Coin Collecting

Identifying Genuine Coins

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, and devices.
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.

2. Luster.
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 recognize.

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 double eagles.

5. Knowledge of date punches and mint marks.
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 style.

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

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