Mercury Dimes > Ch 4 > Counterfeit & Altered Coins

[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, David W. Lange. This information was originally published in 2005 in ]

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Any coin of sufficient value is subject to being counterfeited.  During the years in which Mercury Dimes were minted, those counterfeits seen were apt to be circulating fakes, intended to pass only at face value.  Such pieces were crudely cast from sand or plaster molds, rather than being die-struck like genuine coins, and the metal of choice was lead. The resulting coins were scarcely good enough to pass as the real thing, even when painted silver, as many were.  Relatively few cast counterfeits of the Mercury Dime have surfaced, though cast pieces of other denominations from this period are common.  Why Mercury Dime casts are so elusive is not known, and one could not be located for illustration.

More troubling to the collector of Mercury Dimes are the many alterations of otherwise genuine coins.  The most often targeted date is 1916- D.  The tremendous disparity in value between Philadelphia and San Francisco Mint dimes of this date on the one hand, and those struck at Denver on the other, has led to countless examples of the more common ‘P’ and ‘S’ Mint pieces being rendered into crude approximations of their more valuable cousin from the Mile-High City.

The most common technique is to remove a D mintmark from a common date coin and apply it to a 1916 Philadelphia Mint dime which, of course, has no mintmark.  Either epoxy or solder is used to affix the tiny letter, which may seem to float atop the surface of the coin rather than blending into it.  Realizing this, many fakers will then use a finepoint tool to work the mintmark’s sides into the coin’s field.  The skill with which this is done varies from one person to another, but the work is always detectable with proper magnification.  A stereo microscope is ideal, but a hand held glass of 10X or so is usually enough to spot such alterations.  Any signs of discoloration or tooling marks in the area of the mintmark are reason enough to be suspicious.

Another variation on the same theme is to remove the ‘S’ mintmark from a 1916-S dime and replace it with a ‘D.’  Also fairly common is the reshaping of the existing ‘S’ mintmark into a ‘D.’  Inversion of the second numeral 9 on a genuine 1919-D is less often attempted, since this coin is valuable in itself in higher grades.  All of these techniques are crude, and their effectiveness depends entirely on a lack of numismatic learning on the part of the potential buyer.  Most such alterations date from the late 1950s through the late 1960s.  This period corresponds to the years in which coin collecting enjoyed its most widespread popularity.  A vast number of unknowledgeable persons, including many children, were discovering the hobby for the first time, and they were easy prey for the unscrupulous.  Along with 1914-D Lincoln Cents, 1913-S Type 2 Buffalo Nickels and 1932-D and 1932-S quarters, the 1916-D Mercury Dime was high on the list of most frequently altered coins.

Other common subjects of falsification have been dimes dated 1921(P), 1921-D and 1942/41(P).  The first two are most often simulated by removing the numeral 4 from genuine dimes dated 1941(P) and 1941-D, respectively, and replacing it with the 2 from one dated 1942.  To the knowledgeable, however, there are several ways to detect this ruse.  First of all, the 9 on a genuine 1921 dime is open, rather than being closed as on a 1941 dime.  In addition, the numerals 1 on a 1921 are of a unique style used only in that year.  Finally, the mintmark on a 1921-D dime is of the small size used 1917-34, while the 1941-D has a much larger ‘D’ of the type used 1934-45.  A comparison of the genuine 1916-D, 1921(P), 1921-D and 1942/41(P) dimes shown in Chapter 6 with the altered coins illustrated here will reveal these various distinctions. The characteristics of the genuine coins are likewise shown in enlarged photographs within Chapter 6.

Beginning in the 1970s a concerted effort was undertaken to drive such fakes from the marketplace.  Working with reputable coin dealers, the American Numismatic Association did much to educate collectors with respect to the characteristics of genuine key date coins.  A further advance was the introduction by the ANA and the International Numismatic Society of authentication services staffed by skilled counterfeit detectors.  These services have largely been supplanted in recent years by commercial grading companies.  Implicit in the grading and encapsulation of any piece submitted is the graders’ conclusion that the subject coin is genuine, and the major grading services carry authentication guarantees.  All of these developments have been effective in making altered and counterfeit coins at least as rare at coin shows as their genuine counterparts.  Fakes are still known to make the rounds at country auctions and flea markets, but then these have never been good places to buy rare coins.  Making coin purchases through Internet auctions should likewise be approached with considerable caution, as few sellers carry reliable guarantees.  Ideally, collectors should buy only from legitimate numismatic dealers and auctioneers who sell previously authenticated coins or are prepared to refund the purchase of any piece which subsequently proves to be counterfeit or altered.

Although die-struck counterfeits of numismatic quality are fairly rare within the Mercury Dime series, both 1916-D and 1942/41(P) dimes have been the subject of skillfully crafted fakes.  These were manufactured during the early 1970s and may still be lurking within the marketplace.  They were apparently struck from transfer dies which had been generated from authentic coins.  In the case of the 1916-D counterfeits, although sharply detailed, they lack the textured fields and slightly diffused luster characteristic of this date, having the more brilliant surfaces typically seen in later coins.  Still, both of these fakes are good enough to deceive collectors and dealers who possess average numismatic knowledge, and one’s best bet is to have coins of these dates authenticated.

