Deceptive Alterations

Posted on 8/24/2007

Skip Fazzari discusses the tactic of “chasing” a coin, and how you can spot these devilish counterfeits.

When many things get old, they are discarded and new things, perhaps better made, take their place.   Not so with counterfeit and altered coins.  Although some fakes are taken off the market each year and are either put into reference collections or destroyed, a majority of them remain to plague another generation and are passed on to one unsuspecting collector after another. 

Some of these fakes, consisting of the addition or removal of parts of a coin’s design, fall into the category of coin alterations.  Interestingly, although techniques of fakery have improved over the years, a majority of the altered coins that you’ll encounter are still made by two methods.  In the first, a “Mint style” numeral or letter is applied directly to the surface of the host coin.  Figure 1 shows an example of a common alteration.  In this case, a “D” mintmark has been placed on the reverse of a 1916 Mercury dime to produce a coveted 1916-D coin.  Most coins with altered date numerals or mintmarks can be detected by locating the seam between the field and the added part; however, dirt and toning may obscure the seam.  Some fakers have become very sophisticated at their art and cover their tracks well.  On this coin, the center of the “D” is nearly perfect in shape but the rest of the letter is incorrect.  You may also see a discoloration around the added mintmark where the surface has been tooled. 

Discoloration or tooling around an alteration or a misshaped letter or numeral should raise suspicion.  But this is not always the case.  Fakes of this particular coin are extremely common and range in grade from Uncirculated to Good.  Alterations to coins grading lower than Good are rare.  Usually the coins grading Good down to Poor that are not genuine 1916-D’s are actually worn 1916-S’s.  The eyes of a collector are such that any coin having a trace of raised metal near the correct position becomes the “wished-for D” to fill his album hole.  Be cautious when examining a coin for alterations because some genuine coins with damage to their date or mintmark may look suspect. 

A second and less encountered method of date or mintmark alteration is called “chasing.”  It takes the skill of a master engraver to make a deceptive fake by this method, but dangerous examples exist in the marketplace.  Chased numerals or letters are created by scooping out the coin’s surface for a few millimeters around the desired location of the alteration and pushing (chasing) the removed metal into a raised mound that can be tooled into the shape of the desired mintmark.  Evidence of this form of alteration, is often seen as a discoloration of the field or the reflection of light from a depression where the metal was removed.  In most cases, rotating and rocking a suspect coin in the light should reveal the depression or tooling.  Much of the time, the added letters or numerals will be misshaped.

More recent alterations may display evidence of both these techniques being used on the same coin.  After the faker makes the desired change to a coin by adding a mintmark or changing the date, he will “chase” surface material up to and over the added part to help disguise the seam or smooth out any tooling marks.  We detected the first instance of this back in the1970s.  One fellow, who we nicknamed “The Master,” actually used a small tool or razor blade to push a microscopic amount of metal down the side of his added mintmarks, imitating the metal flow seen on genuine coins.  His efforts to hide the seam where the added mintmark met the field are an ingenious idea.  Imagine what authenticators can look forward to seeing in the future!  If you suspect that you have one of these deceptive alterations, by all means have your coin examined by NGC.

This article previously featured in Numismatic News.

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