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More Thoughts on Fake 1921 Half
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
September 03, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The column I wrote in the July 9 issue dealing with a well-worn counterfeit 1921 Walking Liberty half dollar caused at least one reader (my wife) to question how and when it was made. It’s a logical question that has been asked about counterfeit coins for as long as I can remember. In cases such as this one, it can be a difficult question to answer.

When I first started authenticating coins at the American Numismatic Association Certification Service in Washington, D.C. over 40 years ago, we encountered the same problem. Occasionally, we could not determine with 100 percent certainty how a counterfeit was made. The question of “when” it was made was easy for newly discovered fakes as we were usually on the cutting-edge of detection, but we could only approximate the date of production of older fakes based on their characteristics.

Let me put the period from the late 1960s to early 1970s into perspective with regard to counterfeit detection. You could probably count the nationally known and respected authorities on counterfeit detection on a few fingers. They were aided by a well-known and respected group of professional coin dealers, many who were specialists in certain fields of numismatics.

It appeared to me that coins were being authenticated chiefly by their weight, specific gravity, dimensions, style and the opinions of knowledgeable numismatists. If anyone outside of the Department of the Treasury Mint Laboratory was using a stereo microscope to examine coins, I believe they could be counted on one hand.

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Charles Hoskins, the director of the certification service, and myself especially were the new kids on the block. Nevertheless, our access and his training with U.S. Mint authenticators, our stereo microscopes, and help with comparison coins from museums and reliable consultants allowed us in a very short period of time to surpass the expertise of most of those authenticators who had been relied on in the past.

This is not bragging, it’s a fact. It’s also a testament to all those who came before and shared their knowledge. We stood on their shoulders and others will come along to stand on ours. There is a learning curve that each novice numismatist must go through before reaching the status of a professional. The learning never ends. Thus, in hindsight, the exceptional fakes and altered coins that we encountered in the past – coins that in some cases required weeks of study before we reached an opinion – would offer no challenge today.

An important consideration back then was how the fakes were made. Altered coins were easy to distinguish. Most seen were coins having added mintmarks. Other alterations we saw include the following: removed mintmarks, mintmarks altered into a different shape, added and altered date numerals, removed design details (legs, arrows, etc.), split coins joined together, and cup and saucer coins. Aside from whizzing and polishing, surface alterations were not really considered until the first third-party professional grading service was established at the International Numismatic Society’s Washington, D.C. Authentication Bureau in 1976.

As for counterfeits, they could be classified as struck, cast and electrotypes. The electrotype and cast counterfeits were easy for us to distinguish; however, previous experts had muddled the situation with regard to struck counterfeits by teaching that the first crudely made struck coins were good castings. In actuality, these fakes looked similar and had some of the characteristics found on castings because the fakers were using poor dies and minting methods due in part to the secrecy surrounding genuine coin production at the Mint.

Let me bring this column back to the 1921 counterfeit half dollar. This is a die struck coin that is heavily circulated. Something about the coin made me look at it more closely before grading it. That “something” is what we call a gut reaction. It is developed over time with the experience of looking at lots of coins. To drive this point home, even after examining coins almost daily for more than half of my life, I will never, ever catch up to the number of coins seen by many of the best known professionals in the business. You know their names. They have fine-tuned the gut reaction I write about here to an amazing state of awareness. However, there is absolutely no person today who has examined more coins using a stereo microscope then me. No one. So I may be getting close to their level with regard to what genuine coins look like.

As I viewed the half dollar for grading, I believed its style (especially some of the letters) was off just enough to make me pause. Could this coin be an undiscovered Mint pattern that reached circulation? Thankfully, there were several other circulated 1921 halves at ICG to use for comparison. I quickly found a few design differences between the fake and the genuine pieces. Then I weighed the suspect coin and the other well-worn pieces (something I would normally not do) which further confirmed the coin was bad.

Over the years, as counterfeit coins became better, I made a personal decision that it was more important for me to be able to detect an altered or counterfeit coin than to know how it was produced. I explained to my wife that the fake was definitely die struck. However, it would be impossible at this time to determine if it was a contemporary fake such as some “Micro O” Morgan dollars or if it was a modern fake, highly circulated as many of this date come, in order to make it appear to be genuine. This can be determined if more of these low-grade coins start showing up in the marketplace.

For now, I’ll guess it’s an older piece as the amount of circulation looks normal and should be hard to duplicate. I hope readers are satisfied with my answer – she wasn’t.

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