This year will mark the 40th anniversary of coin authentication services in the United States. My 40th will come later this year in September.
Things were simpler in the “old days.” There was no pressure to return coins quickly, no special tiers and one price for all. A coin did not get certified unless we could prove to our satisfaction that it was genuine.
Some unusual coins took months to authenticate as we would hold them until we had enough “problem” coins to justify a trip up to the American Numismatic Society in New York City to examine a comparison specimen.
The Smithsonian Institution Collection was a much shorter trip. Any newly discovered counterfeits were confirmed at the Bureau of the Mint’s Lab. That’s also where we authenticated any unusual mint errors that had us stumped.
To the best of my knowledge we could count our mistakes on one hand. We were not attentive enough to catch the 1959 Lincoln cent mule the first time it came in. It was certified as a “normal” 1959 cent!
Imagine our surprise when a reporter called the office to ask if we had seen any others. The director took the call; but I was thinking: “Sure, how many rolls do you want?” Then I learned that this cent had the wheat ear reverse rather than the memorial.
Well, we got the coin back and declared it to be counterfeit after exhaustive tests culminating with an optical comparator microscope. The original photo certificate was never returned.
We also missed the first embossed mintmark Buffalo nickel sent to us for certification. Once, we even declared a genuine Carson City Liberty $20 counterfeit. Luckily, the gentleman dealer, Lester Merkin, suggested that we take another look. Sure enough, when we compared the coin with an example in the National Collection we learned that, in this case, the tool marks from the denticals on the reverse were a characteristic found on the genuine coins of that date.
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As I said before, things were simpler then. No one wanted compensation, no one sued, and everybody wanted the correct answer no matter how long it took.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Today, the two largest authentication services are like million dollar factories that churn out product at an astounding rate. The two other major authentication services have a much smaller market segment, but produce an equally good product with a large following.
The often heard advice: “Buy the coin, not the slab” is very true for those who have learned how to grade for themselves. This is good advice because unfortunately, the counterfeiters have set their sights on a different product – fake slabs!
Fake certification papers have been around since the 1970’s. Crooks would take a photo certificate of a genuine coin and pair it with a counterfeit or altered specimen. Except in rare cases, a close inspection of the photo would reveal some differences.
While at PCI, I’ve seen examples where a genuine slab case was cracked and a typewriter was used to make a label on a piece of card! If you don’t know what the grading service slab should look like, beware. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I believe Accugrade was the first service to offer a certified coin in a sealed slab. INSAB and PCI came out with slabs much later as PCGS and later NGC took over the major portion of the authentication business in 1985-86 with a good product, strong guarantees, and a dealer backed network. I can attest that the guarantees worked because once I actually saw dealers bidding on a footlocker full of “bought-back” coins at a show in Long Beach, Calif.
The success of the largest grading services has also made them a target. There are documented instances of counterfeit slabs in the market. They were extremely hard for all but the experts to detect. Less sophisticated crooks have learned that parts of genuine slabs and their labels can be found all over. A hobby knife and some super glue…
This month, I have duplicated a slab that some unfortunate collector showed me at the F.U.N. Show. With a little searching I was able to find a similar copy of the fake “CAC” sticker that was glued to his slab with a coin that in my opinion did not meet the CAC standards. Note that the “green bean” is in the correct location on the slab, but it was not even a hologram! I don’t think this one would get by a major dealer, but flee market vendors watch out.