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Sometimes even experts just can

There are some coins that defy authentication. Remember that you must know what the genuine looks like in order to authenticate a coin.

There are some coins that defy authentication. It may be that they are polished, corroded, or worn so much that none of their original surface remains. It may be that they are so rare that they are seldom seen outside of a museum or private collection. It may simply be the case of a coin from another country unfamiliar to the authenticator. Remember that you must know what the genuine looks like in order to authenticate a coin.

Putting aside the inexperience of the authenticator and those coins of extreme rarity still leaves plenty of coins that may defy authentication. So, how are they handled? This week I?m writing about the ?No Decision? opinion and how it has evolved.

In my experience there were some coins that we called ?self-authenticating.? That is, the minute an experienced authenticator looked at them, he/she knew that they were genuine. They possessed what we called ?mint quality.? The coin?s fabric, design, color and relief detail was just as a specimen should look like. For an experienced authenticator, this held true for all types of coins from Territorial gold to ancients because after examining enough coins, you knew what a genuine coin should look like for any particular series. Even coins with lumps of extraneous metal (EM) in their fields or in the recesses of their design could be called genuine because when viewed using a stereo microscope even the lumps were of ?mint quality.? The EM on casts and struck counterfeits looked different. It was much easier to be a generalist back then because most fakes were not as deceptive as they can be today.

After I joined ANACS in 1972 and learned enough about authentication so that my opinion was of value, on occasion we would encounter a coin that would defy authentication. In the beginning, when we were stumped, we would send the coin to a small group of volunteer consultants for their opinions as to its authenticity. These were dealers or collector specialists in their fields. We had consultants for Colonials, Oriental pieces, Territorial gold, etc. The hobby owes a great deal to these men. Although many have passed on, they knew the contributions they were making. We shielded their identity from the public so they would not need to answer questions or take abuse if their opinion of authenticity varied with that of a coin?s owner.

Sometimes, with a particularly difficult coin, we might end up with conflicting opinions among the consultants. Two might say a coin is genuine while in the opinion of three others it was counterfeit. When you have been in this business long enough, you?ll encounter cases like this. We sought to resolve the conflicting opinions for ourselves with a visit to the Smithsonian, Dumbarton Oaks, or the American Numismatic Society in New York looking for a comparison piece that had been in a collection for years ? before the quality of the counterfeits improved. We learned a great deal from difficult coins and were able to streamline our group of consultants based on our findings. It was amazing how crude some of the fake coins giving everyone trouble looked when compared to a known genuine specimen.

In spite of our efforts, on a few occasions a coin was returned to the customer with a refund and a statement that the opinions of our consultants were divided and we could make no decision one way or the other on the coin?s authenticity. I remember on several occasions that six months or more would go by before we came to the decision that we could not come to a decision! Even then, some customers told us to keep their coin and take as long as we needed.

While a ?No Decision? opinion might put a taint on a coin, we did not intend it to be that way. We wanted to be certain that we never called a genuine coin counterfeit. The other alternative, calling a fake foreign coin genuine, happened a few times early on but those mistakes were rectified. I might comment here that the authentication service was considered to be such a blessing to the hobby that we never encountered the threat of law suits or whining from dealers over the few mistakes that were made.

At the next authentication bureau I worked at, we kept the ?No Decision? possibility open but added another for troublesome coins that were damaged or corroded. This statement was a ?No Opinion,? used when we were unable to authenticate a coin due to the lack of any original surfaces. We felt this opinion should not taint the coin either. Face it: if an excellent counterfeit is artificially corroded, tooled and cleaned up just a bit, then it is virtually impossible to authenticate it ? especially in the case of copper. These days, a 1793 cent even in low grade makes a good down payment on a car.

Today, many grading services use a term like ?Questionable Authenticity? for coins that cannot be slabbed for one reason or another. Perhaps opinions are divided on its authenticity or the surfaces are ruined. I?m sure that many of the problem coins seen at grading services today have been around for years in that limbo of ?No Decision? coins. The only difference now is that the experts of today do not have the option of holding a coin for months while they research its authenticity. They must make the call. This may turn out to be a good thing for the hobby.