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How to Spot Fake Coins

Any and all collector hobbies run the risk of fakes entering the market. So any coin enthusiast who says otherwise is either naïve, foolish or has something to hide. The good news, however, is that the likelihood of any one coin collector buying a fake is small, and the chance that they will have spent a lot of money on it, even smaller. That said, the risk is still real for the unwary. Here we set out how to reduce the risk and increase your knowledge and enjoyment of numismatics along the way.

What do we mean by fake?

Perhaps it is easiest to see this in terms of two broad groups: forgeries and reproductions, also known as replicas.

Forgeries – forged coins are usually called counterfeit –  are copies made to deceive. They will either be illegal copies of contemporary currency, or they may be careful copies of rare old coins, made with the intention of being sold at high value when the cost of production has been relatively small.

Some historic counterfeit coins, of course, may be valuable precisely because they are fakes. Some collectors specialise is precisely these items. Spanish coinage from 19th Century was frequently counterfeited for contemporary use, and in the UK the Shadwell Forgeries of the 1850s and 1860s included coins and artefacts allegedly from the medieval period. Instead they were crude copies that nevertheless fooled many antiquarians of the time. In a small irony of numismatics, these can now be more valuable than the original medieval coin they purported to be.

Reproduction or replica coins, like reproduction furniture, do not pretend to be the original, but they do set out to bring enjoyment by being like the original and they can often be very accurately made. In the case of coins, we can find replicas in museums (perhaps occasionally where the original is too valuable to be on display) and in gift shops. The fact that they are reproductions will usually be quickly obvious, so the risk of their being passed off as genuine is very small indeed.

Additionally, with tokens, it is usually possible to pin down their origin very precisely, so they can come with a really local appeal which is heightened if you happen to have a personal or family connection to the story.

And are they worth collecting? Well, the market is lively and these are very collectable items. Mostly they are not expensive – many change hands for tens of pounds rather than hundreds – which makes collecting them a very accessible hobby.

How real is the Risk?

Lower value coins are unlikely to be counterfeited. Thus it is usually very safe to buy the majority of these coins online. Just do the research to find out what you are buying and be familiar with the features of your chosen coins. At the other extreme, very high value coins would appear to be obvious targets, but in reality they will come under very high levels of scrutiny every time they change hands. The likelihood of a forgery not being detected is very small. However, if you are in that market, and come across a rare coin you want to buy, you should still seek out more than one opinion as to its authenticity.

This leaves the middle market as being potentially the most vulnerable to fakes. Typical examples, therefore, might be those coins produced for collectors in the first place. It also helps the counterfeiter if the forgery work is straightforward or passing off to an innocent buyer is easy. This has been the case with the 2009 Kew Gardens 50p piece which can be easily confused with a recent 2019 example, worth considerably less than the original coin from 2009.

Counterfeit coins: what to look out for

It is really difficult to produce a perfect forgery. And it only makes economic sense for the criminal if they can make lots of counterfeit coins very cheaply, or a few high-value coins with an even higher return.

Counterfeit coins can be struck or cast, or they can be genuine coins that were altered or doctored in some way. Error coins (real coins with unintended features) are susceptible to this. For example, a few of the very earliest editions of the 2012 Aquatics 50p shows water flowing over and almost completely obscuring the swimmer’s face. The design was quickly corrected, but a counterfeiter would use tools to physically alter a later version to pass it off as a rare error coin worth many times its face value. Regardless of this, it is always easy to spot when compared with an original.

coin collecting

If you are collecting recent or contemporary UK coins, have a look at a growing resource, www.thefakepoundcoindatabase.co.uk, which shows examples of fake coins – mostly UK decimal, but the database is gradually expanding – and what to look out for. It very neatly illustrates both the problem (there are still quite a lot of forgeries out there) and the solution: careful observation. Once you start looking, the relatively poor quality of workmanship in the fakes is usually obvious.

If you think you are being offered a forgery, or even as a matter of good practice, look at the following features in particular:

Replicas and replica markings​​

As mentioned above, these are not intended to deceive, but may be superficially very good copies. They will be consistently the same shape, size and colour and probably won’t have the feel of an original. Replicas are also made by reputable firms who add their own mark. For example, many gift shop replicas in the UK are made by Birmingham based Westair Reproductions Limited. Their coins include the additional WRL imprint, which is a clear sign that they are not the real thing.

