Counterfeit fake coins and notes are part of the landscape of collecting.
We often use the term synonymously, but that may not always be the case. In some cases fake coins are made to fool the public, in other cases a fake rarity is created to fool a collector and in some cases legitimate coins are defaced or altered to appear to be more valuable.
In all of those cases someone is basically attempting to cheat an unsuspecting buyer.
None of this is new. There were counterfeiters back in the days of antiquity, punching out fake denarii and solidii. Back in the renaissance, when the first collectors were filling the first coin cabinets, I suspect that some early tradesmen saw a chance to turn a quick buck.
It’s just that for most of our history, these types of crooks have preferred to remain out of scrutiny.
Recently, as shown elsewhere in this issue, the fakers become so brazen as to essentially put up a web page saying “buy these fakes so you can make money selling them as real.”
That is the case with the recently reported Chinese fake gold coins and bars. The manufacturers, in this case, use tungsten, with thicker than usual gold plating, and very closely match the size of the original item. The result is a fake that is incredibly difficult to spot.
Now this is not new. Anyone who follows the business knows that sophisticated fakes have been around for a long time, and enforcement, while it must be attempted, will never be 100 per cent effective.
If you end up with a counterfeit item, you really don’t have a lot of viable options.
You can attempt to pass it off as authentic, but that’s both immoral and illegal; you can hang on to it, but it’s illegal to own counterfeits and unless tungsten goes way up in value you’re never going to get your money back, or you can turn it in to the authorities, which is the legal thing to do.
You won’t get reimbursed, since having the police buy counterfeits at face value would only prove that crime does pay, so the collector loses.
In other words, your best course of action is to try not to be a victim.
For the collector, that means a three-pronged approach: knowledge, observation, and market savvy.
Knowledge is your most valued asset.
For years, the best advice given to new collectors it to buy the book before your buy the coin. Old time collectors knew that being able to tell the real thing from a fake meant knowing the details. They also knew that it helped identify the difference between a rare coin and a scarce coin, and the difference between a really nice AU and a genuine MS.
In recent years that approach has lost popularity. In an age of quick fulfilment it is easy to assume that third-party services are flawless, or just to take in what is told to us, rather than invest time and money in learning.
Truth is, most dealers tell me their most valuable asset is not their inventory, but their library. What can I say, take a tip from the pros.
Once you have the knowledge, observation is the next step. While some fakes are really well executed, some are clumsy enough that you should be able to catch them.
Collectors know that a cast coin has a funny look, that unusual coins can be the result of homemade dies. They also take the time to learn about fake coins, so that they can identify the subtle characteristics that identify dies known to have been used by fakers. To an experienced observer, every coin is a face, even a fake coin.
Finally there is market savvy.
That can involve having a policy of only buying from reputable dealers, who will stand behind their product and guarantee its authenticity. It can also mean having the sense to realize that a really good price is often an indication of a fake item.
I’m sure that every once in a while someone inherits an old family collection, and then decides to sell it online without bothering to do any research into values. But I’m also pretty sure that most deals that sound too good to be true are exactly that, too good to be true.
Even with all that, there will be times you get fooled.
Back in 1992 Dr. John S. Wilkinson’s collection of ancient coins went on the block.
Wilkinson, a native of Toronto, was internationally-known, and many of his coins came from major collections and were purchased through famous houses in Europe. He often stopped by at the Royal Ontario Museum and helped them attribute difficult Greek and Roman coins.
Even so, his famed collection had a few fakes, not discovered until after his death.
Even the best can make mistakes.