Collector's heirs face burden of counterfeit dollars in estate

Published : 05/18/12
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I recently received an out-of-town phone call to do an appraisal on what I was told was a group of “old silver dollars.” A elderly gentleman in his mid-80s, now deceased, had owned them, and they were left to his heirs as part of his estate.

Subsequently, I inquired about the dates to determine whether the coins were worth my making a trip to view them in person. I was informed that the run of dates consisted of a 1795, 1796, two 1799 dollars, 1840, 1851, 1871, 1872, two 1873 coins, two 1878 dollars, 1881, 1903 and a 1921. I was further assured that they were “all in very nice shape.” It would have been exciting to have access to just one of the pre-1800 silver dollars and here were four of them. Immediately, I was aware of the odds. As it turned out, the coins were brought directly to me within a week as the owner had other business to tend to in my area.

After acquiring the coins and viewing them in my office, it was evident that all 15 coins were fakes, replicas and counterfeits. Both the 1795 and 1796 Flowing Hair dollars exhibited identically incomplete, fragmented left wings. The two 1799 Draped Bust dollars had incorrectly designed numerals. The reverse of the 1840 Seated Liberty dollar displayed a “Carson City” Mint mark! The obverse portrait of the 1851 dollar, manufactured supposedly as a U.S. pattern, strongly resembled the design of the obverse of an Indian Head cent (a pattern that does not exist), and also had UNITED STATES OF AMERICA embellished on both sides of the coin.

The 1871 coin turned out to be a Trade dollar (with a wrong date for a series initially minted in 1873), which had the correct design, except that it had an “S” Mint mark on the reverse. The 1872 piece, attributed as a Trade dollar (likewise with a premature date), had the obverse design of Gobrecht’s 1836 dollar. Both 1873 dollars were also attributed as Trade dollars but each had the Gobrecht-designed obverse as well, though the date was correct. The two 1878 dollars turned out to be exact replicas of the extremely rare Goloid/Metric pattern silver dollars. I have seen similar Mint State replicas offered on the Internet at $5.95 apiece. The 1881-O and 1903 Morgan dollars were counterfeit, as was the 1921 Peace dollar!

The overall grades for the fifteen pieces ranged from Very Fine to About Uncirculated, the newer dates actually falling into the lower spectrum of grading. None passed the “ring” test, and the alloys were a mixture of lead and other base metal compositions with very little silver utilized, in my opinion.

The coins were housed in two binder-type, plastic polyvinyl chloride pages (open at the top for inserting the coins), and all of them reflected a somewhat dull, silver coloration, with hints of light gold and transparent grayish toning on a few. There were no heavy circulation marks or signs of carbon on their surfaces, and because absolutely no accumulation or signs of PVC were on any of the coins, my guess was that the owner had probably acquired them more recently, perhaps within the last five years.

Under high magnification, I could not detect any signs of removal of the word COPY on the replicas so someone did superior work in being able to remove such if the word had been there in the first place. None of the coins had been manufactured via spark erosion.

With a bit of friendly, inquisitive prodding, I was able to learn that the owner of the coins had had a large business, and at some undetermined juncture, had accepted the silver dollars as a partial trade in payment for selling his wares to a buyer in China.

Radio announcer Paul Harvey used to say: “Now you know the rest of the story.” I returned the coins to my client along with the sad news that they would not be able to retire as yet. I further instructed that the counterfeit pieces be relinquished to our government.

This latest experience should remind the readers to always be prudent and to exercise caution. Caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) remains a proven, time-honored adage to collector, investor and dealer alike, no matter how much numismatic experience they have acquired.

Sam Lukes operates Sam Lukes Numismatics in Visalia, Calif. He is a longtime professional numismatist specializing in Lincoln cents.

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