US Coins

Bad photos make buying error coins online risky

The photography skills of collectors and private sellers can vary from outstanding to abysmal. People may fail to crop their photos, leaving a tiny image stranded in the middle of a sprawling background. Lighting may be inadequate, leaving all or part of a coin hidden in shadow. Lighting can be too generous, washing out details in blinding glare. Shaky hands can leave an image blurred, as can the lack of a close-up lens. An image can also be intentionally manipulated with photo-editing software.

Choosing a coin based on an inadequate photo can alternately be a curse or a blessing. You may think you’re getting one thing, but end up with something entirely different and distinctly disappointing. On the other hand, you may get a bargain when a poorly photographed coin turns out to be a hidden gem. In fact, many collectors decide to buy a poorly photographed coin thinking they’ve spotted something exceptional in the murky image.

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Bargain hunters acting on hun­ches often bid more for poorly photographed errors than they would for their well-photographed equivalents. People like to gamble, especially when the odds seem promising.

I’ve been a frequent gambler myself. I’ve been alternately both bitterly disappointed and happily surprised by my gleanings.

One gamble that paid off is seen here in the form of double-struck cent in which both strikes were exceedingly weak. Both strikes were perfectly centered, with the planchet rotating 90 degrees between strikes.

As previously discussed, in my June 6, 2014, column, it was purchased on a hunch by John Shields. The original eBay photo was small, had poor resolution, and showed only the obverse face. The coin of interest was surrounded by several other pedestrian errors and unstruck planchets. The seller even described it as an unstruck planchet. When I saw the auction photo, it appeared to show an unstruck planchet with a subtle disturbance in the center. I dismissed the anomaly as probable damage. But Shields thought he saw something more promising, decided to gamble, and scored big.


Weakly struck copper-plated zinc cent   Collector’s auction gamble on eBay pays off with desirable, interesting weak double strike: John Shields likes to gamble on eBay. The exercise involves finding a potentially rare or valuable auction item that has been inaccurately described or so poorly photographed that the nature of the error is hard to discern.

Our second example (illustrated above in two sets of photos) is an outright fake that was “photo-shopped” to the seller’s benefit. It was listed on eBay as a simple off-center strike. However, its appearance was odd, with both struck faces showing an odd surface texture and with both designs unaccountably weak. I decided to buy it out of simple curiosity.

It turned out to be an “enhanced error.” A genuine unstruck planchet was squeezed between two other cents, with both cents aligned in normal coin rotation and positioned about 70 degrees off-center. Both obverse and reverse designs are incuse and mirror-image.

It’s clear that this is not a genuine sandwich strike. A genuine example of a planchet struck between two other coins would show much greater expansion of the struck portion and much greater distortion of the incuse design elements. A genuine sandwich strike would not show the two designs in normal coin rotation, because both coins would arrive in the striking chamber in a random position with respect to the dies, the planchet, and each other. The “odd texture” I’d noticed was the copper plating showing splits. While genuine sandwich strikes can show splits in the copper plating, they’re never this dense and never fall into the observed pattern of finely stacked, irregular arcs.

So how did I fall for such a blatant fake? Simple. The coin’s image was reversed by the photo-editing software so that the designs appeared raised and normally oriented. Since I didn’t pay much for it, I decided to keep the coin as an object lesson.  


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