The Panama Canal Completion Medal

Posted on 2/13/2018

A counterfeit version of the medal has plenty of red flags.

A counterfeit of the popular Panama Canal Completion medal, catalogued in the So-Called Dollars reference as HK-398, has been identified by graders at NGC. These medals mainly come in antiqued yellow-bronze, but have also been found in Gilt-bronze. A few have also been observed with a brighter finish. The darker coppery finish of the counterfeit is the first giveaway. A metallurgic analysis of a typical specimen shows it contains nearly 15% zinc, with the rest composed of copper. The counterfeit tests with only about 6% zinc, which accounts for its deeper brown color.

Panama Canal Completion Medal HK-398
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Counterfeit Panama Canal Completion Medal
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Almost invisible in the photo of the reverse is the microscopic inscription just above the bottom rim that reads “Copyright 1913 J. F. Newman.” On the counterfeit, this area is far from complete because of an inferior strike. Overall, the dies look more of the result of a mechanical or computer generated engraving, rather than manual craftsmanship. The details on the counterfeit are sharply outlined, but the fine details are smooth and lack character. The female figure’s head is completely flat, likely due to an incomplete strike. The genuine example weighs 25.91 grams, while the copy weighs 28.79 grams.

The center of the counterfeit (right) is incomplete because of poor striking. The figure's chest lacks detail, and the head is completly flat.
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Since the design and legends of the medal are not overtly American, and the piece itself promotes “Prosperity to All Nations,” the medal appeals to the collector market internationally. It’s for this reason, as well as its attractive design, that many reproductions and copies have been made over the years. The serial numbers on the reverse were, of course, punched after striking, and copies exist with the number added to the die itself. Since only a few exist without a serial number, a collector should be suspicious if one isn’t present.

The rays of the counterfeit (right) are weaker and less defined.
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Since the 1500s, surveys had been made to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Even Ferdinand Magellan, the famous Portuguese explorer, looked for a passage that connected the Atlantic to the other side of the new world during his circumnavigation of the globe. But he didn’t find one until he navigated what is now called the Strait of Magellan, near the tip of South America. Building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was the shortest route, but the 50-mile stretch consisted of jungle terrain as well as large hills and mountains.

The French were the first to attempt the massive task in 1881, trying to cut the canal straight through at sea level. After spending nearly $300 million, they were forced to stop when the funding gave out in 1888. During the course of the attempt, tropical diseases (namely yellow fever and malaria) and accidents claimed the lives of an estimated 22,000 workers.

After backing a revolution for Panamanian independence in 1903, the US government was able to negotiate rights for the passage, and purchased French assets in the area. Under railroad specialist John Stevens, they quickly realized that a lock-based canal would be the best solution to speed up the process and prevent landslides. Efficient methods were developed for installing railroad track and removing excavated earth. The canal was completed 10 years later, formally opening on August 15, 1914. With a cost of $350 million, it was the most expensive construction project the United States had ever attempted to that date. Of the 56,000 workers, an estimated 5,600 had died.

In February 1915, the Kroonland passenger liner became the largest ship at the time to pass through the canal.

For the inauguration of the canal, the Steamship Cristobal carried all 50,000 of the medals issued for the event, each punched with consecutive serial numbers on the reverse. There are a few known with the word “specimen,” and a few that were left blank. These are both marked as a Rarity-8 in the So-Called Dollars reference, which means 5-10 of each are estimated to exist today. Therefore, one should be suspicious of examples that have no serial number.

Because collectors will come in contact with and examine far fewer examples of tokens and medals than US coins, counterfeits can be harder to spot than regular coinage. That’s why it’s safer to purchase tokens and medals that are certified by NGC, as they are backed by the same guarantee as regular coinage, for both grade and authenticity.

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