Perhaps the most frequent question collectors of ancient
coins are asked by noncollectors is, "How do you know it's real?" The disconcerting answer sometimes
is, "You don't." Not with all coins, not with certainty.
The fact is, significant numbers of counterfeit ancient coins are sold as authentic coins. But counterfeiting can
be a problem for collectors of modern coins too, with the large numbers of fakes made in China being a particularly big challenge today. Further, modern as well as ancient coins are sometimes altered from a common variety to a rare one,
a form of counterfeiting. The issue of counterfeit coins shouldn't deter you from coin collecting. The number of fakes on the market is dwarfed by the number of genuine coins. But coin counterfeiting is
an issue that any savvy collector needs to face.
Counterfeit coin detection, particularly with ancient coins, is as much art as science. Because they were struck
by hand and because of the wide variability of their designs, even the best experts are sometimes fooled. Some
of the most prestigious dealers in the world bought large numbers of counterfeit ancient coins as authentic coins
at the 1999 and 1988 New York International Numismatic Conventions, which were only later discovered to be coin
forgeries. Many dealers contacted buyers and refunded their money, but dealers returned these fakes to their sources, and later large numbers of them still entered the market as authentic coins.
The most frequently seen counterfeit or altered U.S. coins, according to PCGS's 2004 book Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection, include:
- 1856 Flying Eagle cent
- 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent
- 1955 double-die Lincoln cent
- 1916-D Mercury dime
- Cincinnati commemorative half dollar
- 1804 Bust dollar (a million dollar rarity)
- 1893-S Morgan dollar
- Saint-Gaudens high-relief double eagle
Other frequently seen counterfeit or altered U.S. coins,
according to collectors and dealers, include:
- 1914-D Lincoln cent
- 1922 Lincoln cent
- 1943 bronze Lincoln cent
- 1912-S Liberty Head nickel
- 1913 Liberty Head nickel (a million dollar rarity)
- 1937-D three-legged Buffalo nickel
- 1944 copper-nickel Jefferson nickel
- 1799 Bust dollar
Unless you're a specialist, you should think carefully about
buying any of the above coins unless they're in the slab of a legitimate grading/authentication service, such as
PCGS, NGC, ANACS, or ICG. But the Chinese forgery workshops are now making passable fakes of common, inexpensive coins, so you need to be careful here too, with buying from an expert dealer being a good way to minimize risk.
With ancient coins, too, low-cost specimens are counterfeited today. As Wayne Sayles points out in his 2001 book Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and
Reproductions of Ancient Coins, you can no longer
assume that it's impractical for someone to make deceptive fakes of inexpensive coins, including someone living
in relative poverty in Eastern Europe who may have advanced engraving skills or even a university degree in metallurgy.
Fakes of modern and ancient coins sold as authentic coins on eBay and at some Web sites are a frequent problem, though if you follow
the online coin discussion groups, these coin forgeries are frequently exposed.
Chinese fakes of U.S. and world coins are a particular problem today. One Chinese counterfeiter, the Big Tree Coin Factory of Fujian, China, has put up on eBay thousands of coin "replicas," marked as copies, only if you inquire you can buy the same pieces unmarked. This forgery factory has thus been using eBay as a front for moving what are likely untold thousands of counterfeit coins into the coin market. Some of these fakes are more convincing than others, of the correct alloy and in the correct weight tolerance. This forgery workshop makes high-tech die transfer fakes, using authentic coins to make the dies, using a coin press to mint the forgeries, and artificially aging them. Susan Headley in Coin World and at About.com has done a good job documenting this particular forgery operation.
Another huge counterfeit scam on eBay involved thousands of ancient coin auctions ran on eBay for an astounding four years in the early 2000s involving a forger from the Toronto, Canada, area. This forger is sometimes called the Toronto Group, but there's no indication that there was anyone behind this other than a single individual making poor- and medium-quality cast copies in his basement, and the Toronto Forger is a more fitting name. The Toronto Forger brazenly put up on eBay several dozen of the same cast fakes with each round of his scam auctions, with new fakes added as he went along, mostly using the same photos. He created more than 40 rounds of scam auctions, using a different eBay I.D. each time.
Despite many people contacting it, eBay had no mechanism in place to act in a timely way. With every round of scam auctions, eBay canceled this forger's eBay I.D. (NARUed him, for Not a Registered User), but until near the end of this forger's run it generally wasn't until after the auctions were over and most people had likely already paid and received their items. eBay sent messages to the people who had been scammed, but its intent was to absolve itself of responsibility. The message contained the following language: "eBay is only a venue, and we cannot guarantee that sellers will complete transactions nor can we guarantee the delivery or quality of bought items." Estimating conservatively, the Toronto Forger scammed 1,000 people out of $150,000. This scammer seems to have ceased operations, but a number of other crooks have come along and emulated his tactics. eBay has gotten better at stopping the most blatant forgery scammers, but it appears to be a sporadic effort. Other forgery scammers have made businesses of selling fakes of ancient coins and artifacts as authentic on eBay, like the Toronto Forger operating for years, only less brazenly.
