U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

The Fundamentals Of Counterfeit Detection - Part 1

Reprinted from PCGS's Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection

Since perhaps the very day coins were first produced, quick-buck artists and their counterparts throughout history have sought illicit gain by making copies-or counterfeits-of the genuine articles. From ancient times to the present, counterfeits have been an unwelcome reality, and they surely will continue to be a problem well into the future. Initially, counterfeits were made merely with the objective of being spent. More recently, however, as some coins acquired substantial premium value as collectibles, there emerged a new crop of counterfeiters, bent on producing coins that would fool collectors rather than merchants. These more advanced malefactors utilized techniques extending far beyond the crude methods of earlier forgers. In time, the coin-buying public was confronted with a confusing array of cast copies, transfer-die counterfeits, spark-erosion counterfeits, electrotypes, and alterations-all deceptive and all decidedly dangerous to hobbyists' financial health.Responding to its members' alarm about these counterfeits, the American Numismatic Association in 1972 created an agency called the American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS) whose mission was to ferret out, identify, and expose spurious coins. Coins submitted to ANACS for inspection were determined to be genuine or not and were returned to their owners. It was ANACS' job to educate the public by publishing its findings and disclosing diagnostic features that would aid in determining the authenticity of a given coin.

In 1979, ANACS' role was broadened to encompass not only authentication but also grading. Within a few years, it was joined by other grading services, including PCGS. In each instance, these services had to establish with unwavering accuracy the authenticity of coins submitted for their review before they could assign grades to those coins. After all, a coin's grade is irrelevant if it is a counterfeit. Fortunately, the art of counterfeit detection was far advanced by the time the grading services came into being, having had a head start of more than two decades, and a great deal of working knowledge was available. Still, it is relatively easy to produce counterfeits and alterations, and authenticators are constantly seeing new variations on old themes as they battle resourceful foes in the war against fakes and fakers.

What skills does one need to identify fakes? There is enough information in print about counterfeits to fill volumes. And that is where this guidebook will take a different tack. Rather than trying to determine why a particular coin is counterfeit, this book will offer secrets on how to determine a genuine coin's authenticity. It is easier and quicker to look for genuine diagnostics than it is to identify every counterfeit diagnostic. Many genuine rare coins were struck from a limited number of dies, making it easier to identify the real coin than to try to sort through what could be an infinite number of counterfeits.

Keep in mind that a counterfeiter can create many different variations of the same coin, but if only one or two dies were used by the U.S. Mint to produce a coin, the identifying characteristics of one of those dies will be present in every coin that was struck from them.

Having said all of this, it is still important to know what counterfeit coins look like-and at the outset, we will look at the different types of counterfeits that exist. However, the bulk of the text will deal with identifying genuine coins and their characteristics.

Overview

Cast Counterfeits
The most basic and most crude of all counterfeit coins are cast copies. These generally are manufactured not for the purpose of fraud, but to create a copy as a souvenir or promotional giveaway.

Usually the cast copy can be easily identified by a seam that runs around the outside edge or circumference of the coin. This seam appears at the point where two molds, obverse and reverse, are joined. As the metal is poured or forced through the opening in the edge and fills the voids of the mold, a "coin" is produced.

Casting has come a long way from its early beginnings, and some cast copies today are made from plastic molds, using centrifugal force. These are of a slightly higher quality, but still can be detected by noting their faulty edges (unless they have been filed) and lack of surface detail.

The most commonly seen cast copies of American coins are colonial and territorial pieces. A number of crudely made cast pieces were manufactured for the sole purpose of being sold as souvenirs on historic occasions, and these are easily detected.

Virtually all cast counterfeits are underweight, compared with the genuine coins from which they are copied, due to the fact that base metals usually are used in place of any precious metals that would have been present in the original coins. The base metals most commonly used include pewter or some other combinations of tin, zinc, or lead.

Electrotypes
Over the years, electrotypes have been made legitimately and appropriately by museums. Many times museums display an imitation of a rare coin, rather than the real thing, for purposes of security or to show both the obverse and reverse of the coin, and they often create electrotypes for these purposes.

