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Lots of Chinese fakes out there

At the American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar in Colorado Springs, Colo., I had the opportunity to look in on a class dealing with the Chinese counterfeiting threat taught by Dr. Gregory Dubay and Beth Deisher. I could only stay about 20 minutes but it was a real eye-opener.”

Dubay has divided the fake coins into several categories based on how deceptive each is. Although I returned the class handout after adding some comments and suggestions, I’ll try to recall some of the general points it contained. I recommend that readers attend this presentation if you get the chance.

In a previous column, based on the quality of the counterfeits from China that I have seen, I made the contention that there are several different “shops” producing the fakes. This has proved to be true.

I also believe that the most deceptive coins are made with some actual involvement of the Chinese government. As yet, this cannot be proven; however, I did learn from Dubay that the amount of money you are willing to pay to have a particular specimen produced will determine its quality and thus its deceptiveness.

I was amazed to see the amount of counterfeit material that was available for the students to examine. Dubay had a plastic bag filled with struck counterfeits and several of the coins were loose on the table next to the dies.

I was enthralled by the fake coins in various denominations and especially the large group of actual counterfeit dies. I recall dies for Morgan and Peace dollars, Barber quarters and Mercury dimes set out on the table.

I could judge the quality of the coins they would produce without the aid of magnification because many of the dies looked “fuzzy” or shallow. As I remember, the Barber quarter reverse die had the design sunken to what appeared to be the proper depth, but the letters seemed misshaped. The design of the Peace dollar obverse was hardly impressed into its die. Coins struck from it should be in very low relief and not deceptive at all.

The class had access to a stereo microscope, balance, micrometer and specific gravity rig in order to authenticate the coins. I do not know if there were any genuine coins available to use as comparison pieces as this would have made it much easier for students to detect all but the most deceptive fakes.

The class handout made a distinction between the quality of the counterfeits on display based on how closely their weight, alloy, dimensions and design matched a genuine specimen. It was a pretty good system.

Although I don’t recall the specifics, a counterfeit struck from the shallow Peace dollar dies in a base metal with low silver content would not resemble a genuine specimen in any of the four characteristics mentioned above. This fake would be placed in the very lowest group and would not be deceptive at all to any collector who knew what a genuine Peace dollar should look like.

At the other end of the scale would be a very deceptive, struck counterfeit of the correct weight and fineness that closely resembled a genuine coin, one that would fool most collectors and dealers until its diagnostics became published.

I wish to thank Deisher and Dubay for allowing me to look in on their class and take a quick peek at the final exam coins. Students were asked to pick the genuine Morgan dollar from a group of three coins. I have good news and bad news. I believe almost half the class did not detect the counterfeit. I’ll bet these were the same fakes that also fooled many coin dealers. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I was able to distinguish the good coin from the fakes after about two minutes using a hand lens. For those who know me, that is significant because I only authenticate coins using a stereo microscope and not a hand lens so I felt very handicapped during my exam. Furthermore, if I could detect the fake in this way, they still have not reached perfection.

Since I don’t want readers, who may take this class in the future, to be influenced in any way and to have a fair experience for themselves; I will not reveal here how I made my choices. I will say that I used the basic counterfeit detection methods I have written about in past columns. J.W. Dannreuther visited the class while I was there and he was also able to distinguish the genuine coin using different criteria than I.

What did I learn from the class? Although most of the Chinese fakes I saw are crude, I know they can produce extremely deceptive specimens for the right amount of money.

I have seen counterfeit Trade dollars and Bust dollars that were better made, thus more deceptive, than even the coins in the class test. Unfortunately, in my zeal to be helpful, I revealed what would need to be done to make much better fakes for the class. Big mistake – let the counterfeiters improve their product by trial and error.

For now, let me be helpful in a more constructive way and pass along some good advice to you. Seek to purchase coins that have been authenticated and graded by the major grading services. Do not buy raw silver coins that are gray in color, cleaned, or toned as a majority of the Chinese fakes I have seen so far appear in this condition. 

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