Monday, March 14, 2016

Finding Bar Kokhba Coins in Kentucky (or NOT)

In the last few weeks, I have been preparing a gift of my personal coin collection to the American Numismatic Society. Among the coins was a fascinating piece that is an exact twin to one of the most notorious incidences of numismatic fraud—either actual or accidental— that has occurred in the United States. This story continues to be circulated, and I receive questions about the Bar Kokhba coins found in Kentucky on a regular basis.
Here is the background….1952, Robert Cox, a hardware store operator from Clay City, Kentucky, found an exotic coin in a pen he was using for pigs just outside of town along Kentucky Highway 15.  The pig pen was part of a field that he had plowed the summer before. It was the first time older residents of the city could remember that this land had ever been turned over. He seemed an honorable man and had nothing to do with ancient coins, and it appears that Mr. Cox legitimately found the coin just where he said he found it.
            Clay city is about 40 miles east of Lexington, Kentucky. Equally fascinating is that two other Bar Kokhba coins were discovered in different Kentucky towns.
            The rest of the story involves a number of well known scholars who refused to believe other expert numismatists, and has such a long history that it is often repeated as a “true story” today.
It is related quite specifically by celebrated archaeologist Dr. Cyrus Gordon (who taught at Dropsie College, Brandeis University, and New York University) in his 1971 book Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America:
            “Other contacts with the Roman Mediterranean of the second century AD have meanwhile come to light in Kentucky, where inscribed Hebrew coins of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome were dug up in Louisville, Hopkinsville, and Clay City. The assorted coins were found at different times and in widely separated areas: at Louisville in 1932, at Clay City in 1952, and Hopkinsville in 1967. These coins have been examined and identified by Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville. There is no difficulty in identifying these Bar Kokhba coins. The Clay City coin was sent to the late Professor Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago who had no trouble in reading “Simon”, Bar Kokhba’s personal name, on one side, and “Year 2 of the Freedom of Israel” on the other side.”

Copy of misleading page from Cyrus Gordon’s book Before Columbus, suggesting that these are genuine Bar Kokhba coins that had been found in Kentucky when in fact only fantasy replicas were found. Also note that Prof. Gordon incorrectly identifies a shekel of the Jewish War (first and second row left) as a Bar Kokhba coin! (photo from Not Kosher by David Hendin).

            Professor Gordon amazingly seems to have drawn his information from a number of articles in Kentucky newspapers, which reported on these rather astonishing discoveries.

Opening of article published in the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal, July 12, 1953. It is quite simple for even a beginner to identify this as a “fantasy replica” of a Bar Kokhba coin (from NOT KOSHER by David Hendin).

In 1978 a University of Texas anthropologist named Jeremiah Epstein published a paper. In the course of his research he sent a photocopy of the Clay City coin to Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer, then curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
            One would think that the opinion about this coin by Ya’akov Meshorer, surely the world’s leading expert on ancient Jewish coins at the time) would end the discussion. And for Professor Epstein, it did. However, according to Epstein, his correspondence with Professor Naamani indicated that “Naamani continues to accept Marcus’s judgement.” In other words, he believed that Professor Marcus was correct and Professor Meshorer was incorrect.
            In comments on Epstein’s article, in the journal where it was published, Professor Warren L. Cook of the Castleton State College in Vermont wrote:  “Meshorer’s labeling a Kentucky Bar Kokhba coin a forgery on the basis of a photo-copied newspaper article illustration is unconvincing, yet Epstein is ready to condemn similar coins on such authority.”
            Almost 15 years ago Haim Gitler, current chief curator of archaeology and curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, and I both received communications from Dr. Fred Coy Jr., an economist at Ohio State University.
            Dr. Coy sent us photographs of the actual Clay City coin discovered in 1952 by Robert Cox.  He told us that a man named Ya’akov Meshorer had said it was fake back in 1978. But he wanted to check this information to make certain that Meshorer knew what he was talking about.

Coin exactly identical to the Clay City coin found by Robert Cox (“authenticated” by professors at the University of Louisville and the University of Chicago). It is part of the collection I will be donating to the American Numismatic Society later this year (photo: David Hendin).

            Gitler and I both immediately agreed with Meshorer and stated that this coin was a fake, not even a forgery, but a kind of a fantasy copy.
            Professor Coy, who is not a numismatist, kept asking me WHY this coin was not a genuine ancient coin.  I’m afraid that I did not have much patience, and I kept saying, “it is FAKE because it is NOT GENUINE.  It is NOT even close and therefore does not justify further discussion.” But he was insistent and went to other sources and concluded, finally, and correctly that the coin is not genuine because:
            èThere can be a cross or a rosette over the Temple on the obverse, but not a 6-pointed Star of David. The latter is strictly for the tourist trade.
            èThe shin and mem from the beginning of Simon’s name are entirely missing from the obverse side, even though the adjacent dots are present, indicating that the missing letters could not have been just worn off. This looks like someone copied from a worn coin that was missing these letters, but then added the dots to make the replica look more complete.
            èLikewise, a stroke is missing from the bet, and the het is made as if it were a B.
            èA tetradrachm of this type should be silver, but this coin is bronze.
            èThe lulav is badly made. Also, the etrog has been reduced to a mere blob to the right of the lulav.
            èThere is no sign of an obliterated Roman coin under the image, even though this should be evident.
            èHe forgot to mention that by no stretch of anyone’s imagination could this be an ancient coin!

An authentic sela or tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba struck in the second year of the revolt, 133/134 AD (photo:David Hendin)

            These observations are second nature to anybody who has ever seriously studied Bar Kokhba coins. But here I have discussed a parade of esteemed University Professors who have been bickering back and forth about this coin since it was discovered in 1952.  And we have also learned that the other two so-called Bar Kokhba coins from Kentucky are of the exact type as this one. A photograph accompanying this article depicts an exact duplicate of the coin found in Louisville in 1967.  The same Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville examined this coin.  Astoundingly, he pronounced it similar to the Clay City coin, “But this one is much more genuine. The Jews were not strong after the rebellion; so what did they do? They took Roman coins and re-minted them. Underneath if you scratch them there are Roman inscriptions.” (Scratching a coin is certainly NOT the way to observe any overstruck coin….)
            He added that farmer Coy’s Clay City coin was a “Roman re-mint, but Bray’s was newly minted 1,832 years ago.”
            Oh, dear. Maybe college professors ought to be forced to get licenses before commenting on subjects about which they are completely in the dark.
            My research at the British Museum has uncovered a lead cast of this very type of Bar Kokhba fake, which was presented to The British Museum in 1922 by Spink and Sons as a replica.  Therefore, the original must be somewhat older than that.
            My best bet is that this was a souvenir given away by a Bible marketing company in the early 1900s and hundreds or even thousands were passed through the American South.  I have personally seen more than 50 of them.
            The stories around these coins represent wishful thinking by American Bible Belt scholars. Wouldn’t it just be so interesting if the people in the United States were directly descended from Jews who came to our shores not long after the time of Jesus….sigh.
            But it isn’t so and I am glad to report this story over and over to remind collectors that the authenticity of a coin that has not been found in a licensed archaeological excavation is only as good as the expert who is evaluating it!

            (This blog is adapted from my book NOT KOSHER, Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins, New York, 2005.)

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