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Chinese fakes get harder to spot over time

Large scale counterfeiting operations are not new. We numismatists can consider ourselves lucky because in the past, most of these operations have concentrated on our country’s circulating paper currency. Nevertheless, about 30 years ago, one American Numismatic Association member was reported to have visited a large counterfeiting operation in Beirut, Lebanon. The fakers were striking our coins on a “date-by-request” basis using the same brand of coining press chosen by the Philadelphia Mint when they modernized their equipment.

Around that time, while working at the American Numismatic Association Certification Service in Washington, D.C., Treasury authenticators and Philadelphia Mint employees confirmed our belief that the Beirut counterfeits were of such poor quality because the dies being used to produce the fakes were not executed or annealed properly. Additionally, the actual press settings used at our government’s mints was a closely guarded secret, thus leaving the counterfeiters clueless in that regard.

The most important requirement of counterfeit detection is to know what the genuine coin should look like. In order to learn how genuine coins were made, I was treated to several private visits to the Philadelphia Mint with Charles Hoskins, the first director of ANACS, and also a former public affairs officer at that facility.

No amount of my questioning could pry certain aspects of the minting process out from the mint superintendent, the section supervisors, or the workers themselves, although I know Charlie knew a lot more about the operation than he let on. By now, I suspect that much of this proprietary information about tonnage, die preparation, and die life has been leaked out over time by former employees and those numismatic researchers who have since visited the Mint. This can be confirmed by the quality of certain counterfeits being produced today.

Now, based on several recent news stories complete with photographs of the operation, let’s make the assumption that China is one of the principal sources for the fake coins appearing in the numismatic market. I also believe there are several sources producing the coins because of the wide range in the quality of these counterfeits.

I am not one to scare collectors with inflated claims; but I will say that many of the fake coins I have seen in the past are very deceptive. It’s a moving scale. By that, I mean, in the 1970s, the “Omega” coins were state-of-the-art fakes fooling most professional numismatists. Today, the quality of those counterfeits is almost comical. Looking forward to the 1980s, a group of circulated 1794 to 1796 type coins hit the market and fooled many. I still believe this group to be dangerous fakes because they can resemble genuine specimens that have been repaired and harshly cleaned. I should never buy one of these expensive coins unless it was slabbed by a major grading service even though diagnostics for detecting these fakes have been published.

Today, excellent copies of U.S. Trade dollars and Flowing Hair dollars have been reported. From what I have seen, a “second generation” of these fakes is very deceptive.

While most Chinese counterfeits, such as the Morgan dollar illustrated here, will not pass inspection by a knowledgeable numismatist, those fakes often do. This is especially true when their surfaces are chemically altered or cleaned to simulate age.

Under those circumstances, it takes more than just a quick look to tell the difference between a genuine specimen and a fake. Even with the magnification provided by a stereo-microscope, authentication can be a challenge. I suspect that the dies for the most deceptive fakes are being made using CNC machines guided by computers.

I’ve selected what I refer to as a mid-range Chinese counterfeit to illustrate here. This particular fake Morgan dollar has much better color, detail, and relief then the run-of-the-mill fakes being sold by Chinese vendors; yet it is not even close to the quality of the best counterfeits out there. Despite this, look how closely the hair, bud and leaf detail compares on the genuine coin (Fig.1) and the counterfeit (Fig. 2). Note that the genuine coin has more “life”; causing it to display a stronger contrast in the micrograph.

Figure 3 (genuine) and Figure 4 (fake) show the grainy surface on the counterfeit as opposed to a much smoother appearance to the field of the genuine coin.

As we approach 40X magnification in Figures 5 and 6, the roughness of the counterfeit’s surface becomes more pronounced. When examining coins for authenticity, zero in on the area where the relief meets the field. In this case, the sides of the “N” on the fake lack the sharpness found on the genuine.       

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