Dr. Sol Taylor

Counterfeiting is Not New

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, December 15, 2007

n a detailed article in the November 2007 issue of The Numismatist — the monthly journal of the American Numismatic Association — authors Nancy Y. Oliver and Richard G. Kelly detail some stories of ambitious counterfeiters of United States coinage of the 19th century.
    The abundance of such coins attests to the circumstances of the times. In the early part of the century, the majority of coins in circulation were Spanish American silver reales (pronounced "ree-alleys") and their fractional counterparts. Thus many counterfeit coins were passed along since many people werenít familiar enough with the real coins.
    In the latter part of the century, many immigrants from Europe — Italian, Irish, Russian, German and others — flooded the Industrial Revolution centers of the country. These immigrants were also easy targets for counterfeit coins since they had few or no real coins for comparison. In the Oliver and Kelly story, they report that in cities such as New York, bags of nickels often contained as much as 20 percent bogus coins in the 1870s.
    Many of the bogus coins were made of various alloys including silver-plated lead, pot metal, and even glass powder mixed with easy-to-melt alloys. In the American Numismatic Associationís counterfeit coin collection, many such 19th-century fakes are available for study. They are fairly easy to distinguish from the real coins of the time by todayís collectors.
    To see if they were 19th-century fakes versus 20th-century fakes, the older coins were mostly of common dates and types thus of no real numismatic value. The more recent fakes were designed to fool collectors — such as "CC" mintmarked dollars, Spanish Pillar dollars, bust coinage, and rare date coins in general.
    Robert Campbell, a former ANA president and instructor in the Counterfeit Detection program at the ANAís annual Summer Seminar, talks mostly of the numismatic counterfeits in the collection such as 1909-S VDB cents, 1916-D dimes, three-legged Buffalo nickels, 1932-D and -S Washington quarters (added mintmarks), and many more†as well as†altered date and mintmarked silver dollars.
    Most of the counterfeit gold coins are 20th-century products aimed at collectors, not the grocery store (when gold coins actually circulated up to the early 1930s). Since the late Virgil Hancock, a past ANA president, started his "Featuring Fakes" column some 40 years ago, the ANA has accumulated many counterfeit and altered coins for educational purposes.
    I have examined many 19th-century fakes — mostly bust halves, Seated Liberty quarters and even silver three-cent pieces, and†most would not pass a simple visual examination by a collector with a 10-power lens. Most are made of non-silver alloys and often bear fairly crude renderings of the coinís features. Some were designed to fool foreigners in the 1800s.
    In a San Francisco newspaper article of June 24, 1879, it was stated that there were more fake coins than notes, and for as little as $5 or $6, one could set up a simple counterfeiting operation. Here again, with the large number of Chinese and Latin American immigrants in the area at the time, such coins were readily phased into circulation.
    Todayís counterfeiters are more sophisticated and have better equipment and the skill to make counterfeit numismatic coins and, more often than not, counterfeit paper money. One of the top prize-winning exhibits at the Numismatic Association of Southern California conventions around 1973 was a large panel of "Major Mint Errors" featuring some of the most extraordinary mint errors known. Later it was discovered the exhibitor, Roy Gray, had manufactured these "errors," sometimes using real coins, while others were clever counterfeits.
    Despite the Treasury Departmentís changeover in currency design and security features, millions of dollars in fake paper money is made every year, and a good deal finds its way into circulation — often starting overseas and eventually wending its way back to the USA.
    As long as there is a high profit to be made in counterfeiting, some people will risk the penalties and produce bogus coins and paper money.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.