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Coin Collecting: The Are Such Things As Phonies

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( Published 1963 )

As in all areas of antiques (and coins can be classified as antiques whether they're 100-year-old American examples or those of Ancient Rome), there are dishonest individuals out to make a few fast bucks from the unwary and the uninitiated.

Naturally, those coins which have the greatest market value are selected for doctoring or faking in some way or another. Ancient gold has been copied with varying degrees of success for hundreds of years. Even ancient and medieval silver has been reproduced almost too well. But who'd think there are those who'd doctor an American cent to look like what it isn't?

In the field of United States coins, there are three principal means which occasionally are used to make collectors' items.

First is the restrike, a sometimes legitimate production of the U. S. Mint, but not legitimately produced in the purported year of issue. Through the unofficial efforts of certain mint workers in the past, rare coins have been produced to meet the demand-and cash-of collectors.

Second is the doctored coin: the mint mark of a common dollar is removed to make it a rarity; part of a numeral is cut away to make it look like another; a Buffalo's leg is chiseled off to make it resemble the legitimate 3-legged rarity.

Third is the deliberate attempt to make the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear. In such an attempt, a character secretly copper-plates a steel cent of 1943 to make it appear as an accidental product (and hence a supposed rarity) of the official U. S. Mint. Sharpers sometimes buff silver coins to make them appear to be the mirror-finished proofs of a premium year. Such coins would never fool an expert numismatist, but they have been sold at “bargain” prices to the unwary.

Of course, the out-and-out counterfeit is not an attempt to fool the coin collectors, but to defraud the United States government. While counterfeiting is not practiced much in this country today, due to an alert Secret Service, there was the case of a man who issued his own Jefferson nickels in considerable quantity back in 1944.

His copies were good enough to go unnoticed for several years. Then an alert coin collector detected the almost minor oversight of the copyist. In that war year (1944), the United States nickel bore the mint mark “P” above the dome of Jefferson's Monticello home. The counterfeiter failed to include that small detail in his version of the 1944 Jefferson nickel, and it led to his undoing.

There are those who won't quarrel with the restrike, even though it admittedly was struck some time after the year of original issue. In the case of certain coin dates, restrikes are the only ones available. But, where an original and a restrike of a certain date can be had, the original coin almost always commands a higher premium.

One of the better-known restrikes is the 1804 large copper cent. This fake was manufactured in about 1860 by some employees of the U.S Mint. The 1804 large cent has always been more or less of a rarity, and there undoubtedly was a considerable demand for it even a hundred years ago. But whether the mint workers fabricated the fake to make money or merely to please friends and relatives, is not known.

The 1804 restrike probably would never fool a numismatist worthy of the name. The workers found a discarded and rusty die of 1804, somewhat cracked and battered. They didn't bother to find (or couldn't locate) a reverse die of the proper type. Instead they settled for one of the style used some iq, years later.

The resulting restrike is a coin well-pitted on the obverse and with a reverse design that doesn't match those which preceded or immediately followed it. This so-called 1804 restrike, in Uncirculated condition, is valued at about a fourth as much as a genuine 1804 in only Fine condition.

The large silver dollar of that same year- 1804 -is probably the most publicized rarity of all American coins. Whenever it is offered for sale at auction, it is likely to bring in the neighborhood of $30,000.

There is a great big mystery as to what happened to the 19,570 silver dollars which the mint director reported were coined between January 7 and March 28, 1804- Coinage of silver dollars was stopped abruptly on that date by the mint to prevent exportation abroad, because its bullion value was greater than a dollar.

Were the 19,570 coined up to the March day tossed back into the melting pat? It would appear likely, but no one can be certain.

Through the years, various other theories as to the disappearance of those 1804 dollars have been advanced. They include:

The dollars were exported immediately, either as coin or as bullion.

They were put aboard a vessel bound for China, and the vessel and its cargo were lost at sea.

The entire production was exported to the Far East. They were part of tribute paid to the Barbary pirates.

All were captured by the British.

The 19,000 were stolen and are presently buried-where, no one knows.

The 14 or so examples of the 1804 dollar in existence today are known as “originals” and “restrikes: “ It is possible that half of these, dubbed “originals,” were the seven 1804 silver dollars reserved for assay. The “restrikes” probably were struck at the Philadelphia mint between 1836 and 1842, although no one can say for sure.

Phony 1804 dollars, outright fakes, have been fabricated: some so cleverly that they fool even the experts-for a time. The usual way to manufacture a phony 1804 is to secure an 1801 dollar, remove the final “1” in the date and solder a “4” onto the coin in its place.

