Identifying Genuine Coins -- Comparisons
With Counterfeit Specimens
The key to spotting a counterfeit or an altered coin is knowing how to
recognize the real thing. This has been said many times, but it bears
repeating. Knowledge of die characteristics, the shapes of mint marks, the
styles of digits, and how coins are made all comes into play when confirming
authenticity. The U.S. Mint is meticulous in its workmanship, and quality is
inherent in its final products. Beyond that, the Mint treats its dies in
ways that counterfeiters do not, imparting characteristics that
counterfeiters find difficult to reproduce.
What are the characteristics authenticators look for?
1. The quality of the lettering, digits,
On most U.S. coins, authenticators look for the letters, digits, and devices
to erupt from the surface squarely in a sharp, defined manner. The tops of
digits and letters must also be sharp and precise. Obviously there have been
a few U.S. coin designs that were not sharp in nature, so authentication for
these coins can be more difficult. However, for most U.S. coins, this
standard can be applied.
While it might seem more important in grading a coin, luster is a factor in
authentication as well. Typically, genuine U.S. coins have contrast between
the fields and devices, attributable to the way coins are struck: the fields
are essentially squeezed outward toward the edge, metal for the devices
fills the dies, and the metallurgical flow results in contrast. For whatever
reason--die preparation, striking pressure, or the types of planchets
used--counterfeiters tend to produce coins with uniform luster, which gives
them a distinctive "look" that experienced authenticators immediately
3. Die characteristics.
Most dies used by the U.S. Mint have been polished at one time or another or
have developed cracks, clash marks, bulges, or other defects through use.
While many counterfeiters see these defects as being detrimental,
authenticators view them as clues to a genuine coin. Being able to recognize
fine die-polish lines, small die cracks, or sharp die clashes makes it
easier to separate the wheat -- the genuine coin -- from the chaff.
Authenticators like to look into the most protected areas of a coin in
search of the sharp, crisp, well-defined die polish marks. In the
counterfeiter's attempt to reproduce coins, this slight but crucial evidence
is almost always lost in the transfer. For this reason, it is one of the
most useful tools in authentication. Additionally, die lines and die cracks
are key diagnostics in identifying genuine dies.
4. The edge.
This "third side" of a coin often is overlooked, yet it can yield vital
evidence. The edge can tell the authenticator many things about the coin. It
can aid in determining whether or not the coin was struck; it can help
identify certain alterations; and it can help identify genuine diagnostics
on the collars of certain coins, most notably Indian Head eagles and Saint-Gaudens
5. Knowledge of date punches and mint
Perhaps the greatest single weapon in the authenticator's arsenal is
knowledge of the punches that were used in the production of genuine U.S.
coins. This is particularly true for coins that are commonly altered. When
you know the style of the date or mint-mark punch used for the genuine coin,
you will become immediately suspicious of any coin that deviates from that
6. Weight and specific gravity.
These tests are the least useful authentication tools for the vast majority
of U.S. coins. Unfortunately, counterfeiters often use planchets of proper
weight and fineness for their copies. Weight and specific gravity do become
useful in checking the authenticity of many colonial coins, as well as some
early U.S. coinage. For most other U.S. coins, however, these will not
provide telling evidence.
Reprinted from excerpt taken from The Official Guide to Coin
Grading and Counterfeit Detection