Contemporary Counterfeit US Coins

Updated: Aug 17

The other day ESMDA club member Matt Episcopo dug a counterfeit seated quarter. Matt showed me a picture of the find. Even after all these years in the ground, the coin still has great detail. Whomever made it did an excellent job, really. Upon examination it is fairly obvious that the coin is not actually silver, but when it was in circulation I imagine that it might have possibly been gilded in silver plate and that it probably would have fooled a few folks. It is a very cool find and is pictured below.

In our area US seated quarters don't turn up all that often. I have personally only ever dug one myself. Counterfeit seated quarters seem to turn up even less often. Matt's find sparked me to write this blog article about contemporary counterfeit US coins. The coin Matt dug was made during the same time period as the genuine government issued seated quarters. It would have been made with the intent to fool someone in a commercial transaction. And depending on when it was lost exactly, it would have circulated alongside other genuine seated coins and have been passed off as real money.

It seems that counterfeiting currency is as old as money itself. Counterfeiting in America dates back to it's earliest settlers. Several Native American tribes used polished shells as currency. There is documentation to indicate that some unscrupulous traders would dye the less valuable white shells to make them look like the more valuable blue and black shells. If you search long and hard enough I'm sure that you will find an example of a contemporary counterfeit for practically every type of US coin that exists. I honestly don't think there are any US coins out there that someone somewhere hasn't tried to mimic. The motivation obviously is financial gain.

Some contemporary counterfeit coins were probably masterminded by individuals while others I'm sure were produced by groups of people who had more resources available to them. The people who produced these counterfeit coins must have possessed some artistic talent. A little talent and material resources is what they would have needed to successfully deceive folks with these fake coins.

Many of the counterfeit coins we dig are easily identified as fakes once they are pulled from the hole. They normally have no precious metal content at all so they are fairly easy to distinguish from real coins. Many of these bogus coins are made from various types of metals such as lead, pot metal, and silver plate. So if it's so obvious to us, why did so many people fall victim to these counterfeit coins? Wouldn't the early colonists in America have been able to recognize that these coins were not real as well?

During the Colonial Period in America, there was quite a variety of coins in circulation including British coins, Spanish, German, Dutch, and coins produced by the colonies themselves. With all those different types of currency in use I imagine that it would have made it easier for folks to pass off counterfeit coins. The more coins there are, the more difficult it is to be familiar with them all. During that time period a lot of people were uneducated, often illiterate, and simply just unfamiliar with genuine issued currency. It presented the perfect opportunity for dishonest folks to prey on others. Aware of the issue of counterfeit coins, some of the colonies passed laws requiring new designs of the colony's money to be made each year. The yearly changes to the designs I'm sure were established to make it more difficult for the forgers to keep up with the changes, however that honestly probably just added to the confusion though. There were also some severe penalties put into place to discourage the dishonest. The picture below is of a counterfeit cut Spanish reale that was dug by David Symula

The problems with counterfeit currency persisted during the period of the Early Republic and throughout the 19th Century. Honestly, how familiar is the average person with the exact details of the coins they accepted in commerce? If sufficiently distracted by a conversation perhaps neither party would look all that closely at the coins they exchanged. How closely do you look at the money given to you during cash transactions? A lot of times people get distracted or feel rushed to help the next person in line and they only casually glance at the bills they are accepting. If they knew or trusted the individuals they were doing business with would they even look at all? The counterfeit capped bust half dollar pictured below was dug by Manny Birittieri and is another fine example of a counterfeit coin from the 19th century.

When I was in college, I worked at a nightclub. My job was to collect the money as people entered the building. It was a hoppin nightclub and there was always a long line to get inside. It was a rather fast paced job where you needed to quickly count the money and provide change if there was any. It was generally quite dark in my booth as well. One night I accepted and made change for a counterfeit $100 bill. I'm sure you can imagine my shock at the end of the night when the General Manager showed me the bill. I was totally mortified by the mistake I had made. In the light, it was apparently obvious that the bill was a fake and yet in the rush of the moment with all the very dim lighting I was fooled. All anyone needs to do to make it worth their while is to fool just one person.

In addition to making counterfeit coins, people would also alter genuine government issued coins as well in order to fool someone in a commercial transaction. One of the best known examples of this is the 1883 Liberty Head nickel that was altered and passed off as a $5 gold coin. When the liberty nickel was first produced it looked very similar in design as a $5 Liberty Head gold coin. People would gold plate the nickels so they appeared gold in color and when they purchased something using the coin they would receive change for $5 rather than a nickel. Other ways that folks altered various coins was through surface pitting, using fillers, or shaving or filing the edges of the coin off and collecting the precious metal content. Sometimes these alterations are easy to detect and at other times they go unseen, especially if the coins are carelessly examined.

In my metal detecting experience I have dug a handful counterfeit coins, all large cents. The world was different then and the US cent was a denomination that had buying power so there was incentive to counterfeit it.

Here are a few more pictures of some counterfeit large cents that were dug by ESMDA club member Gino DiCarlo.

Obviously, gold and silver counterfeit coins would have provided the greatest profit but they also probably would have been scrutinized more closely by those accepting them due their value too. The 1846 counterfeit gold sovereign pictured below was dug by ESMDA club member Patrick Whitton.

Contemporary counterfeit coins are certainly interesting to find. As a piece of history they each have a story to tell, probably a rather disappointing one for whomever it was they fooled. It is disheartening to know that there have always been people out there who have tried to take advantage of the unknowing. Unfortunately, that's just part of life I guess. If you have found any contemporary counterfeit coins I would love to see them. You can post a picture in the section below. Have a great week!

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