In the field of early American coins, unlike most numismatic
specialties, counterfeits aren’t anathema. Colonial collectors have
always sought to include counterfeits — circulating counterfeits — to
their cabinets, right alongside the legally authorized coin they duplicated.
Today, collectors tend to call these “contemporary counterfeits,”
i.e., contemporary to the era of the originals. I’ve never liked the
term. I’ve always preferred the term “circulating counterfeits,” since
it’s more descriptive and less apt to confuse someone new to the field.
Circulating counterfeits are fascinating. Not only do they suggest
the freewheeling economy and legal structures of the Colonial and
Confederation eras, but they also serve as a useful commentary on just
what was circulating in the era. After all, no counterfeiter copies
what’s not common; the goal is for their products to blend in without
a second thought.
Sometimes the workmanship of the fakes, in terms of both die
engraving and actual minting technology, is as good as or better than
the products the fakes copy. Other times, their crudity lends a charm
and whimsical intrigue that attracts modern collectors.
The Machin’s Mills halfpence series is perhaps the best known of
the early American circulating counterfeits. Struck in Newburgh, N.Y.,
the coppers weren’t technically illegal in the nascent United States —
after all, they imitated the coins of the king we’d just cast off as a tyrant.
The copper halfpence produced by Capt. Thomas Machin, a British
deserter who ended up joining the Continentals, can be classed as both
counterfeits and imitations, in modern parlance.
A counterfeit is a coin that exactly copies a known authentic
issue. Since the Royal Mint issued 1747 halfpence, the 1747-dated
pieces struck by Machin are properly termed counterfeits.
The 1787 Machin’s Mills halfpence, on the other hand, are better
described as imitations. Their types and legends copy those of the
real England halfpence of the era, but the date doesn’t. As a modern
comparison, would a 1952 Winged Liberty Head dime fake be a
counterfeit? Not exactly. Thus, the terms imitation and counterfeit
are both useful to describe issues like this.
Did Machin know that no genuine English halfpence were coined in
1787? It’s doubtful. He was many things, but numismatist probably
wasn’t one of them. Today, we coin geeks fuss over a lot of things
that just wouldn’t have mattered at the time. To a mechanic like
Machin, the idea of collecting die varieties would have had all the
drama and interest that collecting lug nuts by thread pattern might
have to a numismatist.
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.