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Fakes Turn into Hot Potatoes at Show
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
December 17, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Have you ever looked at an old coin and, just for a minute, wondered where it has been or whose hands it had passed through? Last month, at the Camp Jordan Coin Show in Chattanooga, I had that experience three times with the same two coins! The pieces were quarter eagles – one a 1907 Liberty and the other a 1914 Indian.

I first saw this pair when an older gentleman came to the ICG table at the show to get an opinion of their grade before selling them. Each coin was in a white cardboard 2x2 with a notation that it was BU. As he handed me the coins, they looked to be uncirculated with nice luster; however, as they came nearer to my fluorescent light, I knew at once that the $2.50 Indian was a counterfeit. It was not very deceptive; probably made over 30 years ago. I can say that with relative certainty because the color of the gold was wrong indicating a low grade alloy. This type of older counterfeit is what I often describe to my students as an “across-the-room” fake because experienced numismatists can spot one from a distance.

The $2.50 Liberty was a “Tweener.” It was struck sometime after the fakers used a higher alloy of gold to improved the color; but before they learned that “wormy tool marks” exposed their best efforts. I named this type of tooling that looked like intertwined worms back in the 1970s when I first saw it under high magnification on the “Omega” High Relief $20 counterfeit. Figure 1, taken at 40x shows a few patches of them on the eagle’s wing. They only became apparent to me as I increased the “zoom” power of my scope shortly before confirming these coins were counterfeit. Later, I found a better example (Figure 2) in the recess of the hair next to Liberty’s head. This style of tooling is caused when a coin die is touched up. Their appearance will vary depending on how they were made and the tool used to make them. Although evidence of tooling can be found on both genuine and counterfeit dies, I had never seen “wormy tool marks” on a genuine coin. This style of tooling disappeared in the 1980s as most counterfeiters realized how easily their products could be detected using these marks alone. Soon after this, the weights, alloy and die preparation of counterfeits was improved again making our job as authenticators even more difficult.

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Before returning to my story, I should remind you that there is another usage of the word “tooling” in authentication. It refers to “ouch-up marks found on the finished coin rather than the die. “Tooling” can describe moving/removing metal from a coin’s surface or re-engraving “lost” details of a coin’s design. Both these operations are done to improve the appearance of a coin while removing corrosion, making repairs, or raising the apparent grade of a coin by adding design elements that were lost. Figure 3 shows a crudely amateurish attempt to add missing hair detail on a Morgan dollar.

As I handed the coins back to the customer, I explained that they were older fakes and how I reached my opinion. A few hours later, a dealer accompanied by a different gentleman brought the identical pieces over to my table for review. I held my tongue, closely examined both coins again; and told the dealer that they appeared to be counterfeits.

At the show the next day, I was surprised to see the same pair of fakes again, still in their 2x2s, when a different dealer brought them over to be examined. This time, I told him the story of both coins – how I had already seen them on two occasions the day before. He said “no problem, I know the person I bought them from and will get my money back.”

There is a good side to this story. At the Camp Jordan Show, the promoters had three grading services present to help collectors and dealers with questions of authenticity and grade. That made it possible for each of my customers to avoid purchasing those two counterfeits. Nevertheless, I wish I could have followed those two coins around that weekend. How many hands did they pass through? Did each seller make up a good story about how they were acquired? Were they purchased at fair market value or well below a fair price as someone tried to make a killing? A long time ago, while the ANA’s Certification Service was located in Washington, D.C., the director, Charles Hoskins, had a close relationship with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Mint and a lesser association with the Secret Service. It was our policy that any altered or counterfeit coin would be returned to the submitter but they would be advised to alert the Secret Service about the transaction so the counterfeit could be traced back to its source. Grading services no longer do this; however, they do fill the void of counterfeit detection without the “tracking/enforcement” duty. I encourage readers to use them for questions of authenticity and to evaluate your personal grading skills. The events I describe at the coin show should make you pause and reflect so “Buyer Beware.”

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