm illustrated on our first Plate, no. 15. How much time he spent on the reverse,which he began to cut on 28 August, he does not say; it was not finished until 6 September 1826, thefirst specimen being struck next day; but he had been very busy with other things in the interval. Thecompletion in eighteen hours of such a die as the obverse of the Agrigentine decadrachm is almostincredible; but the figures are explicit. And Zindel seems to have worked no less fast.
Becker must sometimes have worked on his dies, making slight modifications, after he had struck off a certain number of pieces. Friedländer gives a very interesting example of a denarius of Tiberiusand Drusus Caesar on which Becker corrected a mistake which he had made in the tribunician year ofTiberius. The current lead impressions therefore represent the last stage only of his work; and theuncomfortable feeling is aroused that some pieces which differ in only very minute details from thoseimpressions may be, not genuine coins, but earlier states of his work.
As to his methods of taking the rawness off his newly finished products, the tradition is that he enclosed them with iron filings in a box attached to the axle of his carriage— “taking his old gentlemenfor a drive” he called it, according to the report of Collin, one of the Offenbach Jews who acted as hisagents. For once tradition is entirely confirmed by Becker’s own words. A constant entry in his diaryis in the form “sodann kutschirte ich meine Münzen—then I took my coins for a drive”. At Homburghis usual course for this process was to Bonames and back. Occasionally in estimating the cost of aconsignment he reckons in the cost of such a drive. When he was at Nurenberg on 11 April 1826, hebought an old Dutch tobacco-box of copper and brass which, he says, will make an excellent box for“driving” coins in (Kutschirbüchse). The tradition that he also buried his products in dung is said byQuilling to be without foundation.
The treatment of bronze, with the object of giving it an antique appearance, is a difficult matter compared with that of the silver, and it has been asserted by Steinbüthel that, for that reason, Beckernever attempted to counterfeit bronze coins. Nevertheless an entry already quoted shows that he had,at any rate, the intentions of restriking ancient bronze coins; and his series were sometimes issued inbronze. His diary also preserves a recipe (given him by Rettig in Vienna) for patinating bronze, thoughit does not follow that he proposed to use it for coins.
Becker’s estimate of the value of his work as a die-cutter was modest in comparison with modern ideas. It is true that he charged Fejervary 20 ducats for the die of the large medal Michael the Vaivode;but he sold him the dies of the “small Michael” and the “Issabella” for 60 florins, and agreed to makethe “Hungarian medal with the raven” for 30 florins; and he charged Appel only 20 florins for a pair ofdies for the coin of bishop Melchior. As he paid Zindel at the rate of something like 15 florins, hecannot be accused of sweating. It took him about eight weeks to strike and finish a set of his coins. Tomake a complete set in sliver he required silver to the amount of 400 florins; with 150 florins formaking and finishing, he reckoned the cost at 550 florins. He charged purchasers 300 ducats (equiva-lent to 1,350 florins)


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