Some Characteristics of Counterfeits

F. Michael “Skip” Fazzari

(Originally published in the “Making the Grade” column of Numismatic News)

Recently, I wrote a brief synopsis covering the evolution of counterfeit coins that I have witnessed since becoming a professional authenticator in 1972.  To continue along this tract, let’s roll back the clock a few years and review some of the characteristics commonly seen on older struck counterfeits.  One was the lack of relief and the “style” of the letters in the legend.  During the transfer process used to prepare many fake dies, the shape of the original coin’s parts was spread out and became slightly rounded.  Hence, the counterfeit did not appear to be as sharply defined as the genuine specimen.  Another characteristic was the presence of tiny tooling marks left when the faker tried to improve on his die work or conceal defects on the fake die.  Since he was working on the die face itself, anything he did that left a mark on that die’s surface would become a raised mark on the fake.  Over thirty years ago, the back and forth, digging motion used to fix a die produced an overlapping pattern of scratches resembling a few intertwined worms – hence I named them “wormy tool marks.”  An example of these can be seen in the field behind the head on an “Omega” three dollar gold coin.  This fake got its nickname from the tiny Greek letter inside the “R” of “Liberty.   I discovered this counterfeit shortly after finding the counterfeit High Relief coins from the same maker.  Incidentally, Charles

Hoskins gets credit for noticing that the “makers” initial resembled the Omega character.

Many older fakes also had pimples, repeating lumps, and depressions.  The depressions are thought to be caused by defects found on the surface of the genuine coin used as a model for the fakes.  Years of reporting on the defects we found on struck counterfeit coins has helped the fakers to improve their product.  Wormy tool marks are rarely seen any more except on the counterfeits made twenty plus years ago that still pop up in collections.  Also gone is the rounded, “fatty” relief on the design and letters that I mentioned above.  New machining processes have sharpened the counterfeit dies.  Additionally, those readers old enough to remember in 1975 how well the fakers could replicate the tiny die polish lines found on genuine coins would be astounded by today’s work.

For a long time, numismatic gold coins were a main target of counterfeiters.  Then, as the values to collectors increased, silver commemoratives and early type coins became prey.  I’ve seen counterfeits of everything from common date Seated Liberty halves, to scarce 1794 and 1796 Type coins.  Some of the earlier attempts which remain dangerous even today can be found in Counterfeit Detection, reprints from the Numismatist magazine.  Copper coins have not been exempt.  When first discovered, the “Bay Area” counterfeit Indian cents were difficult to detect and will still fool most if found in circulated condition.  These deceptive, chocolate brown fakes slipped into the numismatic market under the radar.  Eventually, their detection was facilitated by knowledgeable dealers and the substantial numbers of the fakes that appeared together. This allowed comparisons to be made between identical coins so that the defects on the counterfeit dies could be plotted.  Then as now, when an authenticator has the ability to compare two identical fakes with a genuine coin the counterfeits don’t stand up to the test – no matter how well they are made.