You shouldn't count on eBay to prevent or stop the auction of even the most blatant modern or ancient counterfeits or prevent sellers with a history of selling large numbers of counterfeits from engaging in online fraud. eBay is run in an extremely laissez faire manner and enforces a policy of noninterference in its auctions, with its motive appearing to be the maximization of profits. It still doesn't read or act upon most messages sent to it, including those alerting eBay that a seller is breaking eBay's own rules, such as the one that prohibits sellers from disclaiming knowledge of authenticity. eBay at one point announced it was teaming with the American Numismatic Association (ANA) to make eBay safer, but after several years the ANA quit this partnership because eBay largely ignored its warnings as well. eBay also recently made it impossible to contact bidders, which previously was how people in the eBay community warned one another of a scam auction underway despite the fact that eBay had considered this auction "interference."
Good deals can be had on eBay, for both buyers and sellers, with eBay's still relatively low (but ever-increasing) fees and its elimination of traditional middlemen. But eBay's hands-off policies have made it a haven for counterfeit scammers, with coins, antiquities, fossils, computer software, music CDs, movie DVDs, books, paintings, clothes, sneakers, jewelry, watches, handbags, and anything else that can be faked. Such scammers operate openly on eBay. One credible estimate is that 10 percent of all ancient coins and half of all antiquities auctioned on eBay are modern forgeries. Because eBay makes it so easy to get away with fakery, one good piece of advice is to never buy on eBay ancient coins or antiquities, which are relatively easy to fake and foist on the unsuspecting, unless you're expert in the area, know the seller, or have received a recommendation about a particular seller from a reliable source. The same is good advice with other Web sites as well.
Despite the reality of fakes in the numismatic marketplace, you shouldn't indiscriminately, and irresponsibly, condemn coins you see online --
online pictures often provide only a fraction of the information you need to properly evaluate a coin's authenticity.
But there's nothing wrong with questioning a coin online. To experienced eyes a fake is sometimes apparent from
a photo alone. If others feel the coin is not suspicious, the seller of the coin will undoubtedly wind up with
favorable publicity, and this can lead to more bids and a higher selling price.
The coin industry prefers not to talk too loudly about the issue of counterfeits for fear of scaring off collectors,
sold on eBay and elsewhere, with ancient as well as modern coins. Coin dealers are also typically reluctant to
publish information about fakes or even make fakes they come across available for others to study because they want you to come to them for vetted coins instead of thinking you
can vet coins yourself that you buy from other collectors. But knowledge is power. Not all dealers have the same
authenticity expertise, and as a collector the more you know, the greater the chance you'll avoid getting taken.
Don't overreact and run away. But don't put your head in the sand either. Perhaps the best approach is to look
at avoiding counterfeits as the same kind of enjoyable challenge as finding good deals.
Ownership of Counterfeits
The study of counterfeits can actually be an enjoyable part of the hobby of collecting coins, ancient as well as
modern. Some collectors enjoy creating a "black cabinet" (also called "black museum") of counterfeit
coins for educational purposes, as help in counterfeit detection, and as examples of the black art of counterfeiting.
In his American Numismatic Association (ANA) video titled "Famous Fakes and Fakers," Ken Bressett, editor
of A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book) and past president of the ANA, points out that some
counterfeits can be considered "true numismatic items" that are "enjoyable to study and collect."
Counterfeit coins have always been an interesting aspect of the history of both numismatics and the larger world
of money, just as counterfeit currency is today. Lots is at stake, then as now. For much of history counterfeiting
was punishable by death. Counterfeiting has also been used, by the U.S., Britain, and many other countries, as
a weapon of war against other countries. Today counterfeiting is used by terrorists as one of the means to finance
their operations, though there are organized crime groups and petty crooks working alone, having nothing to do
with terrorism, who are also involved with counterfeiting.
The issue of ownership of counterfeit collectable coins, however, is a controversial one, more so with U.S. coins,
which are still legal tender regardless of their age, than ancient coins. The American Numismatic Association recommends
that you turn in counterfeit coins to it or the U.S. Secret Service. The agent at Secret Service headquarters who
heads up its anti-counterfeiting activities also advises the same thing.
Though the legalities regarding ownership of bogus coins aren't completely clear, there's nothing in the statutory
or case law in the U.S. that indicates simple possession is illegal. Two areas of U.S. statuatory law deal with
counterfeit coins. Title 18, Part I, Chapter 25 (Counterfeiting and Forgery) of the U.S. Code, Sections 485, 489,
and 492 deal with counterfeits of U.S. and world coins. The Hobby Protection Act of 1973 (Title 15, Chapter 48,
Sections 2101 through 2106 of the U.S. Code, plus 1988 amendments) deals with counterfeits of ancient coins.
