Collecting contemporary counterfeits

A shortened version of this letter to the editor was published in CCN Vol. 59 #14 (dated Oct. 12).

Dear Editor,

I have known Gordon Nichols, of St. Catharines, Ont., for over 20 years, and I consider him to be a personal friend.

We first made acquaintance on eBay in 1999, when we routinely bid against each other on Counterfeit Mexican eight reales. I know Gordon to be an absolutely honest person who has a genuine passion for the history of numismatics and the topic of contemporary circulating counterfeit (CCC) coins. Gordon and I were collaborators on the 2014 book, Counterfeit Portrait Eight-Reales, which has sold over 600 copies to date.

Recently, Gordon has given up coin collecting as a result of an insensitive attack (“Contemporary counterfeit debate causes one collector to leave hobby,” CCN Vol. 59 #8) by a self-appointed expert on counterfeit coins that believes all counterfeits are a serious present threat to numismatics.

This person and all those in the hobby that believe something similar err when they fail to distinguish between the two distinctively different kinds of counterfeit coins that actually exist. These can be classified by their underlying motivation for production.

NUMISMATIC FORGERIES VS. CONTEMPORARIES

I would point to the terminology introduced by Charles M. Larson in his wonderful book, Numismatic Forgery, published in 2004.

Charles Larson addressed a topic that is near and dear to every collector of counterfeit coins and should be of absolutely critical interest to every coin collector and coin dealer. Mr. Larson drew the clear distinction between counterfeits that were made to circulate as money contemporaneously, with the originals they copied, and counterfeits that were made specifically to defraud coin collectors. He calls these extremely dangerous types made to fool collectors “numismatic forgeries” (NF). I adapted his nomenclature to our book.

When I was training to be a coin authenticator in the mid-1970s, I was first introduced to this distinction by Don Romano and his father Corrado at Worthy Coin Company in Boston, Mass. They were coin dealers with a reputation for honesty and a scholarly approach to understanding numismatics. Worthy Coin enjoyed decades of experience in the business beginning in 1934. Back in the 1970s, there was no real name to distinguish between counterfeit coins made to circulate and coins made for the intentional deception of collectors; however, even then, there was a small group of dedicated collectors of the CCC types willing to pay a premium for many items. The second type, however, was seen by the Romanos as a growing problem in the business. Time has proven them correct.

The NF types are flooding the marketplace in heretofore unheard of numbers. These NF types should be identified and destroyed (keeping only one reference copy for later use in authentication and specifically to use in educating others about the topic), and they should be permanently marked “COPY” as required by the U.S. Hobby Protection Act of 1973—as amended. That makes it difficult to defraud anyone later.

The coins that are now flooding into Canada, the United States and elsewhere from China and Eastern Europe are the really serious danger to the business and the hobby. They look enough like original coins to fool collectors at almost every level of expertise who inadvertently purchase them for $1 or more. That is money they will never recover on these essentially worthless pieces of scrap metal. This is the flow, the NF types, that needs to be stopped. I agree with Mike Marshall and all people who understand that. I actually applaud Mike’s efforts to stem the unending tide of mass-produced worthless coins.

Where I simply cannot agree with him or whomever contacted Gordon is that the counterfeits made at the same time as the originals were in general circulation pose few if any genuine dangers to collectors when they are properly identified and described. In all cases, these CCC types are only viewed as collectible after the original coins they copied are not currently circulating in commerce.

UNDERSTANDING CONTEMPORARY COUNTERFEITS

The reason CCC types are not dangerous is based in part on simple economics.

The vast majority (but admittedly not all) of CCC coins are worth more than the genuine coins they mimic, provided both coins are in the same condition. This premium value applies to all coins normally traded above melt value levels. Coins that fall into the “melt” value categories are the only CCC types that are at times worth less than their genuine counterparts, due to precious metal content. CCC types are also clearly scarcer than genuine coins as anyone who collects counterfeits knows. The reason for that is twofold.

First, it is based on the fact counterfeiters producing for circulation copy common, not rare, coins, and they do not produce pristine Mint-State copies. This is so the counterfeits do not stand out in circulation. Ask any successful forger that question, and you will get that same answer.

