When it comes to coin authentication, there is no substitute for experience. This truth is hammered home to me each day I sit at my desk here at Independent Coin Graders (ICG) in Tampa. While I and others attempt to pass on our experience by way of columns such as this and authentication seminars taught around the country, you as readers must do your part by looking closely at coins whenever you can.
Just looking is one thing – a bare minimum. It helps you develop what numismatists refer to as a “gut reaction” to what you see. When this ability becomes fully developed by experience, you will get a feeling about any coin’s authenticity at your first glance.
You will need to take your examination closer though by using a hand lens or even a stereo microscope, both to confirm your initial reaction and to refine it. In some cases, it may even be necessary to seek a known genuine coin to use as a comparison specimen.
Our mind is like a computer with a huge memory bank. Aspects of every coin we examine are unconsciously saved to be used at a later time. Therefore, the more closely we study our coins, the better prepared we will be to make determinations about authenticity.
You can bet your life on this: The job of an authenticator is getting tougher with each passing year. For example, I’ve explained on numerous occasions that a coin’s color is no longer a tell-tale indication that a coin is counterfeit. In most cases, counterfeiters corrected this flaw to their products over 20 years ago!
You may have read that computers have made die-making extremely accurate. That’s one reason why modern fakes are so stylish with well-defined details. There are no more “new” fakes with “blobs” for the “dots” in their design. The relief of letters, numerals and lines is becoming sharp with no trace of the soft rounded edges we saw on the counterfeits made with transfer dies in years past. In their quest for perfection, the line between genuine and fake has become very thin.
To avoid detection, a good deal of effort must go into making a spurious coin. That’s because counterfeiters must combine so many skills to duplicate a coin’s characteristics within the specific parameters of a genuine specimen.
Before reading further, can you think of some of these characteristics that define a coin? Let’s review some of them before I show you a counterfeit that crossed my desk recently. Perhaps the first things we notice are its shape, color, thickness and edge type. As we look closer, we’ll determine its relief, surface texture and quality of strike. Coins have other attributes that must be copied such as weight and specific gravity, but let’s focus our attention mainly on their appearance.
The color of a coin can help us judge the fineness of its metallic content. Its size and thickness gives it “heft,” which makes it feel “right.” Its fineness, weight, and method of manufacture determine the sound a coin makes if tapped on its edge.
On close inspection, we can determine the surface quality of the coin. Is it original, is it granular or are there signs of metal flow? Most of you know the difference between a semi-prooflike surface and one that is frosty. Many non-collectors will hardly see a difference between these two surfaces. Show them a polished coin and it will often be considered the most attractive specimen. Surface details are important.
I’ve illustrated a counterfeit 1895 double struck Liberty nickel. The quality of its surface between the first and second strikes made me immediately suspicious. Note the contrast of light and dark surfaces on the obverse. The micrograph appears the way it does because the surface of the first strike is frosty and the second off center strike is semi-prooflike.
It appears that two different dies were used to make this counterfeit mint error coin. As I’ve told you before, generally, one side of a fake will be better executed than the other. That is the case here. The design of the reverse is not as sharply defined as the obverse. Under higher magnification of 40X, the relief design is pitted and granular. The fact that the surfaces of this coin are original means that the pitting is due to defects on the counterfeit die and not the result of etching or corrosion on a genuine coin.
I believe this counterfeit is one of Chinese origin. Although its quality should not fool an error specialist, I feel it is good enough to fool many inexperienced collectors.