By Alan Herbert
trend that is repeated again and again is the
assumption by novice collectors that anything
out of the ordinary on a coin makes it a
counterfeit, applying this label especially to
minting varieties. If not a counterfeit, then
the finder assumes to a lesser extent that it is
a pattern coin.
Although there are some counterfeits that look
different for a variety of reasons, appearance
is not often a sign of a fake. For example,
there are repeated questions about "genuine"
lettered-edge half dollars dated 1837 and later.
Sorry, but none of them are genuine, despite the
fact that at least one reference book called
them "patterns." They are mostly
Mexican-produced counterfeits passed into
circulation while Mexican and other foreign
coins were still legal tender in the United
The U.S. Mint switched to a reeded edge in 1836,
and all 1837 and later halves have reeded edges.
These fakes were shipped across the Mexican
border by the ton in the mid-1800s and there are
a lot of them still around. Over the years there
have been several claims that these were in fact
a new variety, but further investigation in each
case determined that they are counterfeits.
The pieces were described by one source as "well
known," but apparently not to the authors of the
book in question. They were made to use in trade
along the border with the United States, and
were the forerunners of similar counterfeits of
the Morgan and Peace dollars that appeared in
The problem points up the need to cross check
and double check any reference work, as I can
speak from experience that mistakes do creep in.
Following is a quote from the New York Evening
News of July 13, 1846:
"Counterfeit half dollars, dated 1838, are very
common. They are made of German silver, and ring
well, but the die is imperfect, and by comparing
them with a genuine coin they can be very easily
The point not made clear was that the pieces had
lettered edges, while the legitimate 1838 halves
had reeded edges. The dates faked ranged from
1837 up to 1842, six years after the lettered
edge was dropped.
An article in a 1943 The Numismatist is cited as
proof they are genuine, based on an examination
by a Mint official, but this was later refuted.
Summing up, despite various authentications,
there are no genuine 1837-1842 lettered-edge
half dollars - not even patterns.
Moving to more modern counterfeits, there were
warnings prior to 1965 that the new clad coinage
could be easily counterfeited. The prediction
came true, with a rash of copper slugs, some
with reeded edges, some even claimed to be
planchets for the two-cent coins. The Secret
Service shut down a plant in Rhode Island that
was producing the slugs, intended for play at
the Atlantic City casinos.
In the 1930s there were perhaps as many cottage
shop counterfeiters as there were moonshiners.
Two of their favorite targets were the 1899 and
1912 Barber halves. Nickels were mass-produced
around the turn of the century.
One man was arrested in Iowa for faking the two
dates and apparently had been pretty busy as the
feds confiscated a bushel basket of worn-out
dies from his private mint. The pieces he made
reportedly had the right amount of silver in
them but the planchets were cast and tended to
flake and pit, giving them away.
Quarters and halves were faked literally by the
ton during the Depression as one way to solve
financial woes, so there are still plenty of the
old fakes around. Remember they are illegal to
own, in case you have thoughts of acquiring one.
The copper-plated zinc cents missing the plating
have been popular even more recently. It takes a
practiced eye to detect the difference between a
cent that never was plated and one that has had
the plating removed, or plated over.
Some telltale warning signs are bubbles in the
coin surface, appearing as raised dots, and wear
that has been plated over. In one case the
plating job did not adhere well at the base of
the design elements, leaving granules like tiny
grains of sand. Use a magnifier to be sure.
Oddity does not automatically mean the coin is a
counterfeit or a pattern. If something is
"wrong" with the coin, stop and think whether
you could reproduce the effect with common hand