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Sometimes Bad-Looking Coins Real
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
November 18, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Recently, I saw an uncirculated Soviet-China dollar (Y-513.1) certified genuine by a major grading service that reminded me of a paradox authenticators occasionally encounter. I can only describe the coin as being so awful (in a bad way) that it must be genuine.

My students and regular readers of this column should recall that every characteristic found on genuine coins can eventually be seen on a counterfeit. The opposite also holds true – every defect found on counterfeits will eventually occur on a genuine piece. Just not all at once. As I examine a questionable coin for authenticity, I like to make a mental chart with genuine characteristics (+) on the left and counterfeit defects (-) on the right separated by a line down the middle. For example, a granular field should occur on counterfeit coins more than genuine pieces so granularity would rate a minus.

Again, I’m reminded of my first encounter with a circulated 1915-S Panama-Pacific $50 “slug” grading very fine. The owner’s “story” with the coin was that it was carried as a pocket piece for many years – yeah, right I thought. Bet its owner wore out lots of pockets carrying two and a half ounces of gold around. Lots of fake coins and reproductions come with a good story, too, so I ignore them.

Although at that time I had never seen one of these Pan-Pac slugs before, my limited knowledge had me convinced the piece was counterfeit. Under a stereo microscope, this particular piece looked like a poorly made cast copy. What remained of the original surface next to its relief could only be described as rough, wavy and granular. All these characteristics were found on counterfeits back in 1972.

A quick trip over to the Smithsonian Museum to view a genuine specimen in the National Coin Collection was an eye opening experience for me. The surfaces of the high-grade specimens they had looked identical. I learned that these special coins were struck on the medal press at the Mint. They had a very soft, artistic relief design and wavy fields. There were even traces of the pantograph lines when the master hub was transferred from the artist’s model. All this was new to me. I learned that day that an authenticator must know what the genuine coin should look like before giving an opinion.

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No one defect should tip the scales in one direction or the other; however, a coin’s weight or specific gravity that is far out of tolerance earns extra minus points. Since we don’t carry balances and microscopes around, most plus and minus characteristics are visual clues as seen with a hand lens. Coins having depressions, tool marks, edge seams and granularity usually receive a minus while sharpness, good color and strong metal flow are pluses for die-struck coins.

The certified coin I’m writing about is one of those unusual coins authenticators can encounter. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it to show you. While I don’t claim to be an expert in Far Eastern numismatics, I can honestly say that I did not see any characteristic of a genuine coin on this piece except that it was silver in color and round. I guess that’s two pluses for it. I wish I could have weighed the coin and checked its specific gravity and edge reeding, but it was already in a slab.

Where should I begin? The most obvious characteristic on this coin was the heavy pantograph lines on both sides through its entire surface. When I think of pantographs, I visualize the beautiful Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG-1 electric locomotives. In numismatics, pantograph lines are the raised circular concentric lines left on the coin from the tracings made by the reducing machine as the master hub is made. I’ve illustrated an example of this characteristic found on a genuine 1954 proof Washington quarter. In most cases, the engravers remove these lines so they are seldom found on finished coins and rarely to the extent seen on the Chinese coin in question. Another major detraction was the exceptional number of large tool marks found all over the coin. It’s believed that tool marks are left on coins in places where the counterfeiters touch up their dies.

Tool marks occur on genuine coins but never in the size, amount and locations seen on this piece. Close examination using a hand lens revealed blobs and rounded lumps all over the field and relief design. Additionally there was pitting and round craters in the lettering and field. Finally, there were many irregular depressions in the field having the same surface as the coin. Since the coin’s surface was 100 percent original, this was an indication that the defects were raised areas on the die that transferred to the coin when it was made.

My mental calculation for this coin was +2 – 6 = Minus 4. The coin appeared to be absolutely counterfeit; yet it was certified as genuine by a very reputable company. That’s the authenticator’s paradox I referred to at the beginning of this column. This coin was so obviously counterfeit that it must be genuine. No coin with this amount of counterfeit characteristics could possibly be certified by a major grading service unless it was unquestionably genuine. My next project is to examine more of these coins. For now, I’ll remain a “No Opinion” on this coin until I get to examine similar pieces that have been locked away in a museum prior to 1960. That’s because I suspect that much of the information we hear about how crude the assay methods, die work, and minting methods used at one time in many foreign countries that resulted in very crude genuine coins may not be totally true. Thus, it may be possible for counterfeit pieces to have been accepted as genuine in the marketplace if due diligence was not used to authenticate them when they first appeared. It won’t be the first time this has occurred.

Make sure to have your scarce and valuable coins certified by one of the major grading services. That way you will be sure to have a guarantee of authenticity – no matter what we discover in the future.

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