Counterfeit Detection: Macdonough Medal

Posted on 8/31/2020

In the 1800s, museums commonly displayed electrotypes, which can fool today’s collectors.

By Numismatic Guaranty Corporation®

During the War of 1812, Thomas Macdonough commanded the American naval forces that defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Champlain. This confrontation was a major turning point in the war. To recognize Macdonough’s service, Congress requested that he be presented a gold medal struck by the United States Mint. Bronzed copper versions also were produced and are what are typically seen in the marketplace today. The gold specimens of this medal (and other U.S. Congress Gold Medals) are extremely rare and generally unattainable.

The large-format medals struck by the mint in the 19th century are stunning works of numismatic art. Skilled engravers often cut directly into the die steel. Modern fakes of these historic pieces are rather uncommon, but contemporary copies exist. Imagine the surprise of a Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) grader when he looked at the edge of a lovely example submitted for authentication and saw that the piece was, in fact, an electrotype!

The electrotype (left), likely produced in the 19th century for display purposes, is very convincing. The genuine piece is a restrike (Julian-NA-15) produced by the U.S. Mint long after the initial examples were struck around 1822.
Click images to enlarge.

Electrotypes are created by a complicated process invented by Russian engineer Moritz von Jacobi in 1838. An electric current is passed through a piece of metal suspended in a conductive solution.

The metal dissolves and is deposited on a wax impression of a coin or medal that is coated with very fine graphite powder. This results in a thin shell used for display, most often in museums. However, when museums deaccessioned these copies, the specimens often fell into the hands of unscrupulous characters who joined the shells of the obverse and reverse and filled them with lead to make one solid piece.

Because the fake is filled with lead, any measurement of its specific gravity will be incorrect. Copper has a specific gravity of 8.9, while lead is 11.3. The specific gravity of the electrotype is 10, which makes sense for a lead-filled copper shell.

The details on the reverse of the electrotype (left) are not as clear as those on the authentic restrike.
Click images to enlarge.

The electrotype has good details, but those of the actual medal are even better. While the genuine piece is not an original strike, it was produced from U.S. Mint dies created from the first issue. The only change was the addition of Charles Barber’s initials at the truncation of Macdonough’s right arm.

Comparison of the close-up images shows that the details on the genuine example are much stronger. This is obvious in the clouds, which are textured on the original but almost fade into the fields on the fake.

The seam along the edge of the electrotype confirms this specimen is not a genuine United States Mint product.
Click image to enlarge.

The electrotype is very convincing, that is, until you examine the edge, which features a seam where the two shells were joined together. If you have questions regarding the authenticity of items in your collection, remember that items certified and graded by NGC are guaranteed to be the real deal.

Reproduced with permission from the May 2020 edition of The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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