Grading Services: Targets for Counterfeiters

F. Michael “Skip” Fazzari


This year will mark the fortieth anniversary of coin authentication services in the United States. My fortieth will come later this year in September. Things were simpler in the “old days.” There was no pressure to return coins quickly, no special tiers and one price for all. A coin did not get certified unless we could prove to our satisfaction that it was genuine. Some unusual coins took months to authenticate as we would hold them until we had enough “problem” coins to justify a trip up to the American Numismatic Society in NYC to examine a comparison specimen. The Smithsonian Institution Collection was a much shorter trip. Any newly discovered counterfeits were confirmed at the Bureau of the Mint’s Lab. That’s also where we authenticated any unusual mint errors that had us stumped.

We’ve come a long way baby. Today, the two largest authentication services are like million dollar factories that churn out product at an astounding rate. The two other major authentication services have a much smaller market segment but produce an equally good product with a large following. The often heard advice: “Buy the coin, not the slab” is very true for those who have learned how to grade for themselves. This is good advice because unfortunately, the counterfeiter’s have set their sights on a different product – fake slabs!

Fake Certification papers have been around since the 70’s. Crooks would take a photo-certificate of a genuine coin and pair it with a counterfeit or altered specimen. Except in rare cases, a close inspection of the photo would reveal some differences. While at PCI, I’ve seen examples where a genuine slab case was cracked and a typewriter was used to make a label on a piece of card! If you don’t know what the grading service slab should look like, beware. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I believe Accugrade was the first service to offer a certified coin in a sealed slab. INSAB and PCI came out with slabs much later as PCGS and later NGC took over the major portion of the authentication business in 1985-86 with a good product, strong guarantees, and a dealer backed network. I can attest that the guarantees worked because once I actually saw dealers bidding on a foot locker full of “bought-back” coins at a show in Long Beach, CA.

The success of the largest grading services has also made them a target. There are documented instances of counterfeit slabs in the market. They were extremely hard for all but the experts to detect. I’ve even heard that one grading service imports the parts for their slabs from China! This is just asking for trouble and hopefully they have stopped that “leak.” Less sophisticated crooks have learned that parts of genuine slabs and their labels can be found all over. A hobby knife and some super glue… Today it is important to know what the genuine slabs from the major services look like. One good place to find this information is the Internet. Additionally, the actual slab can be checked by searching its number at the grading service web site.