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Some Coins 'Ask' for a Closer Look
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
January 07, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Every so often, a coin comes into the grading service that looks perfectly authentic at first; yet merits more attention. The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent featured here proved to be one of them.

In most of these cases, an experienced authenticator will realize there is something not quite “right” about the coin. It’s a feeling in the gut that prompts discussion and perhaps further testing. This is a healthy reaction that keeps authentication errors to a minimum. In many cases, suspicious coins can end up being perfectly genuine after intense research. Either way, good or bad, the effort made to research a challenging coin will add to the knowledge and experience of any numismatist.

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Sometimes the additional attention is as simple as weighing the coin; sometimes it’s more involved such as a specific gravity test. On rare occasions, an X-ray diffraction test is needed to reveal the percentage of elements in the coin’s composition.

Some may think this is “overkill” but if I were the owner of a grading service, every ancient and foreign coin we certified would be analyzed for its composition. If this had been started in the 1970s, the counterfeit problem would not be getting out of hand. I believe that it is not too late to start this practice but that door is almost closed. Don’t think for a minute that in the past 20 years, no fakes have become “market acceptable” and pedigreed for future generations as “genuine” specimens.

Let me get off my soapbox and return to the subject of this column. The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent is submitted to grading services on a regular basis. At ICG, we see no less than a half dozen specimens each week. They are commonly seen as altered 1909 VDB cents with an added “S” mintmark; less common as total counterfeits; and rare with both the mintmark and VDB added. On occasion, some fool has ruined a perfectly genuine 1909-S coin by adding the VDB initials to the reverse.

We often joke that despite a mintage of 484,000 genuine 1909-S VDB coins, there must be at least 2 million of these coins around when you add in the altered and counterfeit examples. These coins are so commonly altered that the American Numismatic Association published an important study in The Numismatist magazine showing the mintmark positions on genuine coins. I’ve been keeping detailed diagnostics for these coins since 1972 so my records for the 1909, 1909 VDB, 1909-S, and 1909-S VDB cents are over two inches thick excluding my micrographs.

The coin I write about here made an interesting addition to my files. At first glance, it looked like a genuine coin that someone had lightly buffed to remove some spotting or stains. The obverse treatment was harsher – removing more of its surface and leaving a slightly two-tone contrast between each side. My initial grade was AU-55 Details, Buffed.

Note to readers: There is a big difference between surface alterations from light cleaning to heavy buffing; yet grading services will usually describe all degrees of “mechanical treatment” (except whizzing) simply as “Cleaned.” Learn the difference.

Now back to the coin in question: The shape of the “S” mintmark looked pretty good but not perfect. While I theorized whether the buffing had distorted the “S” slightly, another authenticator pointed out that the diagnostic lump found in the top loop of the mintmark on genuine coins appeared very weak (Figure 1). Our gut reactions were stimulated. More effort was needed to authenticate this particular coin

I knew we could resolve this case by the die breaks on the coin because some genuine 1909-S VDB coins exhibit a pattern of cracks, one in Lincoln’s coat. I had noticed that this coin had a crack through the coat (Figure 2) when I first examined it.





Now, as I studied it further, I noticed another die crack on the reverse (Figure 3) which I had overlooked the first time. With these diagnostics, I felt it was going to be easy to prove that this coin was probably a genuine coin that was “improperly cleaned.” It was time to check my files.









Have you guessed the final disposition of the coin yet? In two inches of diagnostics, I had no record of a coin with both of these die breaks. This coin proved to be a 1909 VDB cent with an added mintmark. The alteration was covered up by the buffing. Now, I must publicly confess that I have been lax at recording the detailed die state for each 1909 VDB cent I have graded in the past. Looks like I’ll need to get busy on this project.


No 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent exists with the die breaks shown in this column. Once the evidence was overwhelming, I could hardly believe that I had given this coin any possibility of being genuine; but professional authenticators never want to make an error by calling a genuine coin bad or a fake coin genuine. For your own peace of mind, you should have any of your uncertified key coins checked by a major grading service.





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