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Random coin stampings untraceable

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I have a French coin with a large “S” punched in horizontally across the bust. Who put it on the coin?

The countermark on your coin is something that could have been added at any time from when the coin was minted to right now, so there is no way of tracing it or attributing it to anyone. Such markings usually lower the value of the host coin. The comments apply to letters and digits that may be found randomly stamped into coins.

Is there some kind of a difference between Wood’s Metal and Wood’s coining metal?

Wood’s Metal is not exactly the alloy you would want to use for minting a coin, although it was used to make trial strikes or “splashes.” The alloy is 50 percent bismuth, 25 percent lead, 12.5 percent tin and 12.5 percent cadmium. It has a melting point of about 160 degrees. Wood’s coinage metal was also known as Bath metal and it consisted of 75 percent copper, 24.7 percent zinc and 0.3 percent silver. It was used for William Woods Rosa Americana coinage of the early 1700s.

I found a reference to the offer of the single specimen of the 1849 $20 gold piece for $100,000 many years ago. Can you help track it down?

The coin was a star member of the Mint Cabinet now in the Smithsonian, and it’s not for sale. The $100,000 figure you refer to probably came from a published comment from Farran Zerbe in 1899 that stated “if” the coin were offered for sale that, “the rivalry among the wealthy collectors of the world would make that coin worth $100,000.” It was speculation, but a remarkable figure for that era. Today, the coin could bring upwards of $10 million.

One often sees figures for the dollar value of gold as far back as the 13th century. Since the dollar didn’t exist back then, how was the value figured?

The answer lies in another currency that existed and was relatively stable for the 500-year period. It ended when the United States came into being in 1776. The British pound varied only slightly in value between 1250 and 1776, so the value of the pound in 1776 dollars was used as the established base. The figure was approximately $21.50 an ounce.

Was there ever a time when it was possible to convert a silver dollar into more money by turning it in to the government?

If you think the idea of something for nothing is a pipe dream, consider this: In 1863 it was possible to walk into the Mint with 100 silver dollars, and walk out the door with $104 in small change, legally. The point was that the standard silver dollar contained .7736 of an ounce of silver. Two half dollars, four quarters or 10 dimes contained .7240 of an ounce of bullion, so more were required to match the silver in a dollar. The money making method was written up in a rare numismatic publication of that era, and it referred to transactions at the San Francisco Mint.

Wilson Coin and Medal Set

2013 Presidential $1 Coin and Medal set honoring President Woodrow Wilson and First Spouse Edith Wilson

Was President Woodrow Wilson superstitious about the number of letters in his name?

Wilson was what you might call “counter” superstitious about the number 13, considering it his lucky number. He delighted in inviting 13 guests to a dinner or party. Which reminds me, there are 13 letters in the motto appearing on our coins – E Pluribus Unum.

I have a Silver Certificate on which I can’t find the designation of the Federal Reserve district. Is this worth a premium?

The Silver Certificates were a separate issue of the federal government backed by silver held by the U.S. Treasury. This type of American money preceded the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 so there was no need for the district identification.

What is the earliest American coin or note to carry the dollar denomination?

In 1767 the colony of Maryland got the jump on the rest of the American colonies by issuing the first dollar-denominated notes. Several of the states followed suit in 1776, while Sierra Leone had dollar-denominated coins struck in 1791. These were followed by the Bank of England and Bank of Ireland silver trade dollar coinages of 1804.

How long does it take to counterfeit a new bank note?

With modern methods, the time between the appearance of a new note and the first evidence of counterfeiting is usually very short. Back in 1946 it took three weeks before counterfeits of the first Military Payment Certificates appeared. Those were copies of the first Military Payment Certificates (Series 461) which were issued Sept. 16, 1946, and withdrawn on March 10, 1947. Today with the advent of the color copier, the counterfeiting time is down to a matter of moments. For more traditional counterfeiting methods, advances in photography have materially reduced the time needed to produce a printing plate.

What can you tell me about the U.S. Postal Savings System?

The concept was recommended to Congress in 1873, based on the British postal savings system which went into operation in 1861. With all due speed the idea was adopted by Congress in June 1910. The system went into operation in 1911. It was finally closed down in 1966.

It might be surprising to learn that during the Great Depression the Postal Savings System had over a billion dollars on deposit (when the annual federal budget was $3.6 billion) much of it in quite small accounts. Customers had good reason to doubt the safety of banks as a depository for their savings after the many failures during that difficult economic time.

Is there any quick way of telling whether some pieces of Continental Currency are genuine or not?

There is a multitude of copies of the Continental Currency, Confederate Notes, broken bank notes and even some fantasy notes that were cooked up for the single purpose of separating the collector from his hard-earned dollars.

There is one simple way of separating a large percentage of the copies, simply by looking at the purported note. If the signatures appear in the same ink as the rest of the note, then it undoubtedly is a copy. The same applies to handwritten dates and serial numbers, which should also appear in a different ink than the design. Beyond that you will need the services of an expert to determine if your note is good or not.

E-mail inquiries only. Do not send letters in the mail. Send to Because of space limitations, we are unable to publish all questions.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express.
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