This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
The interception of a package of 361 fake U.S. Trade dollars recently shipped from China to a recipient near Chicago, brings into sharp focus a growing epidemic that threatens to contaminate the numismatic record and sink the numismatic hobby. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune (April 22, 2011), the recipient had grown impatient with the delay in delivery of his package, and contacted U.S. Customs. The buyer allegedly stated that he was planning to distribute the pieces using an Internet auction site.
For the past several years forged coins originating in the Far East, especially 19th and 20th century American silver dollars, have flooded the numismatic trade. I have occasionally encountered Chinese-made forgeries of Trade dollars, Seated dollars, and Morgans. Most of these fakes are not hard to identify in a crowd; they have certain diagnostic features that give them away. Gradually, however, the quality of these fakes has improved to the point that experts are being routinely deceived.
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So I was more than interested when, at the recently concluded Central States Numismatic Society convention in Rosemont, Ill., Dr. Gregory Dubay of Alabama gave an educational seminar on Chinese-made forgeries. In the course of his presentation, Dr. Dubay placed 12 really convincing Morgan dollars of various dates and mints on a table and challenged anyone in the crowd of attendees to visually identify the single genuine coin in the group.
Being bold, I took the challenge. We were told that all 12 pieces had the correct weight, diameter and metal content (in and of itself, a troubling revelation), and the decision was to be made based solely on appearance. Based on my familiarity with Chinese fakes, I thought that this challenge would be relatively easy. At first glance, however, every one of the dollars looked OK. After a few minutes examination with a magnifier, I was able to pick out some of the bad apples, but I soon realized that the task of identifying the single genuine Morgan would be nearly impossible without a detailed reference guide.
Dr. Dubay also showed photographs of one of the largest fake coin factories in China, the Big Tree Coin Factory in Fujian Province, owned and operated by Lin Ciyun. The presses in this factory were originally used in a U.S. Mint facility, then transferred to China in the early 1900s for their coinage production needs. Later, in the mid 1950s, the Chinese government scrapped the presses and sold them to private buyers. Mr. Lin bought at least some of the presses and now uses them to produce (by his admission) over 100,000 forged coins per month. With the assistance of a handful of expert machinists, he is able to strike coins at exactly the same pressure and technical specifications as those used in 19th century U.S. mints.
There are dozens if not hundreds of other coin factories in China like this one, producing fakes that vary in quality from very poor to extremely deceptive. These factories can also produce fake coins to order, as Dr. Dubay was able to demonstrate, and he even showed the attendees a fake coin album (printed in China) filled with a complete date set of U.S. Seated silver dollars.
In the old days, counterfeits were generally made a few at a time, using off-metal planchets and casting methods that left bubbles on the coin surfaces. Today, it appears that we are confronted with a quantitatively much larger mass production operation, using planchets of the correct composition and mechanized striking that can achieve products remarkably similar to genuine coins.
After the pieces are struck, they may be artificially aged to resemble pieces that have been subject to normal circulation. The forgeries are then distributed to hundreds of small-time Chinese wholesalers who look for USA-based distributors. Packages of several hundred at a time are shipped to the United States to feed the insatiable appetite for large silver coins in the numismatic marketplace. Sometimes, a piece will carry an incuse stamp on the face indicating that it is a copy, but more often there is no indication whatsoever that the piece is not genuine.
The Hobby Protection Act of 1973 makes it illegal to manufacture or import into the United States copies or replicas that are not prominently marked COPY on one of the faces. This law is virtually universally ignored by overseas counterfeiters. In China, the practice of copying American goods is so prevalent that it is believed that 80 percent or more of all fake or hazardous products (not only coins but also poisonous pet-food, lead-tainted toys, bootleg CD’s, designer shoes, clothing and handbags, ancient Chinese antiques, you name it) seized by U.S. Customs originates in China. China does not appear to respect copyright rules that govern the rest of the world. The only exception is if you try to counterfeit Chinese money made since the Communist takeover in 1949, in which case (as Dr. Dubay related) you are likely to (literally) get a bullet to the back of your head.
I have long thought that it would be very worthwhile to publish the diagnostics of these forgeries to help coin authenticators, collectors and dealers spot the false ones at a glance. The seminar speakers, however, convinced me that this is a bad idea, because the fakers themselves avidly follow our publications. Within days after their flaws are publicized, the fakers can and do improve the quality of their product making them even harder to detect.
The situation is already bad and it’s getting worse. Experts, including dealers, are routinely deceived. What’s the solution? For one, much more careful scrutiny of all shipments coming into the United States, especially those from the Far East, is needed. Knowledgeable collectors can help scrutinize Internet outlets for forgeries and expose the distributors. It’s not only Chinese fakes that abound.
Forgeries of ancient coins made in Bulgaria, Turkey, and other countries in the eastern Mediterranean are everywhere as well and routinely enter the United States.
Our numismatic organizations, the American Numismatic Association, American Numismatic Society, Professional Numismatists Guild, and others, need to become engaged with this issue before it threatens the integrity of our hobby.
Dr. L.A. Saryan is a hobbyist from Milwaukee, Wis.
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