Electrotypes are made by impressing a genuine coin into a soft substance and electroplating the negative impression, thereby creating a positive shell. The process allows only one side to be produced at a time, which is ideal for a museum. With each side independent, the obverse and reverse can be displayed simultaneously. Problems developed for the coin-collecting public when these shells were matched, filled with a metallic composition, then fused to create an entire coin.

While the detail of an electrotype can be excellent, the edge will usually give it away. As with cast copies, many electrotypes have a seam along the outer edge. Also as with casts, electrotypes generally will not "ring." A ring test often is used on coins to determine whether a coin is solid and struck. When it is balanced on the tip of a finger and struck softly with a pen or pencil, a genuine coin usually will produce a high-pitched ring. Most electrotypes and cast copies will merely "thud" or "clunk." Since these pieces are not actually struck, they have relatively little solidity. Many times an electrotype will not be the proper weight; it may be either too light or too heavy, compared with a genuine coin.

A word of caution: some counterfeiters who use electrotypes for the purpose of deception place a sliver of glass between the shells; because of this, plus the metallic substance joining the two halves, a ringing sound can be achieved when this kind of electrotype is tapped.

Transfer Dies
Transfer dies are the most common devices used by the modern counterfeiter whose sole intent is to defraud. In the transfer method, the counterfeiter actually creates a working die. In the crudest form, called an impact die, a genuine coin will be sacrificed in making this fake working die by impressing it into die steel, as if the coin were a working hub. Once a pair of dies has been created, the counterfeiter then produces fake coins.

While these counterfeits can be difficult to detect, a coin produced by this method will always be identifiable-for when the counterfeiter impresses the dies, any defects the original coin might have had are unavoidably copied. Therefore, all subsequent copies the counterfeiter makes also will carry these defects, usually in the form of bag marks. Odds tell us that no two or more coins will contain identical contact marks in the exact same spots.

Sometimes the detector's job is made easier because the counterfeiter tried to remove the defects from the die and, in so doing, bungled the die and created what are known as tooling marks. Tooling marks appear on a coin as short, stubby raised lines. These result when the counterfeiter cuts grooves into the die in an effort to remove a raised lump-the lump that was creating the defective "bag mark." This lump was appealing on all the fakes, and the counterfeiter desperately wanted to remove it. By removing the repeating-yet unobtrusive- bag mark, the counterfeiter made detection easier by creating a coin that has obvious raised lines over the spot where a bag mark once was.

One of the shortcuts counterfeiters take is using the same undated side (usually the reverse) in combination with many dated sides (usually obverses). The U.S. Mint has rarely used the same undated dies from one year to the next, and the Mint's dies usually were in exemplary condition and did not show the common repeating defects evident on counterfeiters' dies.

The transfer method is most commonly used to counterfeit gold coins. A few silver counterfeits also have been made this way, as have some fake copper coins. Interestingly, while entire date sets of counterfeit Indian Head quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles have been seen, relatively few pre-1840 gold counterfeits exist. When they do appear, they generally are limited to certain dates.

Spark-Erosion Counterfeits
Spark-erosion counterfeits are quite easy to detect because of the way in which they are manufactured.

In the spark-erosion process, a model coin (usually genuine) is submersed in an electrolytic bath where the coin faces the counterfeiter's die steel. An electrical current is charged through the coin so that a spark jumps across the shortest gap between the coin and the die, thus etching the coin's design onto the steel die.

After both the obverse and reverse have undergone the electrical current process, the dies are highly polished. This is necessary because once the dies have been etched, they remain somewhat pitted. The polishing generally will clean up the fields, but often the design will retain the pitting, since counterfeiters tend not to polish the main devices. Either they are unable to get down into the design, or for time's sake they choose to leave the design elements alone. In either case, these counterfeits are easy to detect, since their surfaces are glassy smooth-resembling a Proof finish-yet their devices are lumpy (remember, the pitting on the dies becomes raised lumps on the finished product). Because the excessive polishing makes the dies sharp, these counterfeits appear to be extremely well-struck, with knifelike edges and rims.

These counterfeits usually are found on small-type coins such as cents and dimes, and on small-sized patterns such as those for Flying Eagle cents and dimes. PCGS has not encountered them on gold coins.

(To be continued in the next issue)

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