For the record, I have interviewed several actual counterfeiters, and I find this to be a truism among those never convicted.

The second reason is survival rates, which I will address shortly.

Collectors experienced with counterfeit coins know issues of coins that appeared for only one or two years are rarely encountered by collectors as CCC types. Copies of rare types are with very few exceptions NF and not CCC types. Classifying a rare variety as a CCC type is therefore difficult and, in my opinion, necessitates a need for more than normal caution. The same thing applies to rare mint marks and other high-value collectible coins.

The example employed by Marshall of a Canadian 1875H 10-cent coin is never going to be encountered as a CCC type. The argument is really specious because that simply does not happen in the real world. He has created a “strawman,” which sounds good but is nearly impossible to locate. The normal circulating counterfeit is a common coin, often only of melt value, unless it is found in superior grades (above Fine or Very Fine).

The second reason why CCC types pose little to no threat is that when these CCC types circulated, they were identified and destroyed more often than they were saved. Debased silver CCC coins with assays over 50 per cent of the original silver value of the genuine coins are described in Riddell’s 1845 publication, A Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad.

Today, hunt as you may, these are now generally very rare to non-existent.

Why?

I believe it has to do with the silver content of these coins.

In 1845, $1 US was an average man’s weekly pay. A debased silver dollar could contain as much as 70 cents worth of silver according to Riddell. Those higher-value counterfeits were melted to recover the raw metallic value. The debased silver types do not exist now because in the normal course of business they were melted to recover the actual metal value because silver was legal money and the loss due to passing needed to be mitigated. The non-silver bearing CCC types made of German silver (containing no elemental silver content), and the silver-plated copper counterfeits are comparatively abundant; however, even those non-silver CCC types sell on average for more than genuine coins in similar grades.

In all cases, it is my belief that counterfeit coins must be properly described when sold to avoid any chance of fraud. Unfortunately, venues like eBay make this difficult since properly describing a CCC would lead to some self-appointed vigilante reporting the sale to eBay and having the sale stopped. By doing so, eBay has made the situation worse, not better, for all concerned. Some sellers turn to false or misleading claims instead of clearly saying a coin is a counterfeit (they may say, “It could be a counterfeit; I do not know”). A lie, but it also does not come up on an eBay search for the word counterfeit.

COLLECTING CONTEMPORARY COUNTERFEITS

Far from being the great danger that Marshall implies, I find that CCC types are actually interesting and relatively rare examples of coins used by our ancestors in day-to-day commerce.

They certainly should not be destroyed based on the error of non-collectors in understanding what they are.

I do concur that counterfeits of coins that are in current circulation pose a genuine threat to commerce, but I fail to see how anyone could consider a Victorian-era silver coin Canadian or otherwise to be a “current” coin that could possibly threaten commerce. Also, if one did decide to prosecute, they would have to use face value, and who would waste the court’s time seeking to recover 20 cents?

My last job before retiring from authentication completely was for eBay as a member of the Coin Watch Committee (CWC), which reported to the “Trust and Safety” group. There, I joined a distinguished panel of eight experts in numismatic authentication. We were unpaid, and membership to the committee was strictly by the invitation of eBay management based on our credentials and experience in authentication. I was selected to replace a person that resigned from the committee who was the single member who was an expert in world coins. The other members were specialists in various areas of numismatics, mostly different U.S. coinage varieties.

In my time on the CWC, we were deluged by the NF type of counterfeit. The CCC types were never a serious issue and were rarely acted upon them unless they were improperly described as genuine. The consensus of the CWC was CCC types were collectible as long as they were legal to own. Normally, that meant they were demonetized or no longer circulating and used as actual current money.

On the legality of CCC and NF types coins, I have consulted with several lawyers before and after my involvement with eBay. As Mr. Marshall says, current coinage is normally seen by authorities as contraband; however, there is a major difference between the letter of the law and how the law is actually enforced when it comes to sales of one coin at a time. The numismatic community in the United States recently saw news of a seizure of NF coins that were produced and shipped from China. They were seized when they arrived in the United States. Thousands of coins were involved with a face value of thousands of U.S. dollars, and many of these were monetized types but non-circulating issues. Most were U.S. silver dollars bearing dates before 1935. Clearly, this was an illegal shipment that was a threat to collectors of coins; however, my experience with eBay and as an authenticator for a Raleigh, N.C., coin dealer gives me a far different view of the realities of enforcement.