Similarly, no court in the U.S. has ever ruled that possession of counterfeits of collectable coins is illegal.
What's more, at least two circuit courts have ruled that possession of counterfeit coins without intent to defraud
doesn't violate the section of the U.S. Code on counterfeiting U.S. coins (United States v. Cardillo, 708 F.2d 29 , and United States
v. Ratner, 464 F.2d 169 ), according to collector and lawyer Michael Benveniste.
"The statutes do not criminalize mere possession of counterfeit money," concluded Armen R. Vartian in
a November 5, 2001, Coin World column titled "Owning Counterfeits." As a lawyer, numismatist, Coin World
legal columnist, and author of the book A Legal Guide
to Buying and Selling Art and Collectibles, Vartian
is the most visible numismatic legal expert in the U.S.
All this hasn't stopped at least one nonlawyer from amateurishly combining unrelated statutes and court cases and
repeatedly pronouncing online that possessing counterfeit coins is illegal and then offering the loopy warning
that if you drive with one, to a coin club meeting or from a coin show, for instance, your car may be seized by
the government. There's no indication, according to reports and the literature, that anyone has been arrested,
fined, jailed, or had their transporation seized for possession of a counterfeit coin without intent to defraud
in the U.S. since the Secret Service, an agency of the U.S. Treasury, began policing against counterfeits in 1865,
and there's no indication that the Secret Service plans to reverse this policy of a century and a half.
Others have also weighed in with their views about the legalities, online and in print. But ultimately it's all
just opinion, with the only opinion ultimately mattering being that of a judge, judges, or jury in a relevant case.
What is clear is that it's illegal to possess counterfeit coins if your intention is to cheat others with them
by selling them as genuine or to refuse to surrender them if the government asks you to, which it's entitled to
under the law. The Secret Service, in fact, has confiscated high-visibility collections of counterfeits of U.S.
coins, and though this hasn't happened in some 30 years, the possibility does exist that it could happen again.
This gray area is the reason that Vartian and others recommend that those who maintain black cabinets of counterfeit
coins do so quietly.
Hundreds if not thousands of collectors, dealers, and auction houses do just that, keeping counterfeits of collectable
coins, minted from ancient times to the present, on hand for help in counterfeit detection and as examples of the
black art of forgery. What's more, counterfeit coins are bought and sold openly as counterfeits, described for
what they are, every day on eBay as well as at major national coin shows and by the most respected U.S. and European
numismatic auction firms.
The ownership of counterfeits of collectable coins is a non-issue today in the eyes of the authorities, who understandably
devote their resources primarily toward going after those who make or pass fake bills, which can threaten the country's
money supply and ultimately its fiscal health. The Secret Service made 29,000 arrests for counterfeiting U.S. currency
in the five-year period between 2003 and 2008, according to a Forbes Magazine article,
while making no reported arrests for owning counterfeits of collectible coins.
Still, collecting counterfeits isn't risk free. The main risk is that someone down the road, perhaps one of your
heirs, may mistakenly sell the counterfeit as an authentic coin. This is the reason that coin collectors who elect
to keep counterfeits of collectable coins should clearly identify them on the labels of their holders, says Robert
W. Hoge, former curator at the American Numismatic Association, current curator at the American Numismatic Society.
Another risk is that those obtaining counterfeits, purportedly to study, will turn around and try to cheat others
with them by selling them as authentic. This is the reason that those dealers who do sell them are more likely
to part with obvious fakes than deceptive ones and that many won't part with any if they don't know you.
Protecting Yourself from Fakes
The most commonly repeated advice to avoid getting cheated by unwittingly buying a counterfeit as an authentic
coin is to buy from a respected dealer or auction house who offers a lifetime guarantee of authenticity with return
privileges. You can learn who the respected dealers are by asking around online.
The situation becomes more complicated with European coin auction houses, even the most reputable. According to
the language in their catalogs, most offer a very limited authenticity guarantee, typically lasting only about
a week, which is generally too little time to send the coin out for another opinion. The best of these firms do
an excellent job of screening out fakes in the first place or removing them from their auctions when the fakes
are disclosed to them before the auction closes. And it has been said that they will honor the return of a fake
beyond their guarantee period. But there have also been reports of difficulties returning coins when an auction
house disputes the condemnation of a particular piece.
In the age of the Internet, deals can often be had through eBay buying from fellow collectors who are upgrading
their coins or otherwise selling them off or buying ancient coins from direct sellers personally bringing them
into the U.S. from Europe. Even here, though, sellers should offer a lifetime guarantee of authenticity with return
privileges in case the coin later turns out to be fake.
With both modern and ancient coins, you should be especially wary of sellers who claim to be selling coins from
an estate and who don't offer return privileges. Similarly, avoid sellers who say they can't guarantee a coin's
authenticity (this is against eBay rules but still happens, with sellers trying to plant the idea in bidders' minds
that they just might get a real bargain).
