I wish that I could take the credit for describing a coin’s edge as its “third side” but the wordsmith for that one remains a mystery to me. The edge of a coin has always been an important factor in determining a coin’s authenticity and any one who is forgetful to check it will eventually be slapped back to reality. A case in point occurred with the discovery of the embossed mintmark alterations on Buffalo nickels over 25 years ago. That alteration was made through a hole in the nickel’s edge. When the hole was filled, the mintmark appeared to be a part of the coin when viewed directly from above using a stereo microscope. Up to that time, the only reason to look at the edge was for signs of casting, mount repair, or the seam on an electrotype.
As numismatists examine coins over and over, they develop a “feel” for what to expect on the third side. With reeded edge coins, as I’ll discuss shortly, authenticators can actually get clues to a coin’s authenticity by touch. Unfortunately, with the advent of slabs in the 1980s the edges of many coins have become sealed from view. Recently though, one grading service has taken a step in the right direction by developing an insert for their holder that allows parts of a coin’s edge to be seen again.
What are some of the characteristics authenticators look for on a coin’s edge? It’s easy to just say uniformity or regularity. As you closely examine the edges of coins in a particular series (baring damage or minting anomalies) they all look alike. Actually, there’s more to it. You need to know what the edge of a genuine coin should look like – smooth or plain, lettered, reeded, engrailed, or ornamented. As a new collector, I remember a practical joke a dealer played on me using a 20-cent piece. He suggested that it might be a mint error because the edge reeding was missing. As I looked for comparison specimens at the show, I quickly learned that all these coins came with plain edges!
Try this at home as you read this. Get a handful of nickels or cents from the container you throw them into and look at their edges with a hand lens. You’ll see luster, nicks, bruises, dents, vertical striations, and perhaps some horizontal lines. In some cases you’ll find the vertical drag lines that often occur when plain edge coins are ejected from the collar. I’ve illustrated an extreme case here. The edges on the batch of coins you have chosen may have various widths. On some, the edge will appear square on one side and then be squeezed down and more rounded on another. This happens more on cents than nickels. Now you’ll have some idea of what to expect when looking at a genuine coin with a plain edge. Struck counterfeit coins with plain edges are most often seen with smooth, slightly shiny, sharply squared-off edges.
The edges of early cents were different. As far back as 1793, our cents had vine and bar ornamentation or incused lettering. These designs were placed on the coins to help prevent “clipping” or “shaving,” alterations done to a portion of the coin’s edge to reclaim the metal for profit. After the mid 1830s, when our mint began using the steam coining presses, most edges on our coins were either plain or reeded. With research, numismatists have discovered that the reed count for some coin denominations differed from mint to mint for the same year. In other cases, especially for Morgan dollars, the count could be different on coins from the same date and mint. Reed counts are used to authenticate many key date coins, especially in the Seated Li berty series. Each raised section of the rim counts as one reed.
There are other clues to a coin’s authenticity on its edge besides its reed count. I mentioned touch at the beginning of this piece. Authenticators will often run a finger along the edge of a coin to test for the sharpness of its reeding. Counterfeit “numismatic” coins often do not circulate so their edge remains “mint sharp.” Another characteristic we look for when evaluating an edge is uniformity. Counterfeit edges tend to be highly uniform while the edges of genuine coins vary. Take a look at the reeded edge of an Indian $2.50 or $1 gold coin when you get the chance. Very often even the length of the reeds changes as you circle the edge.
Counterfeiters have become more aware of a coin’s third edge. A good case in point is the edges of struck counterfeit early Bust dollars. Just a short time ago, fakes were seen with deceptive obverse and reverse designs and surfaces yet the edge lettering was crude with little resemblance to a genuine coin. Recently seen fakes in this series show this mistake has been corrected and creditable edges are becoming the norm. As always, it’s best to have suspicious coins checked at a reputable grading service.