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Oddity Not the Key
By Alan Herbert

An interesting 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 States.

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 1930s.

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 detected."

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 tools.


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