If you have any suspicions, don't bid. The old maxim applies: "If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably
is." (See "Coin Fraud" at the bottom of this page for more tips on avoiding eBay fraud.)
The most common reason a coin is condemned by an expert as being a forgery is, "It doesn't look right."
Dealers who've handled many thousands of authentic coins are usually (not always) able to pick out fakes, even
if they're not always able to verbalize why. Part of this involves knowing what authentic coins of a particular
type typically look like. Part of this involves knowing what counterfeits typically look like.
Indications of a cast counterfeit:
- With clay, sand, and plaster casting, soapy or slippery
surfaces, soft or missing details, and round, mushy boundaries where the devices and legends meet the coin's field
(the angle should be close to 90 degrees). However, these characteristics may not be present or present as visibly
in high-quality casts made with other methods, including lost wax casting (can be used in conjunction with other
casting methods), pressure casting, centrifugal casting, and vacuum casting.
- A seam around the edge where the two sides of the mold
joined together. However, depending on the casting method used, the seam can be removed before or after the coin
is cast. If removed afterward by filing and polishing, filing or polishing marks are sometimes visible, particularly
under a microscope, and the edge often winds up too smooth or flat. On the other hand, ancient coins made from
cast flans may show evidence of a casting seam.
- Small pits into the coin's surface or small bumps rising
up from it, both caused by air bubbles created during the casting process. However, these artifacts may not appear
if pressure, centrifugal, or vacuum casting was used. Also, genuine coins often show some pitting, or porosity,
caused by corrosion, though these pits are typically sharper at their edges, wider at their openings, and less
round than pits caused by casting. Genuine coins can also have small bumps if made from rusty or worn dies. Another
cause of bumps, or lumps of metal, on an ancient coin's surface are deposits from other silver coins that the piece
in question was buried with. If they flake off easily when pushed with a scapel, this indicates deposits. If they're
instead an integral part of the coin, this is a sign of casting.
- A casting sprue, or protuberance at one point on the coin's
edge, where metal was pored into the mold. This can also be removed by melting or filing and polishing. As with
a casting seam, ancient coins made from cast flans may show evidence of a casting sprue.
- Light weight (or sometimes too heavy). However, genuine
ancient coins often exhibit a fairly large range of weights, more so with bronze coins than silver coins, more
so with silver coins than gold coins.
- Slightly concave obverse and reverse and smaller diameter
caused by shrinking of the molten metal as it cools. However, shrinkage can be compensated for by using oversize
molds, particularly with ancient coins. What's more, genuine ancient coins exhibit a range of flan sizes and shapes.
- The existence of the an identical coin -- not only one
made from the same dies but also one with the same centering, strike (including flan cracks), wear patterns, and
surface damage (scratches, pits, corrosion). However, forgers may retouch molds to remove surface damage or add
marks and alter patination/deposits on the cast's surface.
- If a coin has cracks in its surfaces, as ancient coins
often do, the cracks will likely have smooth edges, not sharp, visible particularly under a microscope, even with
high-quality casting. With cast fakes, the insides of tiny flan cracks will also have filled in.
- The absence of luster, or flow lines, from striking, visible
particularly under a microscope, which can be present even on worn coins, modern as well as ancient. Unless the
flow lines were removed through extreme wear, corrosion, or harsh cleaning, they should be visible at protected
areas of an authentic coin's surface -- inside letters and at the edges of inscriptions and devices.
- Harsh cleaning to the point of smoothing, which can hide
evidence of casting. However, many genuine coins have been harshly cleaned as well.
- A different ring from a struck, authentic version of the
same coin when tapped with another coin or spun on a table. This difference results from the metal in a struck
coin being compressed during the striking process and the metal in a cast coin being more spongey. However, genuine
coins can ring differently (see section below titled "Ring test").
Indications of an electrotype counterfeit:
- Edge seam in the form of a straight line (may be filed
- Discoloration and/or indention from the solder on the edge
of the coin where the two halves are joined
- Oversmooth surfaces
- Light weight (or sometimes too heavy)
Indications of a struck counterfeit:
- Unrealistic styling of devices and legends. When dies are
cut by hand, it's generally more difficult for forgers to get legends right than devices. However, dies created
with authentic coins (transfer dies) won't exhibit these problems.
- Die match of a known forgery
- Light weight (or sometimes too heavy)
- Wrong metal
- With ancient coins, the absence of any crystallization
(see section below titled "Ring test"). However, some counterfeits are artificially corroded and aged
with acids or struck with ancient metal. And forgers can create crystallized surfaces and interiors by preparing
the planchet a certain way.
