Today, I’m going to answer an often-asked and discussed question. Can a coin be authenticated using images alone? The simple answer is yes, no, and sometimes. It all depends on each specific situation. Let’s discuss some of the obvious variables that affect the answer. The image provided and the knowledge of the examiner are both equally important.
Let’s start with the examiner. Often a knowledgeable viewer can authenticate a coin even if the image is small, out of focus, not magnified, or digital. Dealers, collectors, and even professional authenticators come in all skill levels. Obviously, a student completing an advanced authentication seminar knows less than the teacher; yet more than most collectors. Among authenticators, usually time-on-the-job equates to the number of coins examined and their expertise. It is impossible to know everything, so in many cases even professionals must rely on their peers or others who may be specialists in one particular field of numismatics. Additionally, those authenticators who commonly use a microscope to view coins may be more comfortable dealing with just a magnified image.
The other important requirement is a sharp magnified image taken in good light. Today we are in the age of digital photography. Unfortunately, in many cases a digital image is not sharp. Decades ago, I recall seeing a very large digital image of a 1913 liberty nickel in one of the trade publications. Due to my ignorance of the limits of digital photography at that time, I thought they had published a fake because the image was so granular! I’m thankful I did not call them to point out their “mistake” as it would have been very embarrassing for me. Since then, digital images have improved so much that authenticators are often able to view coins online with better results than having a 10x magnifier and the coin in hand.
Besides the magnification and sharpness, the size of the image is important. I am usually guilty of showing only parts of a coin in these columns. The micrographs just show a particular characteristic dealing with the subject I’m writing about. That’s the case here. However, when posting on the internet forums, members often ask to see more. They want to see the entire coin - all three sides! This is extremely humorous to me. For example, if I were to post an image of an added mint mark (fig. 1) some will ask to see the coin’s edge that has nothing to do with the purpose of my post.
Finally, let’s consider the quality of the coin in question. Genuine coins have a particular “look.” They look the way they do (this goes for coins of every country and age) because of the way they were made. That includes their composition, the quality and condition of the planchet or dies, and their method of manufacture. I call this “look” their “mint quality.” With the passage of time, I’ve seen the quality of all kinds of counterfeit coins become much closer to the “mint quality” of the genuine specimens they imitate. At this end of the quality line (I call them state-of-the-art counterfeits), some of these fakes even pass as genuine at the major grading services! Coins that are this deceptive may not be easily identified using just an image unless they are known fakes and the viewer knows where to look for the specific diagnostics of that particular counterfeit. At the other end of the quality spectrum are the fakes that are so poorly made that anyone who collects coins can tell they are bad from their image alone. Usually, these coins have very crude design elements or a mushy, off-color appearance.
One thing that can help immensely in any discussion is having a comparison piece. It can either be a genuine specimen in hand or a suitable image of a genuine coin. Today’s authenticators rarely need to hold coins awaiting a visit to a major collection housed at a museum to obtain a comparison piece. A few clicks online and there will usually be examples of several genuine coins in color that can be magnified as desired.
An example of this genuine/not genuine debate using images can be found going on each day in the numismatic forums on the internet. A recent discussion about an 1899 doubled die reverse quarter on both Collectors Universe and Coin Talk has been very informative. Despite a serious pro and con discussion, the actual coin will still need to be sent to a major grading service for their opinion.