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Beware of altered Standing Liberty

I took a call last week from one of our customers who wanted to know why his San Francisco Standing Liberty quarter was returned to him as “questionable authenticity.”

I took a call last week from one of our customers who wanted to know why his San Francisco Standing Liberty quarter was returned to him as “questionable authenticity.”


Whenever someone questions an opinion of authenticity, I get a lump in my throat. Do I remember his coin; did we make a mistake? It’s those thoughts that drive me crazy, because I take it personally.

This was ingrained in the early 1970s, when the American Numismatic Association Certification Service was the only authentication service in the U.S. We had a big job to do and a lot of responsibility fell on our shoulders to “get it right.”
Back then, if an opinion was questioned, we took the coin back for review and study. Any errors were then corrected.

On one occasion, after I detected a “new” state-of-the-art fake, we learned that several similar examples had been authenticated previously. The coins and photo-certificate were recalled, but the experience affected some egos and taught us to be even more careful with our opinions in the future.

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It is one thing to “miss” a good counterfeit the first time one is encountered, but I believe it is a worse mistake to condemn a genuine coin as a fake or alteration. This type of mistake really gives me nightmares. It is better to say that you are not sure one way or the other – a “no decision” opinion – or that you need more time to look for a genuine piece to use for comparison.
Years later, while working at the INS Authentication Bureau, a few more authentication services were available for collectors. Our director, Charles Hoskins, considered more authentication options a good thing for collectors as they could get a second or third opinion on their coin.

In view of past experiences, I anxiously awaited the return of the Standing Liberty quarter discussed over the phone. I’ve since re-examined the coin, and it is with relief that I can confirm that it had an added mintmark (Fig 1). In this case, the mintmark was the wrong shape, yet the faker had done a good job blending the added “S” to the coin. Let’s review these coins.

In my experience, the Standing Liberty series has one key coin that is subject to date alteration – the 1921. The quality of the alterations runs from “crude” to “deceptive.” When changing the date, a fairly large area must be tooled, smoothed and blended. There are some deceptively struck counterfeit coins dated 1917, but I have yet to encounter other dates of the same quality.

Most other fakes I’ve seen have been rather poor casts when viewed with magnification. My experience is skewed, however, as it may take years for a particular counterfeit to pass detection by professional dealers and finally reach an authentication service. All the coin dates of this series are subject to design alteration. Liberty’s head, chain mail and shield are areas to watch.

The other frequently seen alteration are added mintmarks, in particular on the 1923-S and 1927-S coins. That was the case on our customer’s coin. In uncirculated grade, any mintmarked 1919 coin may be a good candidate for alteration, but I have yet to see one. I’ve only seen two Denver alterations; both were made using 1924 Philadelphia hosts so I’ll say that the San Francisco coins are targeted the most.

The mintmark alterations in this series fall into two basic groups. The first is rather crude. They are possibly older attempts or “practice coins.” The area around the added mintmark is often badly tooled or discolored. Most of these fakes have the same style “S” that is seen on 1932-S quarter alterations. The second group falls at the other end of the scale. These coins are very deceptive, use an “S” in the correct shape, and have the area around the alteration blended nicely. These “newer” alterations are obviously done using high magnification and delicate instruments to blend the added letter to the surface.

Do I hear a chuckle from the fellow altering coins at his kitchen table with a 5X hand lens and a razor blade? Remember that tooling around an alteration will reflect light differently. So I’m not giving away any secret here when I tell you that the skillful engravers doing quality work have learned what metal flow looks like on a coin – enough said.

Over the years, I have seen two instances where an altered Standing Liberty quarter has been slabbed by a major grading service. In one case, the dealer owner relished showing his “prize.” This is not right. As in the distant past, the service should be allowed to correct its mistake quietly. I’ve always believed that the best safeguard for all the authentication services is an informed public. Each time a coin is slabbed and returned, at some point in time hundreds of collectors and dealers will have the chance to appraise its grade and authenticity. That helps keep mistakes off the market.

When purchasing high grade Standing Liberty quarters, you must know what the coin’s design and mintmark should look like or seek to purchase coins already evaluated by a major service.

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