Non Genuine Coins, Meant to Fool the Collector

Here I discuss the most dangerous category of fakery, the "coin" specifically manufactured to fool the collector, or dealer, and pass as a genuine, collectible item.  The earliest of this type of material may be considered the electrotypes of the 1800's, which were thin copper shells copied from a genuine coin by use of electrolysis, then usually filled with a base metal to add weight and keep the shell from collapsing.  The usualy targets were very scarce 17th and 18th Century Copper coinage, such as early U.S. Half Cents and Large Cents - many a copy of the 1793 Chain Cent and 1799 Large Cent were made this way.

Initially, these were not made maliciously, but rather a way for collectors to add a suitable copy of an otherwise unavailable rarity to their cabinet.  These early electrotype copies are avidly collected today in their own right, properly attributed of course, as an adjunct to Early U.S. Copper collections.

A bit later came the unofficial "restrikes", made from discarded U.S. Mint dies - the most famous of which are the 1804 Large Cent copies or "Restrike of 1860".  Again, these were not initially meant to fool a collector intentionally - today, this "coin" is actually listed in the Guide Book of U.S. Coins®, aka the "Red Book"®!

A some point, the effort became commercial, as a way to make money outright, not as simply an innocent way to meet demand,  The earliest items along these lines were likely alterations of genuine coins (please see that section) or cast copies made from molds made of genuine, rare date coins.  Later, hand made and finally commercially made dies followed.  The earlier commcially made counterfeit dies were likely made from the spark errosion process, or something similar, and as a result the details would not have been as sharp as normally seen.  Many of these fakes were then circulated artificially, cleaned, colored or retoned to try to hide their nature.

With the increased availability of machine tools, casting equipment, die presses and today's laser operated cutting machines, the counterfeiters have moved into high gear.

Counterfeit 1928 Hawaiian Commemorative Half Dollar:

This fake has been around the hobby for quite a while, due to the very limited nature of the original issue (less than 10,000 coins).  The "fakers" are are assisted in this endeavor by the fact that the real coins commonly looks "crappy", due to being distributed mainly as souvenirs in the Hawaiian Islands and subsequently being mishandled, and by the effects of tropical climate there.  I also believe that the original surfaces of this issue were produced in a manner that added to this odd effect.  Since so many were cleaned by former owners, the counterfeiters have gotten away with the same.

The example shown came out of an old-time collection, fooled a long time dealer and was acquired only based upon the agreement that it pass muster at a certification service, which it obviously did not.  For this reason I would caution that this coin should ONLY be purchased by a collector pre-certified.

Counterfeit 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent:

Probably "Number One on the Hit Parade", as far counterfeits in the Lincoln Cent series go.  Commonly altered by adding a "S" mintmark to genuine P Mint VDB Cents, it has become more common to find die struck outright phonies of this key date. The coin shown was purchased unknowingly by a collector, possibly online.  This appears to be struck from dies made from the direct transfer or spark erosion process, and is a little older type of counterfeit. The overall detail looks close to "right", but a closer inspection and some general knowledge of what a genuine coin SHOULD look like reveals the fakery.

First and foremost, the Mintmark is COMPLETELY wrong, being too large and bulky-looking, the result of being cut by hand into the die,  This suggests that the original coin used was a P Mint VDB.  Collectors should learn the proper diagnostics for a genuine San Francisco Mint mintmark punch of the 1908-1914 date era - for this, perhaps no better resource is available to the average person that to purchase (or borrow) a copy of the PCGS "Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection Guide©", now published as one of the "Official© Guide" series.

Second, a basic knowledge of coin metalurgy is valuable here - this item appears to have been struck from a near pure Copper alloy, rather than the French Bronze used in 1909 (95% Copper, 5% Tin and Zinc). Genuine 1909-S VDB Cents tend to be more Golden Brown than "Red" when original Uncirculated - this item is more of a flat orangy-red unlike any genuine Lincoln Cent pre-1982. It shows some finger contact - whether this was due to sloppyness on the part of the "minter", or whether this was done intentionally to help convince potential buyers that the coin was real, I can't say.