To get the attention of the local police, the “crime” must first rise to a minimum of a felony level (over $1,000 of face value) and fraud must be demonstrable—otherwise, the police have no interest in pursuing the case or even in arresting offenders. In fact, in the case of an actual sale of over $10,000 worth of U.S. silver coins that were worthless NF types, the first question police asked was, “How do we know they are fraudulent?” They did not care if the dealer or a professional authenticator indicated they were counterfeit; they only wanted to know how they would know. If the person attempting to sell these coins had not been subject to an outstanding warrant from another jurisdiction, the police would have let the criminal walk out of the shop with his fake coins  That is an actual real-life case.

So why in the world would anyone come down so hard on an individual like Gordon?

MY EXPERIENCE

As a member of the CWC, I maintained daily records of coins, including the numbers of CCC and NF types appearing for sale in the “world coins” category and within that category of my own personal interest the Mexican eight reales counterfeits.

I also made records of other specific eBay violations which are not of interest here. CCC types appeared on average fewer than one per cent as often as NF types. This includes CCC types properly identified as well as those that were improperly described. Improper attribution was often the result of sellers that were not aware of what they were selling. I always contacted first-time offenders (I tracked all offenders by eBay ID name) and allowed them to correct their posts before seeking the termination of their auctions. I insisted that all NF types be removed immediately, and I insisted that all CCC types were properly described. I did that out of fairness and common courtesy to the seller, and I did it with the concurrence of my handler, a manager at eBay. At that time, even eBay recognized that sales of CCC types were not a threat to the hobby.

When dealing with counterfeits of all types, there is no place for vigilantes who do not understand the numismatic business. All counterfeits are not the same. A Roman fouree is not treated like a Slavey Petrov replica made a few years ago. A colonial counterfeit half-penny is not treated like a copy made in Williamsburg. A non-circulating counterfeit of a silver coin actually made during the reign of Queen Victoria is simply not in the same class as a Chinese NF made last week.

Reports to the CWC during my tenure of properly described CCC types were normally voted down and were not removed. NF types and all other frauds were terminated at a rate of up to 2,000 cases a day often without an eBay member making a formal report to Trust and Safety. This was because, at that time, the eBay managers were conversant with numismatics and understood the simple difference between CCC and NF counterfeits.

Since the CWC was disbanded in 2013 under threat of an international lawsuit and eBay reverted to “caveat emptor” as a defence for all dealings, things have changed for the worse. All the managers were rotated to categories they have no working expertise in. All of the experts were let go. But the underlying concept that there are two different classifications of counterfeit coins didn’t change.

‘A GREAT TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE’

A bully of the kind that interacted with Gordon may be able to get some auctions cancelled, but he often does so to the detriment of the individuals involved both as sellers and buyers.

Gordon Nichols selling a CCC coin to another counterfeit collector is a fair transaction—painting him as a criminal on a par with the Chinese numismatic forgers is a great travesty of justice.

I understand that in Canada all coins retain a legal-tender status, so they are money and may, in the eyes of a court, be illegal to own; however, the wording of the law refers to counterfeits as being current money. That term “current” is vague enough as to the exact meaning and could be construed to mean coins that are actually encountered at the present time in the channels of commerce.  A good defence attorney could easily make such a case.

My caution to all would-be vigilantes who see it as their duty to stop auctions of coins that threaten numismatics is to pursue NF types, the genuine serious threat to the numismatic community as a whole, and leave individuals like Gordon Nichols alone. He is a threat to absolutely no one.

Shame on any mean-spirited individuals who act as vigilantes only to inflate up their self-image and in the process injure people like Gordon and drive him away from coin collecting.

—Robert Gurney, of Hope Mills, N.C., undersigned by James Biancarosa, Paul Cartmill, William Corbin, David Fanning, Jim Glickman, Todd Gredesky, Skip Lane, David Palmer, Jeff Rock, Richie Rose, George Rossell, Bob Metzger, Michael Xavier Spencer III, Mark Sportack, Stanley Stephens, and Ray Williams

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