- With ancient coins, the absence of surface deposits, the
presence of artificial, unrealistic deposits, or the absence of signs of deposits having been cleaned off the coin's
- With ancient coins created using a modern hydraulic press
rather than being struck by hand with a hammer, overly flat and uniform fields, flan of uniform thickness, edge
cracks that are on the coin's surface rather than penetrating into the coin's interior, smaller and more triangular
die cracks, long rather than short flow marks, and -- sometimes though not always -- lettering that's evenly raised
around the circumference of the coin. However, alteration by abrasion, etching, chemical degradation, or coatings
can hide some indications of pressing. Double striking or die slippage, which typically shows up as subtle or blatant
ghosting at the edges of devices, is an indication of striking, though it can be ancient or modern.
- With ancient coins created using a modern engraving machine
rather than being cut by hand, deep uniform cuts at the boundaries between fields and devices and legends. However,
sometimes forgers flatten the slope of the cuts, in which case you can often see tiny nicks at the boundaries between
fields and devices and legends.
- With modern as well as ancient coins created with a transfer
die, examples of which are a cast die, electroplated die, and explosive impact die (also called a blast cast die),
the same or similar post-strike defects in the coin used to create the die. However, sometimes dies are slightly
reworked to prevent this.
- With coins created with a transfer die, slightly more softness
than in the coin used to create the die. However, softness can exist in an authentic coin that was struck from
worn dies or weakly struck.
- With ancient coins created with a transfer die, slight
gaps in the device or a combination of well-struck high points and poorly struck low points, both caused when the
authentic coin didn't impress far enough into the die to completely transfer all details.
There are also various quantitative tests you can do, or have done, to help with counterfeit detection. Often,
any one test or several tests aren't conclusive, but they can provide important information.
1. Weighing a coin, then comparing it with the common weight range for that coin.
2. Measuring a coin's diameter, then also comparing it with the common range for that coin.
3. Touching a U.S. silver coin with a magnet. No authentic U.S. silver coins contain iron, so even a slight attraction to the magnet indicates the wrong alloy.
4. Specific gravity testing
This is a useful if not infallible test. You need to compare a coin's weight in two different media, such as air
and water, using a precision scale. However, accuracy can be compromised by tiny air bubbles adhering to the coin's
surface. With ancient coins, accuracy can be further compromised through internal porosity, voids within the coin's
interior, and diagenetic leaching. The latter is a process of physical and chemical change in deposited materials
over time, which can cause density to decrease or even increase through silver purification or compression or through
the infiltration of lead into a coin's fabric.
Here's the specific gravity of common coin metals:
- Gold 19.3
- Silver 10.5
- Copper 8.8
- Bronze 8.7-7.8 (varies with how much tin, lead, and other
metals it's alloyed with)
- Brass 8.6-8.4 (varies with how much zinc it's alloyed with)
- Lead 11.4
- Tin 7.3
- Zinc (cast) 6.9
- Iron (cast) 7.2
- Aluminum 2.6
4. Ring test
Modern silver coins typically ring when you tap them with another coin or drop them on a table, emitting a longer-lasting,
higher-pitched sound. Modern non-silver coins and ancient silver coins don't, emitting a shorter-lasting, lower-pitched
sound. With ancient coins, the reason is crystallization (also called intergranular corrosion, reticulate corrosion,
granularization, or embrittlement), which results when relatively pure silver alloys leach copper, lead, or other impurities
over time, causing voids between the silver grains. You can often see small perpendicular ridges or swirling patterns
on the surfaces of highly crystallized coins or feather-like crystals under magnification, though other times the
crystallization is completely internal and invisible. The metal isn't actually becoming crystallized; rather, its
crystalline structure is being revealed by natural forces over time.
To perform a ring test, balance the coin on the tip of your finger and tap it gently with another coin. With modern
coins, you can wear a cotton glove to prevent fingerprints. You need to be careful you don't drop the coin or tap
too hard. Highly crystallized ancient coins can break easily. If the coin emits a long resonating ring, like a
bell, this indicates that it's a modern silver coin. If it's an ancient coin, this indicates it hasn't become crystallized,
that it's likely a modern forgery, because crystallization dampens the ring. If the coin rings for only a second
or two, this indicates it may be only slightly crystallized. If the coin emits a tink and doesn't resonate, this
indicates it may be moderately crystallized. If the coin emits a thud, this indicates it may be heavily crystallized.
The ring test is far from foolproof, however. Sometimes forgers use the flans of authentic, though inexpensive,
ancient coins to produce old-metal counterfeits of expensive ancient coins, but this typically happens only with
rare or otherwise pricey specimens. Forgers can also create crystallized surfaces and interiors with both struck
and cast fakes by playing with temperatures. Counterfeits made of new silver having small, thick flans don't resonate
as well as larger, thinner coins. Counterfeits made of new silver may not ring at all if the flan is cracked, occluded
with a gas bubble, or filled with another substance. Cast or electrotype counterfeits made of new silver also may
not ring. Heavily alloyed silver coins made with significant amounts of bronze, lead, or other base metals will
also not ring like pure or nearly pure silver coins. Nonetheless, a long resonating ring is a good indication that
a coin is modern and struck.
