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Counterfeiters and authenticators do battle

Recently, I wrote a brief synopsis covering the evolution of counterfeit coins that I have witnessed since becoming a professional authenticator in 1972. To continue along this track, let’s roll back the clock a few years and review some of the characteristics commonly seen on older struck counterfeits. One was the lack of relief and the “style” of the letters in the legend. During the transfer process used to prepare many fake dies, the shape of the original coin’s parts was spread out and became slightly rounded. Hence, the counterfeit did not appear to be as sharply defined as the genuine specimen.

Another characteristic was the presence of tiny tooling marks that were left when the faker tried to improve on his die work or conceal defects on the fake die. See photo of $3 gold piece.

Since he was working on the die face itself, anything he did that left a mark on that die’s surface would become a raised mark on the fake. Over 30 years ago, the back and forth, digging motion used to fix a die produced an overlapping pattern of scratches resembling a few intertwined worms – hence I named them “wormy tool marks.”

An example of these can be seen in the field behind the head on an “Omega” $3 gold coin. This fake got its nickname from the tiny Greek letter inside the “R” of “Liberty. I discovered this counterfeit shortly after finding the counterfeit High Relief coins from the same maker.  Incidentally, Charles Hoskins gets credit for noticing that the “makers” initial resembled the Omega character.

Many older fakes also had pimples, repeating lumps, and depressions. The depressions are thought to be caused by defects found on the surface of the genuine coin used as a model for the fakes. Years of reporting on the defects we found on struck counterfeit coins has helped the fakers to improve their product.

Wormy tool marks are rarely seen any more except on the counterfeits made 20-plus years ago that still pop up in collections. Also gone is the rounded, “fatty” relief on the design and letters that I mentioned above. New machining processes have sharpened the counterfeit dies.

Additionally, those readers old enough to remember in 1975 how well the fakers could replicate the tiny die polish lines found on genuine coins would be astounded by today’s work.   

For a long time, numismatic gold coins were a main target of counterfeiters. Then, as the values to collectors increased, silver commemoratives and early type coins became prey. I’ve seen counterfeits of everything from common date Seated Liberty halves to scarce 1794 and 1796 type coins. Some of the earlier attempts which remain dangerous even today can be found in Counterfeit Detection reprints from The Numismatist magazine.

Copper coins have not been exempt.  When first discovered, the “Bay Area” counterfeit Indian cents were difficult to detect and will still fool most if found in circulated condition. These deceptive, chocolate brown fakes slipped into the numismatic market under the radar.  Eventually, their detection was facilitated by knowledgeable dealers and the substantial numbers of the fakes that appeared together. This allowed comparisons to be made between identical coins so that the defects on the counterfeit dies could be plotted. Then as now, when an authenticator has the ability to compare two identical fakes with a genuine coin the counterfeits don’t stand up to the test – no matter how well they are made.

Last time, I illustrated my column with a micrograph of the right obverse of a fairly deceptive Mexican 8 reales Pillar dollar of the quality seen at the end of the last century.  I asked readers to study the coin by itself and try to determine if it was genuine or counterfeit. That was really an unfair question as even professional authenticators do not judge coins from photos; however, I did it to make a point.

It’s important to have a comparison piece. Both Pillar dollars are struck counterfeits. Let’s examine the micrograph included with this column and the one printed in the March 17 issue of this paper.

Both coins are heavily cleaned and would fool many collectors if offered alone. Note the most obvious repeating die defects. There is a crater touching the crown under the “V” and a horizontal mark under the right foot of the “M.”  One point of this exercise is to show that when you have two coins of the same date made with the same counterfeit dies it becomes easy to confirm they are not authentic.

The technique of matching die defects remains a major test for authentication.  This holds true for the modern Chinese fakes I shall write about next time. That is why it was unfair to ask that you authenticate a coin with only one specimen and a photo at that!        

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