Facts about Fakes: Authentication methods change|
I usually begin my lectures on coin authentication by stressing how important it is to know what a genuine coin should look like. Until recently, I never gave much thought as to what that entailed. I believed “Everyone knows that.” Let’s analyze what makes a coin look the way it does because of its size, shape, color, design, surface texture, reflectivity, alloy, thickness, edge, etc.
While measurements such as weight, diameter, tonal quality, and specific gravity testing for composition were in use long before I became an authenticator; a more detailed approach to authentication would prove to be needed. In the early 1970s, a study of a coin’s microscopic appearance was practically non-existent or hardly widespread. As the older generation of numismatic authenticators was replaced and the use of stereo microscopes became more common, I became obsessed with the look of coins at the microscopic level.
This detailed study of practically every coin submitted to the Certification Service led me to develop the “Die Scratch Method” of coin authentication that we still use today. I’ve written before that the idea for this approach came from Howard Newcomb’s book on large cents where he used a coin’s die polish as an aid to identify varieties. When I expanded my hand-drawn diagnostic records to include Morgan dollars, I determined that a short-cut was possible by using a universal template for my drawings. I took a micrograph of the word “Liberty” on a 1921 Morgan dollar and traced the outlines of the letters in the picture on to a sheet of paper (Figure 1). This would be my pattern for all future needs. As my files expanded, I noticed that the pattern I had made was not an exact match for all dollars. I never realized the reason until many years later. Remember, modern coin authentication was in its infancy. I had to learn from scratch what is common knowledge or obvious to anyone today. For example, in 1972 I had no idea that there were more than a few doubled-die coins and they could be counted on two hands.
Can you guess what I missed while making my “universal” pattern for Morgan dollars? It was obvious. There were design changes in the Morgan dollar series. While at first glance, the appearance of “Liberty’s” head on a 1921 Morgan looked the same as previous years, she was totally different on a smaller scale. It’s without a doubt that I was looking so closely at coins through the microscope that I missed out on half the fun that comes with the simple discovery of a hub change at the Mint. Perhaps a better example, one more easily seen, occurs in the Shield nickel series where the position of the stars on the reverse in relation to the letters in the legend produced several “naked-eye” sub-varieties that I never noticed either because I was so zoned in on the microscopic surfaces of these coins.
The obvious and the not-so-obvious, subtle design changes (overlooked at the beginning of my professional career) have become part of the “know what the genuine coin should look like” equation. There is much to learn and certainly more discoveries to be made.
Knowing what a genuine coin should look like is not as easy as it sounds – especially when it comes to ancient and foreign coins. Thirteenth to 15th century coins struck with hand-engraved dies present problems for the non-specialist. Even coins of the same date and mint seldom match. Coins with Arabic origins compound the problem further as most of us cannot even decipher the writing on them. Even 18th century coins from advanced countries in South America do not look alike. Chinese numismatics presents us with another difficult field due to its many localized mints.
OK, enough doom and gloom. Suffice it to say that it can be very difficult to know what a genuine coin should look like (unless you are a specialist) and I fear many contemporary counterfeit world coins have achieved a status of authenticity due to lax standards of authentication by some in the past. Recently, I spoke with one of the authors of a soon-to-be published book on contemporary counterfeit 8 reales (dollar size) coins. He concurred with my opinion that many of these fakes have been certified as genuine.
One “secret” I’ve always used to authenticate 8 reales coins was passed on to me long ago by an advanced collector of the series. I learned to identify identical punch characteristics on the letters of these coins. Figures 2 and 3 confirm that a single punch was used to place these letters into the die of a Mexican 1758-Mo, MM coin. Note the tiny triangle connecting the lower serif to the center of the “E.” I only reveal this “secret” now because the transfer process used to make the deceptive counterfeits of today makes this method of authentication virtually obsolete. Unfortunately, no one else I know has been making detailed diagnostics of the punches, die breaks and die polish on these and other foreign coins they encounter. One resource you might try is to view the photos of coins on the Internet provided by the major auction companies.
Our front line against counterfeits is certification by the four major grading services; but their job is only going to get more difficult – especially when I read about the relatively new and the already old 3-D printers. Perhaps one day, certification services will need to share information in a secure web connection on a daily basis in order to keep the coin market free of fakes.
More Coin Collecting Resources:
• Kick-start your coin collection with the Fundamentals of Coin Collecting set of essential resources and tools.
• Strike it rich with this U.S. coins value pack.
• Build an impressive collection with Coin Collecting 101.
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