The Chinese Fake It
You probably remember movies about the Old West, wherein a shady-looking character would offer to exchange a gold coin for a horse, and the seller would bite down on the coin to verify its authenticity. That was about all you could do if you lacked proper assaying equipment and had to make a snap judgment: depend on your teeth to tell you whether the metal in your hand was sufficiently soft to be genuine gold.
The bite test is actually a pretty good one since gold, despite being among the heaviest metals, is also very soft. If you chomp down and shatter a tooth, it ain't gold. But before you go munching on your coin collection, you might want to ask yourself, why bother?
Well, because of the Internet. While the Net has become an indispensable resource and we'd never want to return to the days when basic research meant a long day in the library, it also has the ability to stir up a hornet's nest of concern at the drop of a stick.
One such hornet release followed the recent publication of a three-part series by Coin World, dealing with the subject of coin counterfeiting in China, where it's quasi-legal. Instantly, the Web was buzzing with the worries of bloggers and eBay shoppers, and the pontifications of pundits about this dire threat.
Before we got too worked up about it, first thing we did was carefully read the source material. Yes, the Coin World articles raise the issue, and they feature an in-depth interview with one Chinese counterfeiter, although that's not what he calls himself. He's a proud artisan who produces replicas.
Of what? As it turns out, it's primarily copies of ancient Chinese coins, which are sold to tourists. A few fake U.S. silver dollars are put up each week on eBay, but they are required to carry a Replica stamp.
Do all Chinese counterfeiters abide by this regulation? Perhaps not. But eBay has always been a place where caveat emptor rules, so the best policy would probably be simply to avoid coin purchases from China.
Next, we consulted with our favorite dealer, asking if they come across many fake bullion coins, such as Eagles or Maple Leafs. The answer was no. They've only seen a handful during their thirty years in business.
Not that it's hard to do. With modern 3-D laser imaging, a die can be created that mimics the real thing in perfect detail. The good news is that it's impractical. The difficulty is that any counterfeit bullion coin would likely have to be gold in order to pass. If it were pure, then the profit margin would be too small to make the deal worthwhile. And if the counterfeiter skimped on the gold content, the coin's weight would be a dead giveaway.
The only alternative would be to gold-plate a coin made out of some other metal. But again, getting the weight right while preserving the correct size would be a challenge.
Which brings us to the areas where counterfeiting can be a real problem. The most significant is rare coins. These can be made with the proper gold (or silver) content, then artificially aged so that only an experienced numismatist could pick them out. Because of the premium they command, rare coins made with real gold would be highly profitable where a bullion coin would not.
This is one of the reasons (disinterested grading is the other) why many collectors will only trade coins graded and slabbed by third-party specialists like Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) or Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC).
Ominously, though, some counterfeit coins are turning up inside phony slabs. If you collect rare coins and have any reason to suspect them, it's pretty easy to sort the real slabs from the fakes. Coin World provides illustrations on just how to do that here. (http://www.coinworldonline.com/articles/ChineseCounterfeit/Diags.aspx)
Gold bars are a different matter. Fakes do show up in the market from time to time, and they're hard to identify. Generally speaking, counterfeiters don't bother with the smaller ones, which are stamped, numbered, and sealed. They concentrate, our dealers tell us, on 1-kilogram or larger sizes. These are poured, rather than stamped, and can be easily adulterated or even hollowed out and filled with lead or some other metal. Compounding the problem is a lack of standard weights, even among good delivery gold bars. The "400-ounce" bar, for example, can vary anywhere from 390 ounces to 420.
How to Protect Yourself
As noted, we don't believe that there is a serious issue with counterfeit bullion coins at the moment. But that doesn't mean that they don't exist, nor does it mean that evolving technology might not make them more profitable in the future than they are now.
The best precaution is the simplest: deal with someone you trust. Establish a relationship with a coin dealer who has built a strong reputation, preferably over a matter of decades, such as the dealers we recommend in BIG GOLD. Buy from them, even if you stumble across some mail order supplier who is charging less of a premium.
For small bars, purchase only those that carry the stamp of one of the known, trustworthy refiners, such as PAMP, Credit Suisse, or Johnson Matthey. For bigger orders, ask your dealer if they do assays. Reputable outfits generally assay bars that are a kilogram or larger. If you want a 100-ounce bar, consider buying direct from the Comex, which will also vault it for you. That removes the assay requirement when you buy, but remember that if you take physical delivery of a large bar, you'll need an assay when you sell. Do not, under any circumstances, buy a larger gold bar on the Internet or from a private seller you don't personally know.
If you're still worried about a coin, there are tests you can perform to check it out.
For gold, you can bite it, although you may not want to mar the surface of the real thing. Silver coins you can drop on the floor and they will ring; alloys won't. The ring test is less useful with gold, since 24-karat gold doesn't ring; less than 22 karats does, but so does brass.
Size and weight are good measures. Make a list of the diameters of genuine coins for comparison purposes. Get a scale calibrated to hundredths of a gram. If a bullion coin weighs light (or, possibly, heavy), it's bogus. Here's a handy list of gold coins with all weights, diameters and thicknesses: http://www.onlygold.com/TutorialPages/Coin_specsFulScreenVersion.htm.
A good counterfeiter may be able to get all other aspects of an adulterated coin right, but he won't be able to fake density. Gold has a higher specific gravity than other metals, and you can test for that. Many Internet reference sites will tell you how.
You could buy a commercial counterfeit detector. They aren't cheap, but will quickly and easily test for weight, thickness, and diameter.
If you happen to have some nitric acid and are a very careful person, you can drop your coin into a beakerful. Base metals will react, gold won't.
Rare coins are more of a challenge. If that's where your interest lies, look for specimens that have been graded and slabbed. Otherwise, there's no substitute for experience. Examine coins with a magnifying glass, heft them in your hand. Get to know what the real deal looks and feels like. Read up on the kinds of imperfections that characterize the phonies. Become your own expert.
Precious metals are going to be attractive to con artists, just like anything else of real value. But there are some decent safeguards already built into the system. Supplement them with your own knowledge and common sense, and it shouldn't be difficult to avoid becoming a victim.
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