In the early 1970’s, while flying out to Colorado Springs, Colo., to teach an authentication class for the first time, I thought up what I believe to be the principal rule for coin authentication: “In order to authenticate a coin, you must know what a genuine specimen looks like.” Today, that statement is obvious to anyone; yet at the time, it had never been expressed so simply. This principle grew out of the need to find certifiably genuine coins to use as comparison pieces for coins from countries we were not familiar with. Once we found a comparison coin or determined a coin was genuine we recorded its diagnostic markers for future use.
In addition to fakes, today’s authenticators need to be knowledgeable about minting varieties. I can remember how difficult it was to find diagnostic information about the first 1964 Accented Hair Kennedy half dollar sent to the Certification Service for authentication. There was no Breen encyclopedia or Internet. We had one book on large cents, one on half cents, one book each for Bust and Seated halves, some of Breen’s monographs and several general references such as Taxay’s encyclopedia. Back then, we only knew of one 1972 doubled-die Lincoln cent, no one had mapped the positions of the “D” mintmark on 1916-D dimes and most doubled dies, multi-leg Buffalo nickels, and partial drapery coins were only known by a few specialists.
In 40 years, there has been a virtual explosion of research for coins of every type. Now, my desk has five books on large cents alone and most reference books are illustrated and easier to use. Nevertheless, my job still presents challenges. There is always more to learn and to discover. We regularly discover uncatalogued coin varieties at the ICG Grading Service, especially from other countries.
Here is one I’m working on now. Is there a 1915 40-centavo Medium Relief Star variety? The Krause Standard Catalog of World Coins notes that the 1915 Cuban “Star” 40-centavo coins exist with High and Low Relief stars. There is no mention of value or rarity in the listing. Unmentioned is the fact that one researcher has determined that a variety with a Medium Relief Star exists. To complicate the situation, many of these coins have been slabbed in the past with no attribution at all. Since there is no distinct listing by star type in Krause, the omission of the variety by a grading service is acceptable.
Since I had never made a distinction between the High and Low Relief varieties (until now), it was difficult to determine the specific star relief when viewing a single coin. It seems that each collector I spoke with uses his own method to identify these varieties. Published information indicates that, “Coins with high relief stars normally exhibit a weak key and palm tree on the reverse. Coins with low relief stars tend to exhibit much more distinct lines running towards the center of the star.” Unfortunately, worn coins or those that were weakly struck may be difficult to attribute with certainty. Some collectors measure the “volume” of metal in the star and the sharpness of the division (valley) between the star points. The High Relief variety is bolder.
Recently at the Clearwater coin show, using comparison coins loaned by Frank Putrow and Richard Schemitsch and based on the small population of coins that I have examined (less than 25) I may have discovered an easy way to determine the High and Low Relief varieties of the 1915 40-centavo coins by their reverse die – without even looking at the star.
The micrographs in this column illustrate the two major varieties with High and Low Relief stars. At this point of my research, I have no opinion that a Medium Relief star variety exists. Figure 1 shows the Low Relief Star variety. Sources say that this star has a flat center with a smooth, rounded space separating the points.
Figure 2 shows the lower berries on the reverse. Note that the stem on the outside berry is offset toward the top of the berry. There is a sharp line of separation that forms a valley between the points of the High Relief Star in Figure 3. The stem of the lower outside berry on this variety (Fig.4) is centered in the berry. There are other differences between the two reverse dies.
I expect that the1915 Star Peso and 20-centavo High/Low Relief varieties can also be differentiated by their dies. At this point in my research, I have no opinion that a Medium Relief Star variety exists. Any diagnostic information readers might have concerning these coins would be appreciated. For further information, collectors interested in these varieties can check the CoinsofCuba.com website.