5. Touch testing
Cast forgeries often have slippery or waxy surfaces, which can be detected with the coin in hand. Struck coins
have surfaces that are more resistant to moving your finger gently over their surface. This and other touch testing
is more appropriate for ancient coins than modern coins, particularly those in higher grades.
The slippery surfaces of cast coin result from microscopic "balls" of metal on the surface of metal,
smaller than is visible even under a standard microscope but perceptible to the touch. Striking flattens these
Touch testing can also be used to distinguish a counterfeit of an ancient coin made in ancient times, most often
called a fourree, from a genuine or official ancient coin. Fourrrees are plated fakes, typically silver plating
over a bronze interior or gold plating over a silver interior but sometimes either silver or gold plating over
a lead interior.
Fourree detection is easiest when the plating has partly corroded away, revealing the interior metal. When it hasn't,
weight is the most commonly used test, with fourrees having bronze interiors being lighter than official coins.
But some fourrees are of the correct weight, having been made using a larger or thicker flan or an interior made
wholly or partly with lead. Specific gravity testing can be helpful in some cases, the exception being fourrees
with lead interiors.
Another way to check if an ancient silver coin is a fourree is to feel it. Because silver is a much better heat
conductor than copper, pure silver coins will feel cooler to the touch than silver-plated bronze or lead coins.
The silver coin will be more effective in drawing heat away from your skin. You should test a questionable coin
against a known good coin of the same type and the same denomination.
One further method is to look for edge cracks. If you find one, poke a straight pin into it and scratch away a
tiny amount of metal. If the underlying metal inside the crack is orange, that indicates a gold or bronze core.
If the metal is gray but soft, that indicates a lead core. If the metal is gray but hard, that indicates a silver
core. The pin prick, inside the edge crack, won't be visible unless you look inside the crack.
6. Laboratory testing
There are various nondestructive high-tech tests you can have done at some universities or commercial testing labs
to analyze the metallic composition of a coin, often called elemental analysis, which can be helpful in authentication.
The cost can range from $15 or less to several hundred dollars, depending on the type of test and the policies
of a particular university.
The most common are the spectroscopic tests, which typically bounce radiation or subatomic particles off the surface
of a coin to produce an x-ray signature, with each element that makes up the coin having its own distinct signature.
In this way, you're able to determine the percentage of each element that makes up the coin.
Various names for high-tech tests are used in the literature, some of which refer to the same type of test, and
- X-ray fluorescence (XRF), also known as energy dispersive
x-ray fluorescence (EDXRF) -- a surface technique, reaching depths of between 30 and 100 micrometers, that puts
x-rays in and analyzes x-rays that come out; most commonly used metallurgical analysis technique used in numismatics
- Energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS), also known as electron
dispersive spectroscopy, energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDX), or scanning electron microscopy with energy
dispersive x-ray spectrometry (SEM-EDS or SEM/EDX) -- a surface technique that puts electrons in and analyzes x-rays
that come out
- Proton induced x-ray emission (PIXE), also known as particle
induced x-ray emission -- a surface technique that puts protons in and analyzes x-rays that come out; goes deeper
than XRF and EDS and allows for the detection of trace elements; expensive
- Proton activation analysis (PAA), also known as proton
induced gamma ray emission (PIGE) -- a surface technique that puts protons in and analyzes gamma rays that come
out; goes deeper than XRF and EDS and allows for the detection of trace element; expensive
- Secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), also known as charged
particle activation analysis (CPAA) -- a surface technique that puts ions in and analyzes ions that come out; goes
deeper than XRF and EDS; highly accurate; removes some material from the test coin
- Neutron activation analysis (NAA), also known as nuclear
reaction analysis (NRA) -- puts neutrons in and analyzes gamma rays that come out; penetrates the entire body of
the coin; allows for the detection of trace elements; doesn't detect lead; leaves the coin slightly radioactive;
These tests are useful but not infallible. Most of these
tests analyze coins only to a depth of slightly below their surface, which can compromise the results in the event
of heavy toning/patination, corrosion, or surface enrichment, though this can often be avoided by preparation of
the small part of the coin's surface that's being analyzed.
The most accurate testing is wet chemical testing. In the past, this required that the coin be destroyed, which
limited its usefulness. A newer method involves drilling a minute hole in the edge and wet analyzing the slight
amount of metal extracted. Though this also is destructive, a tiny hole in an edge crack wouldn't be noticed with
an ancient coin. It's reportedly an accurate but expensive testing methodology.
Metallurgical analysis can be helpful if the alloy doesn't match the known alloy of the coin. If the alloy is variable,
as it is with medieval and ancient coins, metallurgical analysis can help if the alloy is significantly off or
precisely matches a known modern alloy.
