There are many interesting things to see on coins if you look closely enough. For example, in my last column, I wrote it was possible that the U.S. Mint used secret marks hidden in the design of its coins to ward off counterfeiters. I illustrated this using the examples of broken stars found on many coins; then hinted of other possible marks and asked readers to look for some of them.
The micrograph in Figure 1 shows an example of another possible secret mark found in the denticals of various coin types. The coin here is a $5 Liberty. Do you see how the fourth dentical to the left of the base of the numeral “1” in the date is almost divided in half? If you don’t have a $5 Liberty handy, check the denticals on a Liberty nickel for a similar mark.
These markers and those I illustrated last time are actually a part of the coin’s fabric. They were placed on the hubs or dies used to make the coin and thus have the same luster and surface texture of the original coin. There are other “manmade” marks found on coins. Some are hidden and some are not; but these other marks were placed on the coin after it was struck and thus have a distinctly different surface.
Excluding bag marks, perhaps the most interesting and important of the marks found on some coins are called “Counterstamps.” The Macmillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics by Richard Doty defines a counterstamp as “A punch mark or marks, officially applied to a coin or segment of a coin to change its value and/or indicate its acceptance as legal tender in a place beyond where it was issued. The official nature of the counterstamp distinguishes it from chop marks and advertisements, which are privately stamped on coins.”
Counterstamps are not hidden and very often they are seen centered on the coin’s original design. Figure 2 shows a Jamaica counterstamp on a half real coin of Peru. It appears as a G.R. monogram in a circular indentation. The coin has been rotated so that the counterstamp is horizontal; yet in this case, the original design of the coin makes the counterstamp indistinct. Almost anyone can punch a letter, numeral or series of these into a struck coin but making a copy of an “official counterstamp” as defined above takes immensely more skill. Authenticating a coin with a counterstamp can be difficult as many of these are very scarce to rare outside of museum collections.
Long ago, counterfeit counterstamped coins were entirely cast from a genuine specimen. These fakes were crude by today’s standards and the intricate details of the counterstamp were lost in the transfer process used to make the mold. Eventually, the fakers used hand engraved dies for their stampings. In those cases, the skill of the engraver dictated the outcome. With a counterstamp die, the fakers were able to use a genuine coin as the base for their mischief. Again, authentication remained difficult since many genuine counterstamps were engraved by hand.
The lack of familiarity with the genuine article also remained a huge drawback. On the occasions when I traveled to the American Numismatic Society Museum in New York to view a comparison specimen that had been in the museum collection long before the quality of fake counterstamp dies had improved, it was amazing to see how much a counterfeit counterstamp differed from the genuine product. Yet without knowledge of what the genuine counterstamp should look like, many of the fakes were extremely deceptive.
In most instances, when counterstamps were applied to coins, a flat area appeared on the other side of the coin opposite the mark. Many of the fake stampings, especially those that were casts, either do not show this effect or it is weak. Additionally, the counterstamps themselves may show defects such as round pits, pimples, and rough wavy surfaces characteristic of casting.
Coins with counterstamps are very collectible. Just a step down from these, are the commercial stampings found on coins as advertisements. Chop marks, the small oriental figures mentioned above, provide us with another type of mark applied by man to his coins. None of these marks are hidden and some collectors regard them as damage. Recently, I have seen some fake chop marks placed on the counterfeit Trade dollars coming out of China possibly in an effort to add an “air” of genuineness to these coins. Genuine stampings and punches normally will show traces of metal flow on their side walls.
As I’ve already said, anyone can punch something into a coin. One famous case involves the letters “E.B.” punched into some foreign gold coins and the Brasher Doubloons. A more mysterious case involves the “X” punch marks found purposely hidden in the design of many U.S. Double Eagles. An example of the mark, in the curve of the drape next to Liberty’s foot, is shown in Figure 3. These marks are uncommon on Liberty $20 coins yet with a little searching you should be able to find the mark in the same spot I’ve illustrated here on a Saint-Gaudens coin.
Are these chops, European banker’s marks, the whim of a private collector, or marks made to identify the rumored double eagle coins that were said to be struck in Russia using dies supplied by the United States Mint? What do you think? We can start our own “X-Files.”