The best teachers make their subject both interesting and entertaining. I’ve only taken three history courses: Religion, U.S., and World; and one of those teachers was everything you should expect. I can still remember the class he went into detail about the battle at Agincourt where the English foot soldiers were able to knock the French knights off their horses and kill them as they struggled to get to their feet in their heavy armor on a muddy field. He brought history to life.
Now, it’s time for a little numismatic history. As a young collector I religiously read a folksy column about counterfeits published each month in the The Numismatist magazine. When I began my career as a professional authenticator in 1972, I came to realize that, while interesting and entertaining, the columns were just “fluff.” Their author never gave any details about how to detect the counterfeits he wrote about. In fairness to him, at that time many believed it would not be beneficial to the hobby if the counterfeiters were told how to improve their product.
It is a provable fact that these fears were legitimate. I have written before about a newly discovered $10 Indian counterfeit that was “improved” several months after I revealed its diagnostics during an American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar class. Unless the counterfeiter was in the class, that’s how fast the word got out.
One more point needs to be made about those famous, not so famous, and infamous numismatic authenticators and researchers who have preceded all of us in this hobby/business – we owe them. Right or wrong, they provided our foundations and blazed the trail of knowledge with their teaching and publications.
Counterfeits have improved over time. For example, in the late 1960s and 1970s most counterfeit gold coins could be spotted at a distance by their color and luster alone. As a new hire, my introduction to a famous authenticator lasted less than a minute and did not go over too well. After sitting me down for some counterfeit detection training, the old pro started to remove a $5 Indian from his folder. “That’s bad” I said. “Wait a minute” he replied, “You haven’t looked at it yet.” I quickly said: “The rest of them are fakes too.” Class over plus an important possible mentor lost to brash youth.
That’s how easy it was to detect across the room early gold counterfeits by their color alone! A closer look revealed a soft, mushy strike and missing details on the high parts of the relief design. It looked like the counterfeits were coming off the press as brilliant uncirculated XF/AU coins. These early fakes were thought to be cast coins by many numismatists. Actually, they were the first generation of die struck counterfeits.
When the counterfeiters improved the composition of their product by raising the fineness of the gold, the color of the fakes became closer to normal. Nevertheless, authenticators noticed several types of die defects uncommon on genuine specimens such as “spikes” from the rim into the field. When this defect became well known it virtually disappeared from the newer counterfeits we encountered.
Next, we found counterfeits with minute “wormy tool marks” left behind on the coin where the fakers smoothed out defects in the counterfeit die from the transfer process. Since this type of mark was never seen on genuine coins it made authentication easy for the short period we had before those marks also disappeared as the fakers improved their product again.
At one authentication service, Charles Hoskins and I would joke that the counterfeiters should have hired us in the first place to teach them how to make undetectable fakes. In hindsight, they didn’t need us at all. Over the last 40 years the quality of new counterfeits has become astounding.
Counterfeit detection is becoming a real challenge for dealers and professional authenticators. The days of putting a silver or gold coin under a microscope for a few seconds to determine its authenticity have been over for a decade. You can pitch your hand lens out the window.
Now, with apologies to readers I wish to issue a warning. The counterfeiters have taken the next “big jump” in the quality of their products. At this time, Colonial coppers, and early cent and half cent coins have been detected in the marketplace. I’ll apologize again for not divulging a newly seen type of diagnostic defect I used to detect them. Thus, I happily join the ranks of that pioneer authenticator I complained about at the beginning of this column for writing “fluff.”
I can tell you that despite their excellent design and surface, several of these deceptive counterfeits have been underweight. Commonly used detection methods such as repeating depressions still work.
I’ve illustrated the date area of two 1722 struck counterfeit Wood’s Hibernia halfpennies. Unfortunately, how often will a dealer or collector have the good fortune to compare two identical Colonial coppers or 1794 large cents he is offered together?
Until it is time to write about these counterfeits again in detail, I’ll leave you with this: The major grading services are becoming aware of these fakes. They remain your best defense against this next generation of counterfeits. Use them. As we see more coins, we can determine the extent of the problem and reveal more diagnostic markers to the public.