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Seeing genuine coin helps to catch fakes

Let me answer one of the issues dealing with counterfeit coins that all authenticators have faced in their professional career: How much information to divulge to the public about specific counterfeit coins.

There have been several letters published in this newspaper offering suggestions for articles. I read the letters too and one sure way to success is to give readers topics they want.


Let me answer one of the issues dealing with counterfeit coins that all authenticators have faced in their professional career: How much information to divulge to the public about specific counterfeit coins.

I became a coin authenticator in 1972. Looking back, the fakes of that time were crude compared with some of those we see today. Armed with the knowledge we possess today, nothing back then would have been deceptive; however, authentication was also in its infancy. Forty years ago, fakes were detected by measuring their weight, diameter, fineness and style. The general use of stereo microscopes for coin authentication had not caught on even though this tool, coupled with fluorescent light, was regularly used at the U.S. Mint Lab to examine coins.

When the American Numismatic Association established their Authentication Service in Washington, D.C., a stereo microscope was on the list of necessary equipment. In a relatively short time, we realized how great an authentication tool it was. Coins looked different under high power. It became obvious; why try to authenticate a coin with the naked eye or using one eye and a 10x hand lens when you could examine the fabric of its surface closely with two eyes at up to 80x?

The counterfeits of the day “fell apart” under that close scrutiny. The ANA launched a new era of counterfeit detection. We faced a dilemma each time we discovered a new fake coin at the ANA Certification Service. Some wanted to keep all diagnostics of the new fakes private so as not to help the counterfeiters. The biggest proponent of this view wrote an entertaining column featuring fake coins; yet he rarely gave readers a clue about how to detect them.

At first, I agreed with this approach; but more liberal minds, plus the need to educate dealers and collectors convinced me that the best approach was to divulge just enough diagnostic information to help collectors even though the fakers benefited too. We knew that publishing diagnostic information would definitely make our job harder as it would help the counterfeiters improved their product.

The validity of our concern was quick to come. In the ANA counterfeit detection course at the 1974 Summer Seminar, we showed slides of a newly discovered $10 Indian counterfeit and not two months later we saw the exact same fakes at the Certification Service, but missing the diagnostic markers we had revealed to the class! Today, some counterfeits are so deceptive that I should hesitate to release any diagnostics in print but then my columns would become virtually worthless.

Enough background, let me address each reader who wishes they could open a book and look up the diagnostics for a specific counterfeit coin. It has been done before and it was only useful over a short period of time. Many of the fakes had the same dies. Soon, the book became obsolete as technology changed, the fakes improved, and we became more experienced authenticators. Remember, I’ve experienced first hand that the stereo- microscope allowed us to quickly surpass all the reference books available to us in the 1970s.

Let me suggest a better approach based on my experiences. In 1972, the Certification Service blindly followed the spurious opinion of a respected numismatic authority concerning the authentication of a foreign coin. When we learned of our error, I voiced what should have been plainly obvious at the time: “The most important requirement for coin authentication is to know what a genuine specimen looks like. That is why a book or collection of columns showing the defects of a specific counterfeit coin is less important than your own study of the characteristics found on genuine coins while using a stereo microscope. With study, you may not know for sure if a specimen is counterfeit; but you will be positive that it looks different than any genuine coin you have seen.

With that for you to think about, here is this month’s fake. Micrographs 1 and 2 show a genuine Cuban 1915 5-peso gold coin. The piece shown in Figure 3 and 4 is a counterfeit. Both coins are virtually uncirculated. The counterfeit is a tenth of a gram light and its edge reeding does not match that of the genuine coin. Neither of these characteristics is alarming by itself. In fact, the different edge reeding became apparent only after I obtained a genuine comparison coin.

Now, let’s compare the micrographs. The digits on the counterfeit look fine until we compare them to those on the genuine coin. The genuine coin also shows radial metal flow near the edge and between the letters. Note that the shape of the denticals is different on the fake. In the shield design, there are many subtle design differences between the two coins. The key, sun, and scene are different and the horizontal lines on the fake are crude. The color of the gold is correct so the composition of the fake is good. Thus, anyone not familiar with the appearance of a genuine specimen could easily overlook this fake. If you fall into this group, it is best to purchase coins certified by a major grading service.

More Resources:

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

• State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition