This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Have you ever heard some form of the expression “History repeats itself?” Did you see the movie “Ground Hog Day” where much of the action is repetitive? Well, sometimes I feel the same thing is going on in my professional life – only the coin types have changed.
During the early 1970s the numismatic community was dealing with what was believed to be an influx of counterfeit Mexican Pillar dollar coins into the market. A large group of these pieces with various dates was sent into the authentication service to be certified.
An authentication expert, who was a consultant, ran x-ray tests on many coins in the group and declared them to be cast copies. When his coins were returned as fakes, the submitter, a dealer in foreign coins who was quite the gentleman, suggested that we take another look at the group. After several months of testing and study, without any outside consultation with the aforementioned authentication “expert,” we determined that the entire batch of coins was authentic except for one or two pieces that we could not determine one way or another with 100 percent certainty. The story of these coins is related in back issues of The Numismatist and in the ANA Centennial History.
A few years later a similar occurrence happened when a glut of British Trade dollars hit the market. Some authentication experts were condemning these coins as fake and the prices for Trade dollars in this series dropped because collectors were afraid to take the chance of purchasing a counterfeit. We had the opportunity to examine a large lot of these coins, too. Again, after several months of testing plus a visit to the American Numismatic Society in New York City, we determined that the scare concerning counterfeit British Trade dollars was totally unfounded as the coins were all genuine despite of claims to the contrary.
In both these past instances, we started at a disadvantage because we were unfamiliar with each coin series. At our first encounter, we didn’t know what a genuine Pillar dollar or British Trade dollar should look like under the magnification we normally used to authenticate coins. Additionally, we had trusted the opinion of nationally known “experts” who must have been ignorant also as they raised an alarm by calling genuine coins counterfeit. Think of our initial dilemma. We were tasked to discover counterfeit coins among groups of coins having the same basic characteristics since all were genuine despite of what the “experts” said.
Today, in this era of very deceptive counterfeit coins, one has to be extremely careful. The technique used to produce excellent fakes has spread worldwide. Countries such as Germany and Israel were making deceptive counterfeit coins long before the Chinese threat surfaced.
Last year at the Florida United Numismatists show in Florida, we received over 100 Cuban coins, mostly 1915-1934 Star pesos and 1934-1939 Libertad pesos, for authentication. Most coins in the group graded XF-AU and virtually all of them had been cleaned, buffed, or polished. I found myself in the same old situation trying to authenticate a batch of coins worth hundreds of dollars each in a coin series that was relatively unfamiliar.
As it turned out, all were genuine, but a task that took me several hours to complete could have been done in 20 minutes by a Cuban numismatist who grew up collecting these coins. Still, I had hoped to find at least one counterfeit in the batch just to see how deceptive it would be and the skill level of the counterfeiters.
My desire was answered this month in another batch of Cuban pesos. The micrographs show the same areas on a genuine peso (Figures 1 and 4) and a counterfeit (Figures 2 and 3). The design of these coins is not sharp to begin with; but notice the “life” coming from the surface of the genuine coin due to its mint luster. The transfer process used to produce the fake dies has failed to capture much of the detail in the shield. I’m not saying that the counterfeit shown here is in any way extremely deceptive. It is not. Nevertheless, if seen alone, it is a good bet that this fake would pass the scrutiny of anyone who was not familiar with the characteristics of a genuine example. Perhaps there are more deceptive counterfeits of this coin, but I have not seen one yet.
History is repeating itself again. Right now, we are receiving hundreds of copper and silver Chinese coins for authentication. Some of these coins are crude copies and some are proving to be deceptive fakes. Only more familiarity with the coins of China will make our job of authenticating these pieces easier. For now, I recommend that you only buy Chinese coins that have been certified by a major grading service.