U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

Altering One of America’s Favorite Coins – the 1877 Indian Head Cent

With the proliferation of counterfeit coins we are now experiencing, especially from China, PCGS has been at the forefront of countering the threat counterfeiting brings to collectors and the coin industry.

PCGS graders have always been taught how to detect counterfeit coins, and Mike Sargent is one of the leading experts in this challenging facet of coin authentication. In this article, Mike takes a close look at one of America’s favorite collector coins – the elusive 1877 Indian Head cent – which unfortunately, is one of the most likely coins to be faked. Mike will pinpoint the difference between the genuine article and altered versions.


It always helps to know the characteristics of a genuine coin whenever you start talking about counterfeits. With the 1877 Indian Head cent, the most important diagnostic feature appears on the reverse. On a genuine coin, the bottom right of the N in ONE and the top left of the N in CENT should be much weaker than the rest of the denomination. The only set of dies used on mint state coins issued for general circulation in 1877 has this distinct characteristic. Proof 1877 Indian Head cents were struck from dies with strong lettering in these same areas.

Some specialists believe that as many as 10% of all mint state 1877 Indian Head cents were struck from this set of proof dies after the mint was finished producing proofs. I do not subscribe to this theory. I believe that the few specimens I have seen to date are more likely proof coins that entered into circulation.

PCGS has certified more than 2,000 1877 Indian Head cents and I have personally inspected more than half of them. Out of all those coins, I have seen no more than a dozen pieces that were genuine with strong Ns. Compare this quantity to other proof-only series such as Trade dollars from 1879-1883 and the percentage of impaired proofs is similar to the percentage of circulated, strong N 1877 Indian cents.

All other dates from the 1870s have strong letters across the entire denomination and thus are a giveaway when a counterfeiter tries to alter a different date to an 1877. The date that seems to be altered most frequently is 1879, where the last 9 is changed to resemble a 7. Some altered 1877s have both 7s altered in a hopeful attempt to make them match. However, close examination of the date area on these altered coins reveals tooling defects caused by displaced metal.

On the counterfeit coin presented here, note that the bottom of the serif on the second 7 is not squared off like the first. Both 7s on the genuine coin have squared-off serifs. There is also a slight discrepancy with the back, sloping side of the two 7s. This altered coin actually is much better than most counterfeit 1877 cents, because of how difficult it is to accurately duplicate genuine numbers this closely.

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