I’ve noticed an increasing number of counterfeit silver dollars being offered on eBay and in trade shows lately. Some counterfeits are obvious, but others can fool collectors even after close scrutiny. Even coins in graded slabs are suspect – counterfeiters have started using fake slabs with bar codes and serial numbers that match legitimately graded coins.
According to the US Hobby Protection Act of 1973, fake coins must be marked “copy” before they are sold in the United States. Sec. 304.6 of the law discusses marking requirements for fake numismatic items. The law discusses minimum sizes of the word copy (which should be incused, but can be raised if the material can not be stamped into). Unfortunately, the law is hard to enforce outside of the US. These seem to be flooding out of East Asia…
First off, let’s talk about spotting obvious fakes. Many phony silver coins are made of base metal, which often has a pewter tone to it. Often, they are magnetic (while genuine silver dollars are not). When dropped on a table, non-silver coins do not ring the same way as silver does (BUT – I wouldn’t recommend ever drop testing a coin!). There are jewelers tools that can test metal purity using acid or electric conductivity. Obviously, the conductivity test is better for collectable coins… it doesn’t damage coins like acid etching does.
So, let’s say a suspect coin has the right look and the metal content tests in the right range. One of the next things to look for is proper date and mint mark combinations. If you find a 1920 Morgan Dollar, the odds are pretty good that it’s a fake. The same is also true for an 1896-CC (none were minted in Carson City in that year).
Weight is also an easy way to diagnose a fake. While some fakes are made with the proper metal composition and specific density, it is very common to find lightweight substitutions. So, measure the weight of a suspected counterfeit using a precise scale (I spent less than $30 to buy one that does both troy and avoirdupois ounces, grams, and pounds). In general, silver dollars will weigh within 3% of their book weight. If your scale is not precise enough to measure fractions of an ounce, you can weigh multiple coins and take an average (ie; 10 coins, divided by 10 will generally spot if there are any fakes in the group).
Next, check the boundaries of the coin. If the design continues off of the edge (or is unevenly centered) then the odds are high that it is a fake. Mint errors like this do exist, but they are rare.
The edge of the dollar is also worth checking. Milled edges were first added to coins to reduce edge filing & make counterfeiting more difficult. So, these security features continue to be worth checking. The edge is also where cast marks are most visible. If a coin is copied by casting (basically making an imprint of the coin to produce molds), then the two casts have to be joined somewhere. Look for a line around the edge (often at the top or the bottom to make it less conspicuous).
If a coin is cast, it will have other trace marks that are easily identifiable. Pitting is common (pores in the surface of the coin). If there were any dings or scratches on the original coin, they will show up in the cast copy as having “added metal” – that is, there wont be any curls of metal from one place to another, the raised portions will just appear as if put there during the minting process.
It’s also common for fake coins to have weak areas of detail. For example, if several letters in the legend or motto are faded more than others, that’s a huge red flag. This happens most often in cast copies, but can also be the result of uneven force during the minting process.
Recently, CoinWorld ran an article about a Secret Service investigation into counterfeited silver dollars. It has some useful information about dates and mintmarks used by one particular counterfeiter, but every date and mint mark of the Morgan and Peace Dollars has shown up at one time or another. I’d also like to hear more about an investigation of the “victims” in these cases. One of the pawn shops that was targeted bought 100 counterfeit coins for $925… which works out to $9.25 per coin (or $11.96/ounce of silver – if the coins had been genuine).
Oh, and if you bought any coins from this guy, you might want to have them double checked.
Remember the old saying – “You can’t cheat an honest man”? The reverse also holds true. If you find a coin offered at a price that’s too good to be true, just remember that it might be.