Careful study with the strongest magnifying glass might reveal the alteration to an expert. To the average collector, only the “bargain” price asked might keep him from acquiring it-that and the knowledge that such fake 1804 dollars do exist.

The doctored coin is one that started life legitimately enough but somewhere along the way fell into the hands of a get-rich-quick artist and was transformed into an imitation of a much more valuable brother.

An excellent example of the coin which may be doctored is the 1944 Lincoln cent produced by the Denver mint. In all, more than 430 million such Lincolns were struck there. Its catalog value, even in the shiniest of Uncirculated, is less than 50 cents.

But little old 1944 has a rich ancestor-the 1914 Lincoln cent that also had its birthplace in Denver. This wealthy relative of 1914 is currently rated at well above $400 in Unciruclated.

Conniving souls on occasion have sought to level out this difference in financial rating. Through dextrous use of engraving tools, they doctor the first “4” of the 1944 cent, and before long it straightens out to look very much like the “1” in the rich relative of 1914

Such altered-date coins have been offered in the past; they will be in the future. One quick check can be made: the doctored 1944 has too much space between the “9” and the “1,” where everything but the upright of the “4” has been removed.

Proof positive can be found through use of a good magnifying glass. The designer's initials “VDB” can be seen on Lincoln's right shoulder, near the rim, on the altered 1944-D. Genuine 1914-D Lincoln cents did not carry these initials. Sharpers sometimes - even try to tool away the tiny initials from the 1944 coin, but a good glass will reveal the scratches made in the effort.

Less common, but by no means rare, is the “doctored” 1909-S Indian cent. Here the relatively common 1909 Indian is made into his rarer brother from the San Francisco mint. How? By soldering a tiny “S” to the correct spot on the reverse side. Some sharpers do not even bother to use solder, being fairly confident that ordinary glue will hold the “S” in place until they can depart to safer climes.

An 1895 silver dollar of the Philadelphia mint (no mint mark) is cataloged at well over a thousand dollars in Proof condition. It is a challenge that would appeal to any good con man. So he may take an Uncirculated 1895 dollar minted at New Orleans (catalog value around $60) and carefully remove the “O” mint letter.

The result is an 1895 dollar that would easily fool the average collector. It looks exactly like the thousand-dollar Philadelphia job, except that a powerful magnifying glass will show minute scratches in the area from which the unwanted mint letter was removed.

Less valuable, but still worth a dishonest effort by the confidence clan, is the 3-legged Buffalo nickel produced at the Denver mint in 1937. The genuine coin shows the Buffalo with only three legs, the fourth having almost disappeared as a result of a break in the die.

The sharper takes a regular ig37-D nickel and carefully tools away the offending fourth leg. The result is that a coin cataloging only $3.50 now looks like a rarity with a $90 catalog value.

So, unless you can spot a doctored coin easily and with certainty from a few paces off, beware the stranger bearing 3-legged nickels.

In Commemorative half dollars, there is a great price difference between the two 1922 issues of the Grant Memorial coin: $16 for the commoner; $130 for the rarer. The more valuable Grant has a star in the obverse field. So what could be simpler for the con man than to procure a star punch and oblige his customers?

Only one thing is wrong with this bit of skullduggery when he punches his fake star into place, a flattened spot appears on the reverse of the coin. Thus, the wise collector scrutinizes a Grant with Star half dollar with extreme care - on both sides.

In the world of the phony, beware the coin which has been buffed to look like a Proof.

Proof coins are carefully struck under great pressure, using only specially polished planchets (or blanks). The result is a coin which, in addition to almost needle sharpness of detail throughout, has a mirror-like finish in the field (background).

Now, a buffed coin, at first glance, may look like a Proof. Under the magnifying glass, however, the needle-sharp detail is nowhere to be seen. There appear to be countless tiny scratches, and there's a peculiar glaze over all, that's not at all Prooflike.

Gold coins frequently are buffed in an attempt to make them resemble Uncirculated or Proof coins. In every case, a reasonably good glass will show it is neither-even if you haven't learned to identify that peculiar glaze that buffing brings.

With the current craze for Proof sets, silver coins also have been buffed by get-rich-quick artists in an attempt to sell them at right smart, if not exorbitant, prices. Again, place reliance on a good glass before you fall for “Proofs” at bargain prices.

With all phonies, real or suspected, whether restrikes, doctored coins, or the silk-purse productions, own and learn to rely on a good magnifying glass. Don't be afraid to use it. A reputable dealer or fellow collector is flattered that you care enough to scan the very best.