The shape of the coin – the look

With old coins, many will have been individually struck , and even when minted in a press, shapes won’t always have been uniform. Add to this the damage of constant use, and old coins of the same denomination will rarely be identical. Counterfeit coins, however, tend to be identical in shape and colour as they will all have been cast from the same original.

The edges of the coin – the feel

A coin made in a mould will often have a fine ridge around the edge where the two halves of a mould met like a seam.

How does a coin sound – does it ring true?

Tap your coin lightly on its edge and compare it with one you are confident is genuine. The struck (genuine) coin will tend to have higher pitch. The replica or counterfeit will usually have a lower and duller sound in comparison.

The surface of the coin – the quality of detail

Most counterfeit and replica coins are cast rather than struck. Often this leaves the coin with an imperfect finish which, on close inspection, will not usually look like ageing. Instead it might look like tiny spots or minute holes, making the design look fuzzy. A struck coin will almost always have much more crisply defined detail.

Before you buy

Just like any other significant purchase, research is key. Know what it is you are looking for and know how to identify it. Experience, knowledge and attention to detail are worth their numismatic weight in gold. You can research an item you are interested in via our official partner Numista where you can check genuine coin specifications.

Compare available pictures and check the overall look of the coin. Then dive into minute details to ensure that everything is correct and aligned. Check things like strike quality, number and letter alignment and details of shape, design, colour and edge types – even look for die alignment compared with an image or an example you know to be genuine.

Real coins tend to have sharp detail and clear fields. Counterfeit coins usually have soft, uneven, low quality detail and a dull look. Probably there will be differences in colour, metal composition, weight and diameter.

Research the coin’s provenance. Its history is valuable information that can prove its origin. Doing this not only adds a real sense of value to your coin, but you also get an intangible connection with its previous owners.

But your work doesn’t stop here…

After the purchase

Once you have your new acquisition, double check everything again. Then use callipers to check thickness and diameter. Weigh the coin on scales which give an accuracy to 1/100 of a gram. Check for magnetism (you’ll need to know what to expect first !) and  – see above – carry out the sound test.

Prudent Precautions

On top of the detailed checks described above, there is more you can do to  First, for items over £100, pay with a credit card and have the protection of Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. This makes the credit card company jointly and severally liable for any breach of contract or misrepresentation by the retailer or trader – and this will include whomever you bought your coins from. So, if you are tricked into buying a fake and you have used your credit card, you will get your money back – if not from the fraudster, then from the credit card company instead.

You can also buy graded coins – that is, those which have already been inspected and graded as to five qualities: strike, preservation, lustre, colour, and attractiveness. The process of grading is very likely to throw up fakes, so buying graded coins gives you good protection against counterfeits. Well known companies doing this included PCGS, NGC, and LCGS.

Use your common sense. This seems so obvious, but in the enthusiasm of the moment we all vulnerable to ignoring obvious warning signs. So keep a cool head, and look out for obviously doubtful deals. If a price looks too good to be true, almost certainly it is, so treat it with very real caution. Gold coins such as Krugerrands and Sovereigns are frequent examples here, and if you are buying at an in-person auction you may be able to literally get a ‘feel’ of the coin to see if seems genuine.

Best practice at Silverhammer Coin Auctions

It is against the law to sell counterfeit coins in the pretence that they are the original item. And of course, it is fine to sell counterfeits or replicas when they are accurately described as such.  

At SHCA we do everything possible to ensure counterfeit coins do not reach ‘for sale‘ status with the vendor pretending they are genuine. Our moderators are on constant watch to spot and remove any suspicious items and any user found knowingly listing fake items will be removed from the community and reported to the police. 

We recognise that 100% immunity from forgeries is difficult to guarantee. Nevertheless we still pursue this holy grail. Our payment gateway is secure, naturally, and other features support this process, including Anti-scam Radar, account & identity verification and of course honest participants! Our web features allow users to report concerns and request removal of suspicious items, so this is also very much a community initiative.

Our underlying purpose is to promote the enjoyment of numismatics. And what better place to start than with the type of clear and focused security that brings peace of mind?

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