By Jesse Robitaille
The first rule of counterfeit detection is to “see what’s there, not what you’re expecting.”
This according to Mike Marshall, Canada’s pre-eminent counterfeit coin expert, who led a two-and-a-half-hour seminar at the recent National Postage Stamp and Coin Show in Mississauga. An air-traffic controller by day, Marshall also uses his dedicated concentration and problem-solving skills for the good of the hobby since 2007.
“When people are looking at coins, they don’t see what’s there – they see what they were expecting to see – and that’s where they get burned,” said Marshall, a resident of Trenton, Ont.
“In numismatics, you have to train yourself to see what’s physically there.”
If not, you might disregard the wrong effigy on a specific year-date – a 1904 or 1907 with George V rather than the correct monarch Edward VII, for example.
After passing around a fake 1907 half-dollar – with George V on the obverse – to a handful of attendees of his Sept. 7 seminar, Marshall ultimately had to point out the obvious: that coin should depict Edward.
“If you see what’s there and not what you’re expecting, you’ll eliminate 80 per cent of your problems.”
And if you do come across a counterfeit, it’s vital to the hobby for you to report it, Marshall added.
“If anybody here knows someone with a counterfeit, tell them it’s fake and to get rid of it,” he said, adding “there’s only one way to get rid of it, and that’s destroy it.”
“If you deal and you get stung by counterfeits and you don’t let people know – fellow collectors, the RCNA (Royal Canadian Numismatic Association), the ONA (Ontario Numismatic Association), the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) – you’re part of the problem, not the solution.”
As for so-called “black cabinet” collections, Marshall said he’s unconcerned.
“I don’t care if you buy and sell contemporary counterfeits. What I care about is somebody selling the Chinese counterfeits at a profit.”
CHINESE VS. CONTEMPORARY
In addition to a table full of Chinese-made counterfeits – plus a presentation highlighting counterfeit markers for every denomination of Canadian and Newfoundland decimal coinage manufactured in China – Marshall also showed two “contemporary counterfeits.”
Meant to fool collectors, what he calls “contemporary counterfeits” are different from Chinese counterfeits, which are struck as a novelty “to fill an order.”
“The Chinese aren’t trying to get numismatic value out of it; they just want you to buy their $2 trinket. It’s the secondary market – Kijiji, eBay, the people with no morals – that’s really damaging,” said Marshall.
Some of these secondary sellers “knew exactly what they had,” he said, adding the Chinatown neighbourhoods in both Toronto and Vancouver “have people with buckets of Canadian coins – buckets of them – but the RCMP won’t do anything because the sellers aren’t attempting to defraud anybody.”
Under that interpretation of the law, the fraud begins with a secondary seller offering the item online – perhaps “with a blurry picture, saying he found it in his dad’s estate and he had it since the ’50s,” Marshall said.
‘A TENDENCY TO MAKE PEOPLE OVERLY NERVOUS’
Marshall recounted a story about a Montréal tool-and-die maker, who purchased two million bi-metallic planchets in the same size and weight, “within reason,” as Canada’s $2 coin.
“He had access to a press and started pounding coins; he sold them to an outlaw bike gang reportedly for $1 a piece. The bike gang then circulated them across Canada, making 100 per cent profit.”
The RCMP eventually arrested the tool-and-die maker, but of the two million planchets he purchased, only 100,000 remained.
“You do the math: that’s a fair chunk of change he made before he got caught,” said Marshall, who added he found a counterfeit 2004 toonie “in my change from a Tim Hortons in Trenton, Ont., and I was shocked.”
“I didn’t bring them today because they have a tendency to make people overly nervous.”
If there’s a profit to be made in producing a counterfeit, someone will inevitably try to do it, Marshall said.
“In this case, the profit to be made is by a secondary seller – the individual attempting to defraud by selling them as numismatic rarities.”
This secondary market is the focus of Marshall’s endeavour, and while he owns hundreds of examples for education purposes, this responsibility does not come lightly.
“Can I legally own those? Yes,” he said. “There’s a line in the law that says you may own, possess, buy, trade counterfeit coins if for education with the onus on the buyer and seller to prove that.”
TWO MAIN MANUFACTURERS
Marshall outlined two main China-based manufacturers producing “the majority” of the counterfeit Canadian and Newfoundland coins.
One is Big Tree Coin Factory in Beijing, China, and the other is HK Replica in Hong Kong.
“They’ve shared dies – I know that – but the markers may be slightly different, and that’s why sometimes you’ll see two different groups of coins with markers being slightly different, but they will all have at least one marker in common.”
As for legalities, these Chinese manufacturers have no worries – at least in their homelands – because “they’re not breaking the law in China making these coins,” Marshall said.
“They can legally, by Chinese law, counterfeit or replicate any currency in the world, including their own, as long as it’s dated before 1949, and they’re not breaking Chinese law. That’s what our government has to fight, and they don’t; they couldn’t care less.”
Aside from these two manufacturers, a new producer has come on the market with new counterfeits, including a 1911 silver dollar and 1921 half-dollar.
“They’ve started making these in the last 30 days,” said Marshall in early September, “and that’s all because of a very popular auction that received national press.”
“The Chinese make things by demand,” he said, showing a fake 1911 silver dollar – what would be one of only two in existence – he says was made weeks after Heritage Auctions uploaded high-resolution images of the only privately known example offered during the sale of the Cook Collection.
“Up until a month ago; there was no counterfeit version on the market.”
He attributes it to “some enterprising individual,” who he also believes made the counterfeit 1921 half-dollar with the same obverse markers.
“They’re going to sell a bag full of them because now the Canadian public knows there are only two.”