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Chasing the counterfeit menace

Have we finally reached that point when some counterfeit coins are so “good” that they defy detection and are accepted as genuine by everyone – at least for a while?  I have asked this question before because it has happened.

Coins are just metal objects authorized by government and recognized as a medium of exchange. Generally they have been produced in factories called mints. As such, they have certain attributes such as weight, size, color, fineness, shape, etc. Up until the mid 1970s, most fakes could be easily spotted by numismatists because they were out of tolerance in some regard. Things have changed a lot over the 40 years since then. During this time, the quality of altered and counterfeit coins has improved. At the same time, the expertise of professional authenticators and dealer/collector specialists has also improved.  For this reason, counterfeit coins that

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defied detection at one time in the past are considered quite crude by today’s experts. Nevertheless, for a short period of time, many of these fakes fooled a majority of numismatists who saw them. Examples from this group include the “Omega” coins, “Bay State” cents, embossed Buffalo nickels and the “Micro O” Morgan dollars.

In each of these cases, the counterfeits were finally exposed by diligent numismatists who became troubled about the appearance of a particular coin.

Forty years ago, I didn’t possess the knowledge I have now; but the fakes were not as well made either.  Over time, as my skills improved, so did the counterfeits and alterations. Coin authentication is the same cat and mouse game that goes on in combat, medicine, crime detection – just about everything. One faction, such as weapon designers, computer hackers or microbes, improves and the competing faction counters with a fix to give it the advantage.

Although many older fakes from the 1960s and 1970s are still out there, they are mixed with the highly deceptive coins of today. Let’s imagine a linear plot for the fakes one might encounter. On one end are silly imitations, crude replicas and low quality counterfeits (Figure 1) while at the other end are more deceptive fakes (Figure 2).  What troubles me now is that at the far end of our plot, brand new, “state-of-the-art” copies may exist that are still undetected and passed as genuine specimens.

Professional authenticators should be on the lookout for that next big jump in quality on the specimens they might encounter: Those counterfeit coins that may exist at the very far end of the linear plot we imagined above. It’s the constant quest for these coins that keeps me occupied. From what I have seen in the past, including the occasional counterfeit slabbed by a major grading service, I know they are out there as yet undetected because they are too good.

The search for these fakes is a daily challenge because an excellent modern counterfeit can duplicate a genuine coin to an amazing degree. Occasionally, where I work at the microscopic level, parts of any coin may look suspicious or unusual for a time. During an examination, something that catches my eye may be a newly discovered or long forgotten hub defect on a genuine coin. Since these can be transferred to a counterfeit die, I’ve spent countless hours trying to determine if a particular coin is a “state-of-the-art” counterfeit.   I’ll scrutinize examples of several similar coins for signs of fakery such as repeating marks, depressions, and defects.  Since in most cases, after intense study, the coins turn out to be genuine; early on, I named these troubling periods, “witch hunts.”   For those readers who find my hunt for the next generation of super counterfeits humorous, I’ll remind you that numerous deceptive fakes have been originally discovered during these hours of research into the microscopic fabric of coins.

In closing, I have a feeling that we authenticators are on the brink of detecting the next group of extremely deceptive counterfeits. You can aid this search by having your coins examined at one of the major grading services.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

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