This month as a tribute to the memory of Charles Hoskins, my former boss and mentor, I’ll share with you what I remember about my first authentication lesson at ANACS in 1972.
Hoskins was the first director of the American Numismatic Association Certification Service. In the beginning, ANACS was a two-person operation on an upper floor of an old office building overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. If you have ever seen an old movie from the 1940s or 1950s with a detective’s office, you’ll understand the setting.
The halls upstairs were narrow, just wide enough for two people. The floor and lower wall was made of marble so footfalls and speech caused a loud echo. Each office had a wooden door with a frosted glass window. The door frames were massive. Room numbers and company names were hand painted in black and gold on the glass. For security, the ANACS doors were only numbered. At night, our coins were kept in the vault of a bank located on the ground floor.
Charlie and one secretary ran ANACS. When the business grew, the staff was expanded by two. At first I shared the job of opening the registered packages, checking the coins, and logging submissions into a ledger by hand. Then I weighed each coin to three decimal places and photographed both sides so we would have a permanent record.
After a few weeks, Charlie set me up at the lab table with one of the Nikon stereo zoom microscopes and asked if I knew how to use one of these things. Charlie was a joker as he had already seen my resume. I played along while adjusting the oculars on the scope for my eye spacing and vision. We had a good laugh. This was to be the first time I had examined a coin using anything other than a hand lens.
Next, he turned on the fluorescent jeweler’s bench lamp that was used for lighting. He had cut a crescent shape in the middle of the leading edge of its long rectangular shade so that the barrel of the scope could be inserted closer to the center of the lamp. This decreased the angle of the light in relation to the coin. Charlie learned that trick from the U.S. Treasury Department authenticators who had taught him much of what he knew about authenticating coins.
The Treasury authenticators used fluorescent lighting for their examinations as it illuminated the coin’s surface with a “flat,” even, light that eliminated the glare associated with incandescent bulbs. With the fluorescent light and a stereoscope, any characteristics or imperfections on a coin became readily apparent.
Once the light and scope were adjusted, Charlie placed two $3 gold coins in flips on the table – one on each side of the scope base. He pointed out that as long as I held one coin in my left hand and the other in my right (and did not cross my arms), it would be impossible to mix them up or switch coins. He had me take the coin on the left out of its flip and place it under the scope reverse side up. I did that and placed it on a black rubber stopper already on the scope stage.
The rubber stopper was another tool used at the Treasury lab. With it, you can lay the coin flat and rotate it easily by turning the stopper with your fingers. The surface of the coin can be tilted slightly to change the effect of the light by placing a toothpick under one edge of the stopper’s base. Additionally, a vertical cut down the center of the stopper could be used to view the coin’s edge while a diagonal cut in the stopper’s side will hold the coin at an angle to check for an added mintmark.
Now, with the coin reverse side up on the stopper and the scope at low power (approximately 7X) Charlie had me describe the shape of the berries at the end of the top part of the wreath. They were small, rough, irregular and slightly ovoid in shape. Then he had me place the other coin under the scope and repeat the exercise. On this coin, the berries were perfectly round and smooth, resembling tiny tennis balls. The first coin was genuine; the second counterfeit.
Charlie opined that the counterfeiters imitated the berry design by punching round holes into their die because they didn’t know better. Their work improved quickly as you can see by the micrograph. The berries on the counterfeit in the accompanying photo are much better executed than the coin in my first lesson. Nevertheless, this fake is considered crude. Many of the berries on the right are still basically round. As transfer methods improved, the berries on fakes became more irregular; closer to those found on genuine coins.
Next, he had me look below the bow at 6 o’clock. There was a small “T” or “J” struck shallowly into the field. He explained that I was looking at a small defect found on that counterfeit die. It differed from scratch damage because it had the same “original” surface color and texture as the rest of the coin indicating that it was there when the coin was made. In many cases a mark such as this can be found on genuine coins that were struck successively through foreign material on the die; yet this mark and other repeating defects are found on this particular counterfeit.
After this, he had me pick up both coins with each hand and quickly switch them back and fourth under the scope while I concentrated on one particular part of the coin at a time. This was one way to make a comparison between two identical coins. It’s like a juggling act. Since the image of one coin is still fresh in your mind, even minute differences between the designs of two pieces can be detected as the other coin is moved into position under the scope. While doing this with the genuine and counterfeit coins I noted several other differences.
One thing that I could not avoid seeing was the difference in the letters and numerals of the two coins. On the fake, they were “fatty,” rounded and not as sharp as those on the genuine. This remained a consistent characteristic seen on fakes for many years.
Additionally, I noticed there were some small marks in the denticals that went out into the field. I learned that these tiny “spike-like” marks were called “tooling marks” and usually occurred when the counterfeiter “touched-up” his dies. Charlie said that my “eye for detail” would serve me well in the future.
As my first lesson was concluding, Chuck had me examine both coins in the fluorescent light without magnification. I saw a color difference between the two coins and possibly even a difference in reflectivity from their surface. At that time, counterfeiters were using a substandard alloy of gold for their coins giving the fakes an orange or rose tint when compared to the color of a genuine example. Because of this, an experienced dealer or collector could get a good indication about a coin’s authenticity just by its color alone!
Several weeks later, while logging in a complete set of $2.50 Indian gold coins in a black Capitol holder, I put this to the test. While looking at the set, it became obvious that the “key date” 1911-D was the one coin that didn’t match the color of the other coins. Sure enough, it turned out to be a counterfeit.