Category Archives: Tips For Collectors


Coin & Medal Grading Scales

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Grades are used to describe the condition of both coins and medals. They are a numeric value, usually ranging from 1 to 70, with 1 describing a coin that is badly worn and barely identifiable to 70, which describes a … Continue reading

How to identify Counterfeit Silver Dollars

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.

Flickr - CoinForgeryEbay - Fake Morgan dollar

Photo courtesy of CoinForgeryEbay on Flickr

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.

Fake American Silver Eagle

Fake American Silver Eagle courtesy of HeritageFutures on Flickr

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.

Cold and flu season… and coins

As I write this, cold season is in full swing. While shopping at the store, waiting at a bus stop, or sitting in your office, you’ve probably heard people coughing and sneezing all around you. So, how do you stay healthy when everyone else is sick?

If you’re an average person, you probably use hand sanitizer, wash your hands with antibiotic soap and water, and minimize your time around sick people. If you’re a coin collector, you probably get away from the crowds and dig into piles of coins that need sorting and categorizing.

Big mistake. Coins can be a major vector for germs. If you handle coins and currency (especially junk bins full of items from around the world) make sure you wash your hands and avoid touching your face. Tom DeLay isn’t the only one who as to worry about dirty money!

Dirty coins can make you sick

Dirty coins can make you sick!

A recent study by Good Morning America suggests that alcohol based hand sanitizers work best at killing germs, especially when they have a alcohol content greater than 60%. Make sure to use enough sanitizer – if the hand sanitizer takes less than 20 seconds to evaporate then you’re not using enough. You might also try rinsing with soap and water, then using hand gel for even better results.

While researching this, I was really surprised to find out that currency is often dirtier than coins. Paper is very porous, and it can hold lots of germs in those pores. Cotton, linen, and dyes are also very good at protecting bacteria from UV light, so there can be some nasty bugs lurking. Also, since bills are used for snorting drugs, they often come in direct contact with bodily fluids. Yuck, right?

How common are pathogenic bacteria on money? Asst. Prof. Shirley Lowe found “about 18 percent of coins and 7 percent of bills grew disease-causing bacteria”. That study was conducted in the US, where communicable diseases are less common than abroad. For coins that have traveled from exotic countries, the percentages may be higher. And, if foreign coins have germs, the risks are also higher that your body will have no immunity.

So, wash your hands and stay safe.

How To Scan Coins and Medals

I’m using a scanner to catalog my coins, and I’ve found that it gives quick and consistent results. The jury is still out though – would my camera give better results? I’ve had some problems with slabbed coins though, so you may want to compare your scan results to photographic results.

Scanner clipart - yellow icon

Here are some tips to improve your scan results:

1) Use the highest quality setting you can (ie; 1200 DPI instead of 200 DPI).

2) Resize the images to a smaller size before sharing them. This tends to magnify the apparent detail, and it also cuts down on server space use and reduces page load times. I’ve resized my photos to 450 pixels wide, but I have copies of the original scans available on request.

3) Clean the scanner bed. Any dust will show up as noise on the resulting image (or, worse, look like damage to the coin surface). Be careful to use non-abrasive cloth and avoid scratching the scanner surface for the same reason.

4) Use a dark background, perhaps even a complimentary color. Depending on the scanner, this helps calibrate the lens and results in a proper depth focus.

How To Photograph Coins & Medals

I’m still trying to decide if its best to photograph or scan my coins. I’ve used my camera in the past because it is more flexible, offers higher resolution, captures relief better than a scanner, and produces natural looking images.

Camera clipart

Here are a few rules of thumb I’ve found to work well for photographing medals, coins, and exonumia:

1) Use the highest quality setting available on your camera (ie; SHQ instead of SQ).

2) Resize the photographs to a smaller size before sharing them. This tends to concentrate the detail, and it also cuts down on server space use and reduces page load times. I’ve resized my photos to 450 pixels wide, but I have copies of the original images available on request.

3) Clean the camera lens. Any dust will show up as noise on the resulting image (or, worse, look like damage to the coin surface). Be careful to use non-abrasive cloth and avoid scratching the glass for the same reason.

4) Use a dark background, perhaps even a complimentary color. This makes focusing easier, and it also gives the image more eye appeal.

5) Shoot at an angle. This not only uses parallax to capture the depth details, but it prevents the flash from reflecting right back into the CCD. A 45 to 60 degree angle is usually enough to put the flash spot on the background instead of the surface of the coin.

6) Consider using a lightbox or diffuse natural light. This reduces artifacts in the image and can really show coins in the best light. Artificial light is usually ‘colder’ than sunlight (lightbulbs produce a narrow range of the visual light spectrum), so natural light makes coins look more golden (or red). You may also consider using full-color light bulbs to achieve a similar effect.

Scanning Coins vs Photographing Coins, Which Method Is Best

There’s some debate about the best way to capture a picture of a coin. As I launch this site, I’ve opted to use my scanner on the first batch of coins and medals I post. There’s not really a good reason for that – I simply can’t find where I packed my camera and the scanner was easy to get ahold of. 🙂

Do you have a preference for scanned or photographed coins? The consensus seems to be that cameras do a better job of capturing depth and fine detail, while scanners offer more consistent and often faster results. I’ve run into some trouble using my scanner on slabbed coins. The scanner definitely focuses on the label of the slab, which leaves the coin itself out of focus.

Here are two results from the same scanner: notice the problem?

"In focus" scan
“In focus” scan
"Out of focus" scan
“Out of focus” scan

After reading a handful of articles on the topic, I went meta and wrote a page of tips for each method. Try these out and let me know what works for you.

Tips for getting the best results with a scanner

Tips for getting the best results with a camera