The following are commonly used modern gold and silver alloys:
- 999 (24 carat; fine gold)
- 916 (22 carat)
- 833 (20 carat)
- 750 (18 carat)
- 585 (14 carat)
- 417 (10 carat)
- 333 (8 carat)
- 999 (fine silver; used in bullion bars)
- 980 (used in Mexico c. 1930 - 1945)
- 958 (Britannia silver)
- 950 (French first standard)
- 925 (sterling silver)
- 900 (coin silver used in the U.S.)
- 875 (used in former USSR)
- 830 (used in older Scandinavian silver)
- 800 (minimum standard for silver in Germany after 1884;
Metallurgical testing can be defeated by moderately skillful forgers who create fakes made of the correct alloy.
With ancient coins, this can be done using ancient metal such as inexpensive coins that are melted down to make
fakes of expensive coins. In these cases, other diagnostics must be used.
Metallurgical testing, on the other hand, can be useful also for learning more about authentic coins. But here
too it has its limitations. In ancient times the same coin type could have used gold or silver from different mines.
The metal from a single mine could vary in composition depending on which vein it came from. And coins could be
made from other coins, prior coins from that region or contemporaneous coins from other regions, that were melted
Often, a dealer will agree to look at a coin you're questioning, particularly a dealer you've bought from in the
past, and offer his opinion regarding its authenticity.
All of the established, legitimate grading services that deal with U.S. coins provide authentication along with
PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service)
NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation
ANACS (Amos Certification Service)
ICG (Independent Coin Grading Co.)
The following services provide ancient coin authentication:
Coin Certification Service)
IBSCC (International Bureau for
the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins)
The following service provides authentication for British milled coins:
Robert Matthews Coin
Learning about counterfeits can be fun, in addition to protecting you. The following are books about counterfeit
U.S. coins (and in some cases other coins as well). For details, see the descriptions and reviews at Amazon.com.
United States Gold Counterfeit Detection Guide
Whitman Publishing, 2006
Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection
House of Collectibles, 2004
Charles M. Larson
Zyrus Press, 2004
Counterfeit Detection Reference Guide
Stanton Printing, 1997
Detecting Counterfeit and Altered U.S. Coins: A Correspondence
American Numismatic Association, 1996
Official Guide to Detecting Altered & Counterfeit
U.S. Coins & Currency
House of Collectibles, 1981
Standard Catalog of Counterfeit and Altered United
Virgil Hancock and Larry Spanbauer
Sanford J. Durst, 1979
Counterfeit, Mis-struck, and Unofficial U.S. Coins:
A Guide for the Detection of Cast and Struck Counterfeits, Electro-types, and Altered Coins
Arco Pub. Co., 1963
The following Web sites provide information and/or photos of fake ancient coins:
Modern Fakes of Ancient Coins
Information and photos of fakes of ancient coins
FORVM's Fake Ancient
A searchable database of ancient coin forgeries
& Darling Ancient Coins' Counterfeits and Counterfeiters
Information and photos of fakes of ancient coins
Information and photos of fakes of ancient coins
Dennis Kroh's Ancient
Coins & Modern Fakes
Information about fakes of ancient coins
Photos of fakes of ancient coins
Jencek's Modern Forgeries of Ancient Coins
Photos of fakes of ancient coins
of Ancient Roman and Greek Coins
Photos of fakes of ancient coins offered for sale as authentic coins on eBay
Forgeries Now Turning Up in Uncleaned Lots
Photos and diagnostics of fakes of very inexpensive Roman bronze coins
Database and details about ancient coin forgeries and replicas but without any expert vetting
Photos mostly of Slavey replicas of ancient coins
Photos of Slavey replicas of ancient coins
More photos of Slavey replicas
The following are recent books about ancient coin counterfeits (the Prokopov books can be purchased from SP-P & Provias):
Coin Forgeries and Replicas 2007
The latest fakes out of Bulgaria (downloadable book)
Coin Forgeries and Replicas 2006
New fakes out of Bulgaria
Not Kosher: Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical
Forgeries of ancient Jewish and Biblical coins
Counterfeit Studios and Their Coins
Ilya Prokopov and Rumen Manov
"Bulgarian School" counterfeits, with diagnostics, the best of Prokopov's books
Cast Forgeries of Classical Coins from Bulgaria
Ilya Prokopov and Eugeni Paunov
Contemporary Coin Engravers and Coin Masters from
Ilya S. Prokopov
Balkan Press, 2004
Lipanoff Studio copies, primarily of Roman coins
Charles M. Larson
Zyrus Press, 2004
Primarily a guide to how counterfeit coins are made
Modern Counterfeits and Replicas of Ancient Greek
and Roman Coins from Bulgaria
Ilya Prokopov, Kostadin Kissyov, Eugeni Paunov
Popeto Publications, 2003
Most of the fakes documented are Thracian tetradrachm forgeries or Slavey replicas
The Counterfeit Coin Story
Envoy Publicity, 2002
Includes ancients but emphasis on British counterfeits
Wayne G. Sayles
Krause Publications, 2001
Primarily a history of ancient coin counterfeiting
Modern Forgeries of Greek and Roman Coins
D. Dimitrov, I. Prokopov, B. Kolev
Photos of "Bulgarian School" fakes, but lacking in diagnostics
The following are two e-mail discussion groups, one Web-based discussion area, and one Usenet discussion group
where counterfeit coins are discussed online:
This e-mail discussion group, a Yahoo Group, is the largest online discussion group devoted to solely counterfeit
coins, but it's extremely controversial. Much discussion involves the condemnations of fakes from blatant eBay
scammers, a useful service. Sometimes high-end mistakes from large auction houses are outted as well, another useful
service, one that the coin establishment doesn't provide to collectors. Unfortunately, the information published
there is frequently unreliable. One expert authenticator who used to participate in the group said the false positive
rate is about 50 percent, meaning half of the coins labeled as fake are not.
