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The Galvano Boys

Buying ancient coins can be particularly challenging for those just starting out. EBay is especially full of forgeries, copies, counterfeits, fantasy coins (see: Fake Sellers List from Warren Esty) and low quality coins that are just overpriced. Relying on the expertise of reputable dealers is good protection - and even they are fooled sometimes.

This coin (not mine) was put up for auction by Ars Classica in 2015 with an estimate of ~400K, tand sold for $697,882 (650K Swiss Francs) - it is a rare and genuine coin.

This Roman Republican denarius from Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus Aureus, was issued from a mint moving with Ahenobarbus in 41 BC. The coin pictured above is about 8 grams, 20mm. A 2018 NAC sale described another of these as "Exceedingly rare, only twelve specimens known and only the fifth in private hands" and "One of the rarest and most difficult issues of the entire Roman gold series". The coin from 2018 is not quite as nice as the example above in my view, and it sold for $447,489.

Grandfather of Nero

Ahenobarbus was the great grandfather of the emperor Nero who was born born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Ahenobarbus literally translated from Latin as bronze/copper (aheneus) beard (barba)". There is some debate on this coin about whether the person depicted is the IMPERATOR or an ancestor.

A Forgery Uncovered

16 years earlier in an NFA auction in 1989, a very similar coin reached a price of $140K. It is perhaps a cautionary tale for those who buy ancient coins. Expert advice has value, and fakes can pass inspection, even with high levels of expertise. An auction house that stands behind authenticity has value to the buyer.

The 1989 coin with close examination was condemned as a modern forgery, minted by a group who became known as "The Galvano Boys" and by pseudonyms "Costodoulos" and "Gulyas". They were believed to be operating in Greece.

The forgery was exposed by Silvia Hurter and Alan Walker and published in the "Bulletin on Counterfeits". Both are impressive experts:

  • The British Museum Forgers, or, "Costodoulos" and "Gulýas" BoC 17, no.1, 1992, S.2-48.

  • The Galvano Boys - Part II BoC 17, no.2, 1992/3, S.2-11.

The Galvano Boys

The forgers were initially called the "The British Museum Forgers" because some of their dies were created from casts of electrotypes of coins from the British Museum. The pair also made their own original engraved dies and enhanced transfer dies from genuine ancient coins. They were renamed to the "Galvano Boys" when the British Museum challenged the use of their name in reference to the forgers. The Ahenobarbous Aureus was reported to be a copy from a British Museum electrotype. The British Museum began selling electrotype copies of coins in its collection in the 1850s.

Dealers who were misled contacted the purchasers and refunded their money, but the forgers were still active years later.

Other Coins from this Family

I have two denarii from relatives of this Ahenobarbus with the same name. The first coin is a denarius issued about 90 years earlier in 128 BC by another Gnaeus Domitianus either Calvinus or Ahenobarbus.

Although it is well struck, and has some gold/iridescent toning, this coin (from CNG Auction 453 Lot: 457 October 2019) is a more commonly available coin with Crawford reporting 71 obverse dies, although not always in this condition. For a comparison on rarity there are ten times as many - 750 obverse dies - reported for Julius Caesar's popular elephant trampling snake/dragon denarius Crawford 443).

Roman Republican, Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus or Calvinus, 128 BC. AR denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right, grain ear to left; mark of value to lower right.

Rev: ROMA / CN DOM, Victory driving biga right; below, man spearing lion

Ref: Crawford 261/1.

Although this coin is attributed to Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus by CNG the lineage of this moneyer is not certain. Crawford notes that he could be a Cn. Domitius Calvinus or an Ahenobarbus from a "collateral branch of the family". Recent auctions from NAC attribute to "Calvinus (?)" with a question mark to flag this uncertainty. The Boston MFA acknowledges both as options.

The fight between man and lion and the corn-ear together seem to refer to the games and distributions of produce offered to the Roman people by an aedile, something the moneyer would advertise to advocate for his next step to higher office.

This coin was issued after the murder of Tiberius Gracchus (133 BC), as the seeds were planted for the civil wars that would follow. Gaius Gracchus, brother of Tiberius, emerged as his brother's successor in social reforms.

"According to this same Coelius, Gaius Gracchus told many persons that his brother Tiberius came to him in a dream when he was a candidate for the quaestor­ship and said: 'However much you may try to defer your fate, nevertheless you must die the same death that I did.' This happened before Gaius was tribune of the people, and Coelius writes that he himself heard it from Gaius who had repeated it to many others. Can you find anything better authenticated than this dream?"
-Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.26.56

See my notes on the Gracchi Brothers.

Consul of 96

This coin from a few years later is from another Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. This moneyer, in 115/16, who also issued coins in the colony of Narbo in 118 with other moneyers, is thought to be the consul of 96 BC. He may be a relative of the Cn. Domitius who issued coins in 128 BC, although from a different branch of the family.

Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, 116-115 BC, Denarius (Silver, 19.4 mm, 3.92g), Rome.

Obv: ROMA Head of Roma to right, wearing winged helmet, pendant earring and pearl necklace; behind, X (mark of value).

Rev: CN•DOMI Jupiter in quadriga to right, holding branch in his right hand and thunderbolt in his left.

Ref: Babelon (Domitia) 7. Crawford 285/1. RBW -. Sydenham 535.

This Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was a prominent Roman who held positions of tribune, consul (96), and censor (92), during the late Republic. Cicero praises him:

"As we have had occasion to mention him, Domitius himself must not be left unnoticed: for though he is not enrolled in the list of orators, he had a sufficient share both of utterance and genius, to support his character as a magistrate and his dignity as a consul."
-Cicero, Brutus, 165

During his triubuteship he accused M. Aemilius Scaurus of neglecting the cult of the Penates in Lavinium and fined him; but Scaurus was acquitted. He became Pontifex Maximus in 108 BC.

Livy describes an argument between Domitius and Crassus, co-consuls in 96 BC, in which they spar verbally over who is more vulgar in their displays of wealth.

"Crassus and Domitius, members, both of them, of the most illus- trious families, after holding the consulship,5 were appointed jointly to the censorship, in the year from the building of the City 662, a period of office that was fruitful in strife, the natural result of their dissimilarity of character. On one occasion, Cneius Domitius, naturally a man of hasty temper, and inflamed besides by a hatred that rivalry only tends to stimulate, gravely rebuked Crassus for living, and he a Censor too, in a style of such magnificence, and in a house for which, as he said, he himself would be ready to pay down ten millions of sesterces. Crassus, a man who united to singular presence of mind great readiness of wit, made answer that, deducting six trees only, he would accept the offer; upon which Domitius replied, that upon those terms he would not give so much as a single denarius for the purchase."
-Pliny, Natural History, 17.1

Crassus gets the upper hand, calling out the valuation of six trees at 10M sestertii.

He likely did not survive the Social War, as Q. Mucius Scaevola succeeded him as Pontifex Maximus around 89 BCE.


These notes were originally written in 12/12/2021 and revised 5/20/24 with the addition of the denarius from 115/6 BC.

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