The Fabric of Coins
F. Michael “Skip” Fazzari
(Originally published in the “Making the Grade” column of Numismatic News)
The characteristics of a coin’s surface – its color and “fabric” – can provide important clues to its authenticity. While color is an easy term to grasp, many readers may not have heard the term “fabric” used to describe a coin. I first discovered the word as used by collectors of ancient coins to describe the surface texture found on various specimens. Imagine a coin’s surface as a piece of cloth. The “fabric” of a genuine coin has a specific “look” when its surface is in original condition as minted. One coin might have the silkiness of satin while another, the roughness of corduroy. Charles Hoskins, my mentor, described this appearance as “Mint Quality.”
The characteristics of a coin’s surface reflect its condition, authenticity, and originality. In most cases, that’s the reason a mint state genuine coin appears different from a counterfeit specimen of the same type. I was taught that this is a direct result of how the coins were made. Therefore, the composition of a coin’s alloy, the quality and condition of the dies used to strike it, and its method of manufacture (with all the variables associated with that) determine what it will look like. Will it turn out “mint quality” or not? This is one reason original mint state coins, both counterfeit and genuine, can be viewed as on a sliding horizontal scale. At one end are the unsophisticated, crude, and obvious fake coins while at the other end are perfectly made, obviously genuine coins. I call coins on this end of the scale: “self-authenticating.” Regardless of their country of origin or date of manufacture, they ooze “Mint Quality.” There are two important concepts to take into consideration as you imagine this sliding scale illustration. Technology has improved over time; but at different rates in various parts of the world. Thus, coins may look different from country to country during the same time period. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, coins of each time period tend to have similar characteristics. Again for emphasis, 18th Century coins often look different from those made in the 19th Century; and coins from the 18thCentury can look different from country to country. This factor often aids in authentication. For example a 1756 Russian rouble should not have the color and fabric of a 1903 Mexican peso or 1876-CC U.S. Trade dollar!
Between the two ends of our scale, there is an overlap. In this area, the design details, color, and fabric of both excellently made counterfeits and carelessly made genuine coins merge. Here we can find absolutely genuine coins that look to be fakes and deceptive counterfeits with the color and surface characteristics of the best genuine coins. Over the last forty years, I have seen this crossover point move more and more toward the genuine end of our scale as the quality of genuine coins from all countries and their counterfeit counterparts has improved.
What about the color and fabric of circulated coins? As a coin becomes worn, experienced numismatists can still recognize the typical appearance of a genuine coin’s surface that has deteriorated by simple wear. Both its color and fabric changes in an “honest” way. These progressions of surface characteristics that identify a genuine coin as it becomes worn are best studied using a stereo microscope and fluorescent light. Over time, with that experience, it becomes easier to recognize a coin’s fabric using only a hand lens. Normal circulation does not present a problem for authentication. It can be demonstrated that the fabric of genuine coins appears okay at every grade from About Uncirculated to About Good. As a counterfeit becomes “honestly” circulated, it can start to appear more acceptable since the wear will hide or erase the original fabric and many of the diagnostics that were easy to see when the fake was in mint condition. Many of the recently made counterfeits on the market today have been artificially circulated. Their appearance is not natural. Harsh cleaning or chemical alteration will also change the color and fabric of coins making positive authentication more difficult.
As coin prices continue to rise, it has become profitable to fake coins in lower condition. Perhaps that is one reason we are seeing more circulated Mexican 8 Reales, and coins from the Chinese Provinces that turn out to be fakes. Many of these fakes appear to have been intentionally beat up and chemically altered to simulate age. Counterfeits are improving. My best advice for collectors is to know what a genuine coin should look like at the microscopic level.