(Reprinted from PCGS’s Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection)
Contemporary forgeries are counterfeits created at the time the Mint was issuing the coins from which they were copied, and made for the purpose of being spent. The counterfeiter would forge these pieces through the use of hand-cut dies, with which base-metal planchets would be struck. Then, he or she would simply spend the newly-made fakes.
Due to the nature of the hand-cut dies, these forgeries are easily detected. The design elements, letters, and digits never quite match those of the genuine U.S. Mint products. Contemporary copies frequently are seen for issues tied to financially burdensome times. These include fake 1861 three-cent silvers, presumably made and spent during the Civil War, and spurious 1933 half dollars that very likely were used during the Great Depression. An interesting series of copper-nickel counterfeits of Capped Bust half dollars carried dates from the 1820s into the 1840s, or after the series was discontinued, and may have been made as late as the Civil War.
Alterations involve taking otherwise genuine coins and changing them into something they never were. Alterations run the gamut of coins as well as techniques.
One of the most frequently seen alterations is the addition of a mint mark to a coin that did not have one to begin with. By adding an "S" mint mark to a genuine but common 1909 VD13 Lincoln cent, for example, a forger makes it appear to be the highly coveted 1909-S VDB. Typically, the mint mark is added with an epoxy glue, though alterations exist where a mint mark was soldered to the surface of the coin.
On other alterations the date has been changed. Many cases are known, for example, where the first "4" in the date of a 1944-D Lincoln cent has been altered to look like a "1"-making the coin appear, at least to the uninitiated, as a key-date 1914-D. Other such alterations might involve changing a 1941 Walking Liberty half dollar to a 1921 or a common-date Indian Head cent to an 1877.
Another form of alteration is the embossed mint mark. The results of this intricate process were first observed on Buffalo nickels. The counterfeiter would drill a hole through the edge of the coin in the area of the mint mark. From there, a raised mint mark would be embossed or created by inserting a pliers-like tool and squeezing the instrument. Presto: a mint mark!
The final form of alteration we will consider here is a process known as chasing, accomplished by building up metal from the field of the coin. With this built-up metal, a mint mark can be configured. This alteration generally is the easiest to detect, as it is by nature the sloppiest in execution. Most altered coins will be found in the series from cents through silver dollars. Altered gold coins are seen much less frequently.
The Detection Process
While counterfeit detection obviously is important, such excellent information has been published in the recent past that the number of counterfeits being submitted to PCGS is minuscule. In fact, PCGS encounters only about 25 counterfeits per 10,000 coins, or an average rate of one quarter of 1 percent (0.25 percent).
The ultimate secret to counterfeit detection is a knowledge of what the genuine coin should look like. If one knows the characteristics of the genuine coin, everything else must be called into question.
Experts in various specialties generally find counterfeit detection easier in their particular fields. Experts in early large cents, Mercury dimes, or Morgan dollars will rarely get stung by a counterfeit in their specialty, because they have detailed knowledge of the genuine coins in their series. Therefore, they immediately question anything that appears strange. Their initial suspicion impels them to verify the coin's authenticity. Typically, the specialist will refer to reference books, notes, and inventory before reaching a conclusion. Comparison to the real coin will almost always solve the riddle.
In the next section, PCGS will share with you some of the secrets to counterfeit detection. We will start by examining the manufacture of genuine U.S. coins.
The Real Thing
Since the mid-1800s, U.S. coins have been made through a meticulous process that begins with the sculpting of a wax or clay positive of the intended design. A plaster or other composition negative then would be made of the model, and this negative then would be used to cast an iron positive of the design. Later, an electroplated galvano or shell would replace the iron casting.
The casting or galvano would be used on a reducing lathe to prepare a steel punch that would be used, in turn, to begin a master die. Letters, stars, and a rim would be added to finish the master die, which then would be used to raise up working hubs. These hubs would be used to sink working dies, which were used to strike coins.
As the quality of the reducing lathes improved over the years, more and more detail such as the lettering and stars could be included on the original models. Beginning with the Saint Gaudens $10's and $20's of 1907, the entire design, including the date, was reduced from the artist's model. This uniformity, though annoying to the variety collector, makes counterfeit detection easier.
Typically, all details will be sharp and crisp on a newly-struck genuine coin. For most coin designs, the letters and digits will rise sharply from the fields of the coins. These same letters and digits will have sharply cornered tops. This is extremely important, as most counterfeiters lack the ability to reproduce this effect. It is because of the attention to detail that the U.S. Mint's products are unquestionably superior. Obviously for the few series where the letters and digits are rounded (such as the Peace dollar, Indian Head eagle, and Saint Gaudens double eagle), counterfeits can sometimes be more deceptive.
We know how important luster can be in determining the grade of a coin, but it plays a major role in counterfeit detection as well. How often have you heard someone say that a coin "looks bad"? Have you ever wondered how someone could be so certain a coin was counterfeit just by its look? This again reflects the manufacturing process. Due to the one-to-one transfer that occurs with most counterfeits, their surfaces are totally uniform, which means the lustrous effects of the fields and devices are the same. On genuine coins, the fields usually contrast with the devices. Perhaps this can be better explained another way: the smooth surface of the fields usually contrasts with the textured surface of the devices. The contrast is what gives genuine coins their particular look. Genuine coins do not have a uniform appearance. Two coin types that illustrate this particularly well are Morgan dollars and Liberty Head gold pieces.
Naturally-occurring die characteristics detectable on a coin are most helpful in determining authenticity. These are the subtle clues that confirm a coin's genuineness. They include die-polish lines, die cracks, and die chips; striking anomalies, such as grease-filled dies; and certain planchet characteristics. Of the characteristics just mentioned, die polish lines are by far the most useful in determining a coin's authenticity. Just about every die is polished at one time or another, and when this is done, mint technicians leave small grooves on the surface of the die, which in turn become raised lines on the finished coin. These lines are almost always extremely crisp, well-defined, and purposeful.
The typical counterfeiter, on the other hand, rarely polishes the dies, being more interested in making coins as quickly and cheaply as possible. In addition, detail is lost when a counterfeiter transfers a model coin to an illicit die, which may totally eliminate or barely transfer existing die polish lines. The result is a counterfeit that shows very little, if any, evidence of die polishing. To effectively view these small lines, you need at least a 5X loupe and an incandescent, fluorescent, or halogen light source.
Knowledge is king. Knowing the characteristics of genuine coins will help you quickly fakes. With rare coins, remember that in most cases very few dies would have created them; therefore, their diagnostics are few. Counterfeiters can keep making their concoctions forever, but if they cannot duplicate the real thing, their duplicity will be easily detected.