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Will perfect copies destroy values?

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Will nanotechnology develop sufficiently in the future to make it possible to create perfect duplicates that will not be distinguishable from the genuine original coins and paper money?

Nanotechnology is technology on the scale of one billionth of a meter. A cube that measured one nanometer on each side can only hold 176 hydrogen atoms. If you can visualize the size of the Empire State Building as being one meter tall, a nanometer-sized object would be like a marble on the sidewalk next to the building.

Scientists are already able to position individual atoms, though at enormous cost. In the future, technical advances will increase the capability of positioning atoms and molecules at the same time that costs come down by magnitudes. I have a number of friends and acquaintances doing research in nanotechnology. It is impressive how far and how soon this capability is already evolving.

Eventually it will be possible, for instance, to duplicate an 1804 Bust dollar right down to its atomic makeup. Just about anything imaginable could be copied, such as the Series 1890 $1,000 Treasury Note nicknamed the Grand Watermelon, a 1933 $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagle, or a 1974-D aluminum Lincoln cent. The sky is the limit of what could be duplicated to such a degree that even an atomic analysis would not be able to find any difference between an original and its copy.

Following that expansion of technical capability, costs of such perfect reproductions will sooner or later come down to inconsequential amounts. How would the potential widespread and low-cost availability of perfect reproductions of the numismatic items listed above hurt the value of the genuine original pieces?

The issue of producing perfect replicas of rare collectibles is a subject already under discussion among those interested in nanotechnology. Thus far, there is no ideal solution to a problem that is still decades away. There are some collectibles coming out of authentication and grading services today that had bits of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) added to them, a security measure that is not currently possible to duplicate. This is a wonderful solution – for now. Eventually, though, future nanotechnology will make it possible to even copy DNA.

Perhaps there will be a way for nano-replicators and nano-assemblers to include “markers” on their output that help identify which machine fabricated a particular item. Such machines might be so complicated that it would be close to impossible for crooks to alter them to not insert such markers. I suspect there will be a never-ending battle between people trying to prevent undetectable reproductions and those seeking to manufacture them. But, that will be a concern to people 50 to 100 years down the road.

There is no need to panic today worrying about how technological advances might hurt numismatic items and other collectibles.

Still, I have been asked the question many times in my life what kinds of items do I think will have high value in the coming centuries. I’m not sure that any particular physical good would qualify if a copy is potentially easy to come by. What do you think?

Patrick A. Heller was the American Numismatic Association 2012 Harry Forman Numismatic Dealer of the Year Award winner. He owns Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Mich., and writes “Liberty’s Outlook,” a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at http://www.libertycoinservice.com. Other commentaries are available at Coin Week (http://www.coinweek.com and http://www.coininfo.com). He also writes a bi-monthly column on collectibles for “The Greater Lansing Business Monthly” (http://www.lansingbusinessmonthly.com/articles/department-columns).His radio show “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at http://www.1320wils.com).