Attention to Detail

Posted by Skip Fazzari, Authentication Consultant to NGC, on 7/9/2008

Want to be more detail-oriented with your coins? Skip Fazzari gives a crash course on simple ways to hone your “collector’s eye.”

While graders tend to look at coins for their overall eye appeal and attractiveness, many authenticators take a different approach. I have always examined coins closely for their flaws. This approach probably developed when I was a young collector searching through pocket change for minor minting errors. My attention to details really paid off when I began to learn coin authentication. I believe a person can be self-taught to be “detail-oriented.”

As soon as you put this column down, get a hand lens out and examine some of your coins. There is no such thing as a “junk” coin. Treat every coin as if you are trying to authenticate it. You will learn something from each coin you examine. Over time, depending on the number of coins you examine, you will really learn what coins should look like. If you are able to do this exercise using a stereo microscope, as is done in the ANA Authentication course, you will become more attuned to a coin’s details than most collectors. An added benefit to this type of training is the ability to identify many of the characteristics you will see on coins later when you only have access to a hand lens.

As you look at a coin, break it down into its component parts so that you can fully focus on what you see. Is the shape of the coin correct? Are its lettering and design artful and uniform?  Is its color as expected? Experience plays an important role here. A golden-color Lincoln cent would raise some eyebrows here in the United States, yet many people from a foreign country would have no idea that the coin was unusual. Many of us may be in the same predicament when it comes to foreign coins. What shape and color is a Japanese Nibu Kin? Go look it up; I’ll have a test later.

Now let’s take a more detailed look at your coin. Start with its fields. Are they smooth? Do you find any evidence of metal flow at the edges of the letters, denticals, and relief of the coin? Do the fields appear rough, granular, or crystalline? Are there any depressions, craters, or microscopic holes? Do you see any odd shape lumps either in the field or next to the relief areas? Can you find any lines from die or planchet polishing operations?

Don’t forget to examine the coin’s rim and edge. Is there a raised seam or any lumps of metal around the edge? Has the edge been filed? Is the edge smooth, lettered, or reeded? Are the edge letters uniform? Is the edge reeding uniform? The list of details goes on and on. We can make a case for a coin’s authenticity out of any of the characteristics I have mentioned. For instance, on some coins, the presence of uniform, well-shaped edge lettering would raise suspicion that the coin was a counterfeit!

In coin authentication, there are exceptions to almost every rule. That is one reason why it’s so important to know what a genuine coin should look like. This “look” may change from country to country and for different time periods or coin type.

Occasionally, a collector will overlook the “genuine” details on their coin and go with their “common sense” perception. Once, while giving an authentication seminar, a student asked me to look at one of his coins. He was convinced that the coin was a cast fake because it did not “ring” when tapped, as a genuine silver half dollar should.

I looked at it with a hand lens and pronounced it genuine. As I gave my opinion and handed the coin back to the collector, he smiled and dropped the coin on to the desktop. The sickening “dull” sound that a lead cast counterfeit coin makes when it is dropped on a hard surface sent a shiver through my whole body. The collector looked amused by my reaction as I picked the coin up and examined it again more closely.  It was an obviously genuine die-struck silver half dollar. The coin should “ring” when dropped, but it did not. It provided a great “lesson coin” for the class as my second “detailed” examination confirmed that the coin was real — and I discovered why it had lost its “ring.”  There was a crack along part of the coin’s edge where the planchet had split after it was struck!  That is what ruined the coin’s tonal quality and caused the collector to overlook all the other details of the coin that proved it to be authentic. Train yourself to pay close attention to a coin’s details so that you do not make the same error.

This article previously featured in Numismatic News.