This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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If you are a major dealer or experienced authenticator you may wish to skip this month’s column as I will be dealing with some common alterations that shouldn’t fool you. Nevertheless, countless collectors are routinely tricked into buying fairly obvious alterations for one reason or another.
I divide altered coins into two major groups and then into further subgroups. Coins can be altered either by a chemical or mechanical process. Often both types of alteration can appear together. When they do, in most cases, chemicals are used in an attempt to hide traces of the mechanical alteration.
Chemical alterations include etching, non-abrasive cleaning, plating, deposited washes and artificial color or toning. Mechanical alterations include all degrees of abrasive cleaning through polishing and whizzing along with actual addition or removal of metal.
Tooling, either to smooth and repair fields or add missing design details, is another form of mechanical alteration. Some of these alterations are expertly executed and defy detection until seen using a microscope or at a major grading service. The alterations illustrated in this column do not fall into that category. They are crude attempts to increase the value of a coin by altering the date or mintmark area.
The alteration in Figure 1 is an old one. Someone has taken a genuine 1948 Lincoln cent and carved the numeral “8” into a “3.” This alteration is less common than one using a 1944-D Lincoln cent to make a rare 1914-D by carving the numeral “4” into a “1.” There are more “artful” specimens of these alterations where the engraver has blended the scratches into the field to hide his work.
The key to detecting these two alterations is the shape of the final “3” for the 1943 and the distance between the “9” and “1” for the 1914-D. Just the fact that the field around the date looks carved should keep you from purchasing this piece at any price.
Figure 2 shows a Morgan Dollar with a removed mintmark. This is also a crude alteration with little attempt to hide the work. By tilting the coin at an angle, a shiny patch of parallel scratches called a “wheel mark” covers the mintmark area. Closer inspection reveals all the tooling around the design. There is even a slight concave area in the surface of the coin where the mintmark was. On better alterations of this kind, the faker changes the entire surface of the coin (usually with chemicals) to blend the altered area and give the coin’s surface a uniform look. It is more difficult to hide the scooped-out part of the field. In some cases, the surface is tooled extensively for a distance as much as a quarter inch around the altered area. This blends the depressed area with the level of the original field in gradual increments. When this is done, check the suspected area of the alteration carefully for places where the relief design appears to be higher than the rest of the coin.
Figure 3 shows an altered 1942 Mercury Dime. The numeral “1” has been added to a genuine 1942 dime to make the rare 1942/1 variety. In this example, there is no “undercut” where the “1” meets the field; nevertheless, the shape of the overdate is wrong and the base of the “4” lacks the doubling seen on genuine specimens.
I’ll remind readers to check their purchases carefully, get a written guarantee, and beware of “too-good-to-be-true” bargains. Many of the recent alterations I see at the grading service are better executed than these or perhaps something you may overlook. Figure 4 shows an altered star that the collector missed. You should always have the important coins in your collection checked for authenticity.