Q: What is a counterfeit coin?
A: A counterfeit coin is a coin minted with a confusingly similar or identical design to an established numismatic item. Because of this, since the counterfeit is not authorized by the original issuing body, it does not carry the same numismatic value as a genuine item.
Q: Is it illegal to own counterfeits?
A: That depends on what country you live in.
In the United Kingdom it is legal to posess counterfeits provided that one has a lawful excuse and have no intent to defraud someone. [Forgery & Counterfeiting Act 1981, Chapter 45, Part II]
In Canada it is perfectly legal to own counterfeits, provided you have no intent to defraud someone with them, or export them from Canada. [Criminal Code 452-454]
Other countries may have different laws.
The rest of these questions primarily deal with counterfeits in the United States:
Q: If I own a counterfeit coin, do I have to stamp it with “COPY”?
A: No you do not. The statutes in the Hobby Protection Act of 1973 as amended by the Collectible Coin Protection Act state that “COPY” marking rules apply to individuals who manufacture or import imitation numismatic items for introduction into commerce or sale into commerce and only apply to counterfeits and/or replicas that were manufactured after November 29, 1973. However it is highly advisable to mark your counterfeits plainly in some manner so that there are no potential mix-ups (now, or in the future, or by any potential heirs).
Q: Can the Secret Service confiscate any counterfeits in my possession?
A: Yes, at their option they potentially could (under 18 U.S. Code § 492 – Forfeiture of counterfeit paraphernalia). However, the Secret Service usually has more important things to do with their time than prevent counterfeit coinage enthusiasts from educating themselves and others about fake coins (i.e. something that makes their job easier).
Furthermore, even under 18 U.S. Code § 492, if you somehow have your counterfeits taken and subsequently appeal to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Treasury is encouraged to return any confiscated paraphernalia if no laws were broken. In fact, if you actively use your collection for educational purposes (this falls under “mitigating circumstances”).
Remember, the Secret Service and the Office of the Treasury’s primary concern is tracking down counterfeiters and dishonest people who pass counterfeits as genuine. If you’re not looking to defraud anyone, or help anyone commit fraud, you’re one of the good guys. For more information, see the Know Your Money page on their website here. It’s a little bit out of date, but still very informative.
Q: Don’t counterfeiters usually focus on rare or key dates?
A: They used to. Nowadays even the most common of dates and coins of relatively “little” worth are being counterfeited (especially to take advantage of where precious metal prices are today). Due to the volume many counterfeiters are producing, if they can make a profit off of it it’s worth their time.
Q: What is the difference between a counterfeit and an “altered” or “over-struck” coin?
A: An altered coin is a genuine numismatic item that is physically altered in some way in an effort to increase it’s believed worth. This may involve scratching out details, or carving out new ones. One method of altering a coin is known as “over-striking” where a genuine coin is struck again with a different pair of dies. Altered coins are subject to the same laws as counterfeit coins (they are legal to own, provided they are not improperly represented in any way); however, there is some grey-area concerning their status as Legal Tender. Since they are generally made from genuine coins, they are technically still “spendable,” where counterfeits are not as they were never legal tender in the first place. We plan to document some of the more prominent mass-produced altered coins currently on the market.
Q: What is the difference between a “contemporary counterfeit” and a “modern counterfeit”?
A: A contemporary counterfeit is a counterfeit of a coin made during the time of that coin’s circulation whose primary purpose, generally, was to pass as spendable money. A modern counterfeit is a counterfeit of a coin made in present day but is usually no longer in circulation, usually for the purpose of defrauding collectors. For example, a Morgan Dollar counterfeit made in the late 1800s or early 1900s would be a contemporary counterfeit, as Morgans were being struck and circulated at that time as spendable money. A Morgan Dollar counterfeit made today would be a modern counterfeit, as Morgans are no longer in general circulation and are primarily a collector’s item. A Sacajawea Dollar counterfeit made today would be both a modern counterfeit and a contemporary counterfeit, but with the steady march of time it shall eventually become a contemporary counterfeit, alone.
Q: What is a “sandwiched” coin?
A sandwiched coin is made up of two genuine coins where one side of each is ground down and they are subsequently glued together. This is usually done to pair dates with rarer mint marks. This is becoming increasingly popular with counterfeit Third Party Grading (TPG) slabs/capsules where the edge seam is hidden by the bezel in the holder. To someone not directly experienced with rarities, these can be especially troublesome as both sides of the coin look genuine, because they are genuine.
Q: Are counterfeits collectible?
A: Yes, for some specialized collectors. The largest interest tends to be in contemporary counterfeits for older series such as Capped Bust Half Dollars or Seated Liberty Dimes, or well-known counterfeit series such as Henning Nickels. However, some people also collect modern counterfeits they come across in circulation or through other collectors.
Q: Are counterfeits worth anything?
A: Like anything that’s collectible, some counterfeits are more valuable than others. Most of this value is realized in contemporary counterfeits or contemporary and modern counterfeits in recognized series. Most counterfeits are only worth a few dollars a piece to tens of dollars, but some rare examples — or examples made from precious metal — can be worth several hundred to several thousand dollars. In compiling Black Cabinet profiles, we will attempt to list fair market value when such figures exist.
Q: What is the difference between Grading, Counterfeit Attribution, and Authentication?
A: It is a difference between art and science. Where Grading takes into account some quantitative details about a coin, such as how much metal has been worn away from use, most of the work necessary to determine how a coin “grades” relative to others is a matter of qualitative aesthetics (number and quality of blemishes, fullness of strike, eye appeal, hue and distribution of toning, etc. etc.). It is largely an art, especially so in higher grades. Counterfeit Attribution, however, is quantitative analysis of the physical characteristics of a coin to determine if it is a fake (weight, physical dimensions, comparison of known details, magnetic properties, microscopic properties, etc.) where Authentication uses the same characteristics to determine if it is genuine.
If your question is not answered here, please email in to Numismetrica@gmail.com.