The Surface of a Counterfeit
by F. Michael Fazzari
Early in my career as a professional numismatist specializing in authentication and grading, I made the determination that I didn’t care to know how a counterfeit coin was made or what method or concoction was used to alter a coin’s surface. I just wanted to be able to detect these spurious specimens. It became obvious that to reach my goal, the most important requirement was to know what genuine coins in their natural, original condition should look like. Almost forty-three years later, the fakes, altered, and enhanced coins have become much more deceptive but that basic requirements for authenticating and grading has not changed.
In 1972, the fakes were very crude by today’s standards and surface alterations consisted mainly of “tooling” or “whizzing.” Most of the tooled coins were ancients or large copper cents and colonials. Apparently, tooling had been an acceptable practice for some time in the 19th century. Most of the “tooled” coins I saw were attempts to smooth out corrosion and pitting on a coin’s surface or to strengthen its basic design details to give it the appearance of a high grade specimen. Whizzing was another way to improve the appearance of coins for those who were ignorant of the true nature of mint luster. Whizzed coins are brighter so a dull Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated coin could resemble a Brilliant Uncirculated specimen after this process was completed. Whizzed coins have one universal diagnostic that separates them from harshly cleaned or polished coins. When examined closely, one side of the whizzed coin’s design becomes slightly raised, resembling a lip. Whizzed coins flooded the market for a while because they looked so nice and were easy to sell at cheap prices to the uninformed. Even today, most non-collectors prefer the look of a whizzed About Uncirculated coin over an original Uncirculated specimen. One other commonly encountered surface alteration especially seen on copper coins was a lacquer coating. Although this was done to protect a coin’s surface and preserve its color, the practice has fallen out of favor. Inert plastic slabs provide better protection.
I can’t remember with certainty what came next; but soon we encountered Morgan dollars with a cloudy un-natural surface, especially on Liberty’s cheek. We called these treatments “fingering” (now called “thumbing”) and “Bondo.” A thumbed coin is one that has been smeared lightly with body oils to dull down shiny contact marks. Since the number and the location of marks on a coin is one of the main criteria used to grade Mint State coins, anything that could be done to lessen their impact to a coin’s eye appeal was a plus. A more devious practice was to dissolve auto body filler or other opaque substances in a volatile carrier fluid. When the fluid evaporated a clouded remained on the coin that blended any marks making them less noticeable.
The key to detecting alterations of this sort was obvious to me. The bag marks looked different. The surface of the coins did not look natural. Take a look at the surface of a fully original Morgan dollar in Figure 1. The mint luster is original and most contact marks on Liberty’s cheek are shiny where they have damaged the “mint frost” on the coin’s surface. Any oil or chemical placed on these coins will dull down and blend in the damaged area lessening the contrast between the marks and surface. The coin becomes dull. Figure 2 shows the same coin altered by a chemical agent. Now, the marks blend in with the surrounding surface and are less noticeable.
With all these alterations, the key to their detection was either covered-up marks, extraneous deposits of a substance, or an unnatural appearance that was completely different from the genuine article, yet almost unnoticed without careful scrutiny.