Thirdly, looking at the overall features of this item, it just does not pass the "smell test". The rims, especially on the Obverse are too "fat" and rounded compared to the genuine coin.  Also, when a counterfeit die is made by a process that uses a real coin as a model to transfer detail, whether by the spark-erosion process, direct transfer or producing a casting, minor marks and defects on the real coin are transfered to the counterfeit die. Additionally, fine details tend to be lost, become softer and more "out of focus" and odd bumps tend to show up where they should not on the "coin" produced from one of these dies.  Look at the area just inside the rim of either side - there is a definite "mushy" look to the area where the fields blend into the rim.  While not absolutely diagnostic, as the 1909 issue was the first year of the Lincoln Cent struck, they tend to be well made as the Master Hub was fresh, so the rims tend to be more square.


Unfortunately, we have moved into a computer-designed, laser-guided machine tool driven era, where the tools available to the counterfeiter are almost as good as those used my the U.S. Mint - and probably better than those used a century ago.  Today's die-struck counterfeit 1909-S VDB is becoming much "better' at mimicing the original, genuine item.  I hestitate to absolutely recommend purchasing only certified examples, but working with a knowlegeable, honest dealer with an iron-clad return policy is a must, as is adding to your own knowledge as much as possible in order to protect yourself further. One way to start is to never purchase ANY coin from anyone from China period.

Counterfeit 1875-CC Trade Dollar:

Another favorite of the counterfeit trade has always been the U.S. Trade Dollar.  Some of these may have originally been made to pass in trade, as part of a larger group of coins, in the hope that one or two would pass unnoticed.  The hobby has been gone through periodic waves of these phonies hitting the U.S. market.  The example shown is very good, and exemplifies the modern counterfeit made to pass close examination, made using good materials on modern machinery.  The worst part is, that this one is actually over a decade old, and the "fakers" are much better at their craft now.  This "coin" was probably from the first large batch that showed up in the Hong Kong area about 10-15 years ago and was brought back to the U.S. by a dealer.  Again, this has gone through a certification service to check on authenticity; unlike the 1928 Hawaiian above (which was assumed to be fake), this coin received a split decision from dealers who viewed it.

The date copied is just common enough in higher circulated and low end Unc grades to not strike one as being obviously unusual, such as an 1873 or 1874 Carson City Mint product might.

What makes this C/F particularly dangerous is that the heft, color, "ring" and everything else passes muster, and dealers and collectors with some experience still might be fooled.  The details are crsip, show none of the loss of detail comon to items made from copy dies, which suggests an early use of laser operated machinery and cutting tools, as well as good quality die material.

A Signs of Things to Come:

Unfortunately, scarce and rare date coinage are no longer the only targets of modern counterfeiters. Due to the ease of making GOOD copy dies and striking fakes from the proper materials, even common date older coins may become a potential threat.  I recently saw a group of 1884-O Morgan Dollars in a dealer's case at a large coin show, which were being discussed by a number of individuals present - the concensus was that the group could not make an absolute determination that they were genuine! In fact, it was mentioned that a major certification service was not even willing to offer a verbal opinion of authenticity, and this was for a very common coin in a very common grade. Obviously, with a U.S. Silver Dollar containing about $14 worth of Silver content (when I originally wrote this - much higher now!), taking that amount of Silver and turning it into something that could easily sell for $30 becomes practical if you make enough to get your productions costs down to $1-2 per coin, or less.

This discussion would not be complete without some commentary about the current wave of "copies", "tribute coins" or outright forgeries (take your pick) that are coming out of the East in large number.  The distribution and proliferation of the current. very accurate counterfeits is made easier by two things: the Internet, which allows a "sight unseen" hand off of the product, usually paid for with electronic "money" which is difficult to trace (or prove in some cases), and outright GREED.

Today, with everyone apparently looking to make a quick buck, people are often not willing to pay a dealer what a coin is "worth" (and I use that term advisably), in hopes of getting it for half price on a popular online auction site, which shall remain nameless - they are then surprised that the item is cleaned, damaged, ugly or even not real.

I will never understand why anyone who would instantly disbelieve a coin dealer who told them that the coin that has been in their family for 50-100 years is a "fake"  (in order for the dealer to "buy it for nothing"), would choose to BELIEVE some bozo in the Celestial Kingdom who swears up and down that they found a particular rare U.S. coin in a box full of their Mother's effects!

Basically, if it too good to be true, it is not.  Easy as that.