What's more, the actions of group leaders are frequently irrational. The group is populated to a disproportionate
extent by amateur numismatists posing as experts, conspiracy theorists who feel that the coin establishment deliberately
cheats collectors, and people with an agenda against other dealers. Criticism of dealers other than the group's
founder is encouraged, but participants who express opinions opposed to the practices of those who run the group
or in disagreement with their views are shouted down, censored, or banned from the group, with the most common
rationale offered being that they're criminals employed by forgers. Yet the group's founder has admitted to salting
the ancient coin marketplace with forgeries to "test" other dealers and feels that it's OK for dealers
to sell forgeries as authentic coins if they can't easily be detected. He has said that the world's premier numismatic
dealer organization, the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN), is controlled by criminals.
He set up another forgery discussion group through eBay but contended that eBay began censoring it after criminals
lobbied and/or bribed eBay.
To try to provide some balance against the irrationality, the hooliganism, and the errors of CFDL, a few seasoned
numismatists occasionally participate in the group, but often they're just shouted down, with most having left.
According to one ancient coin dealer active online, CFDL and its reputation are what's primarily responsible for
many ancient coin dealers not participating in online dicussion groups in general. CFDL is an understandable reaction,
or overreaction, to attempts by many in the numismatic establishment to damper discussion about the counterfeit
issue. There are benefits to following CFDL, but if you do, take what's there with a large grain of salt. It can
be an interesting window into the dark side of numismatics from a number of different angles.
ACFDL (Ancient Coin
Forgeries Discussion List)
This Yahoo Group doesn't receive nearly as much traffic as CFDL, but the discussion is more balanced and considerably
more scholarly. It deals strictly with ancient coin forgeries.
Fake Ancient Coin Reports and Discussion
This is the most active and useful Web-based discussion group about ancient coin forgeries. It includes a forgery
database. The discussion there in general is scholarly, balanced, fair, and reliable. It's populated by seasoned
experts as well as relative newcomers.
This Usenet discussion group, about coins in general, can be a good resource for getting opinions about questionable
U.S. and other modern coins.
Counterfeit Coin Bulletin/Bulletin on Counterfeits
Periodical about U.S., world, and ancient counterfeit coins that most recently was published jointly by the American
Numismatic Association (ANA) and the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN). Before 2000,
as the Bulletin on Counterfeits, it was published solely by IAPN. This periodical began publication in 1976, but
the ANA and IAPN suspended publication after the December 2002 issue, an unfortunate decision for the coin collecting
community. You can find partial indexes of past issues at Robert Matthews Coin Authentication and Lakdiva
Coins. The IAPN now restricts its counterfeit information
primarily to member dealers. It has indicated it will publish press releases about counterfeits for the numismatic
public, but thus far this effort has been extremely limited.
Semiannual free online periodical from Robert Matthews Coin Authentication about modern and ancient counterfeit
coins, though Mathews' focus is primarily on UK coinage.
Quarterly membership periodical from the Counterfeit Coin Club, based in the UK. The president of the club, Ken
Peters, is the author of the book The Counterfeit
Here are some other Web pages I've put together about counterfeit coins, U.S. and ancient:
Bust Dollar Counterfeits
Silver Dollars from China
Athenian Owl Forgeries
Great Copies, Ancient and Modern
New York Hoard Counterfeits
of Apollonia Pontika Drachms
Parion Hemidrachms, Imitations,
School Cherronesos Hemidrachms
Thasos Tetradrachm Forgeries
The Lipanoff Studio in Bulgaria
Slavey Replicas and Imitations
Deks: Three Ancient Greek Dekadrachms,
Fake and Real
Ancient Fourree Counterfeits
Ultimately, as long as you're careful, you shouldn't fret over the possibility of getting fooled by counterfeits.
As Sayles points out, virtually all serious collectors of ancient coins, for instance, will sooner or later unwittingly
add a fake to their collection, and this is not necessarily a sign of naiveté. With U.S. coins, the grading
services have greatly reduced the chances of being cheated with high-end specimens.