Although it’s technically illegal to possess a counterfeit United States coin, the cruder examples are considered sufficiently non-threatening that they’ve become collectable.  These pieces are always traded with the clear understanding that they’re bogus, and many hobbyists like to own a few for purposes of education and amusement.  Within the Mercury Dime series, two pieces stand out as perhaps the most interesting counterfeits to have surfaced.  These are the so-called “Soviet” counterfeits dated 1923-D and 1930-D, two date/mint combinations never coined by the United States Mint.  Therein lies their mystery and charm.

Like many coin collectors growing up during the 1960s, the author scanned each day’s pocket change carefully for Mercury Dimes needed to fill his Whitman folder.  In between discoveries, much time was spent in going through the Red Book,1 memorizing mintage figures and daydreaming of the wonderful early date dimes which never seemed to materialize.  Among the more puzzling entries was a footnote informing the reader that dimes dated 1923-D and 1930-D were counterfeit.  No further information was given, and one was left wondering when and where such coins had been found.  As with most dates before 1940, these too eluded the author in his search for Mercury Dimes.

The story of these mystery coins actually begins during the 1930s, but this account will start with the first knowledge of them by American collectors.  A small notice was published in The Numismatist in June of 1940, the earliest reference to these strange coins: “D. F. Townsend, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, reports that a friend of his has a 1930-D dime in his collection in very fine condition.  The mint reports show no coinage for the dimes at the Denver Mint in 1930.  Can any readers give some information on this issue?”  Obviously no one could, as nothing further appeared in the literature at that time, and the matter was quickly forgotten for the next few years.

A 1949 letter to Editor Lee F. Hewitt of The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine began with a reference to a previously published letter in which another reader reported finding a 1933-D dime, a piece which no doubt was altered from 1938-D or some such thing.  (Collectors of that time possessed little knowledge of how coins were made, and people were always reporting fanciful items of no real merit).  What makes this follow-up letter interesting is that it contains the first published reference to a coin which would become the source of more than a little controversy over the next fifteen years:

…I have a 1923-D dime and it certainly appears to be genuine.  I had it to a couple dealers and they weighed it and said if it is counterfeit it is a wonderful job.

I wrote to the Denver Mint and asked them if there were possibly some minted for that year and they said that none had been minted.  However the date and the D seem so perfect that I wonder.

I found it while going thru some coins about two years ago. After seeing that item in your magazine I thot [sic] this little bit of information might interest you.

E. B. Hurley, Phoenix, Ariz.2

Like many items published in Hewitt’s monthly journal, this letter was printed without comment or investigation and was soon forgotten by most readers.  It was not until two years later that a second dime of similar character was reported by A. H. Leatherman of Doylestown, Pennsylvania:

A local Mercury dime collector complained to me that the dime board she had did not provide spaces for all the dimes.  I told her if she had a dime for which no space was provided I wanted to see the dime, — not the board. Sure enough, she did have such a dime.  It was a 1930 Denver Mint, out of circulation, of course.  The Mint record says none were coined and I never saw any before.  I gave it a searching examination and can find nothing wrong with it except the motto on the obverse is distinctly double struck.  I showed it to several of my dealer friends in New York and Phila. and they are equally mystified by such a monstrosity.  I am convinced it must be a phony of some kind but none of us can detect what is wrong with it.  I wonder, has anyone else seen anything like that at any time? 3

The answer to Mr. Leatherman’s inquiry was, of course, yes.  It had been just two years since the reporting of an almost perfect 1923-D dime and eleven years since the first announcement of a 1930-D.  Evidently, no connection was made at the time.  These two accounts are eerily similar in that both persons suspected their dimes were counterfeit, while the local experts were unable to decide just what was wrong with the coins.

Amid the oftseen and quickly forgotten reports of unusual and hitherto unknown coins, claims which were so common to the hobby at that time, the dimes dated 1923-D and 1930-D stood out.  In fact, these became the imaginary coins which would not go away.  Rumors of their existence continued throughout the 1950s, as specimens turned up in limited numbers nationwide.  As of 1959, some 47 examples of the 1923- D dime had been counted.4  All seemed to be quite worn; in fact, nearly all specimens were identically worn.  In most instances the degree of wear was also not consistent with other dimes of similar vintage then still in circulation.

By 1963 the subject of these mystery coins could no longer be avoided in print.  Responding to an inquiry from a collector in Florida who owned a 1923-D dime, the weekly newspaper Coin World launched an investigation which sought to settle the matter once and for all.  As with other owners of 1923-D and 1930-D dimes, the individual who provided his specimen for examination reported that the dealers to whom he’d shown it could not reach a consensus, being about equally divided as to whether it was genuine or counterfeit.  Using this example as a test case, Coin World enlisted the services of several recognized authorities in United States coins. The first to render an opinion was Q. David Bowers, well known today as a prominent dealer and the author of countless books and articles on USA coins.  In 1963 he was in partnership with James F. Ruddy as Empire Coin Company.  His observations were published as follows:

This coin is one of the most famous American counterfeits, a coin which appears several times a year in various places to plague collectors, and usually disappoints its owner after he spends time and effort only to learn that it is a counterfeit.

This piece is not a cast or an electrotype, but is struck from dies.  The lettering is thinner and not as well formed as on the originals.

This coin falls into the interesting category of counterfeits in which the counterfeiters were not numismatists, and created coins which had no official counterparts …5

Two of the most prominent figures in the study of United States coins at that time were Don Taxay and Walter Breen.  At the time of the Coin World study, they staffed the Institute of Numismatic Authenticators, a now forgotten commercial venture which was the pioneer in this field.  Under the banner of the INA, Breen and Taxay prepared the following joint determination:

The 1923-D dime is nothing more or less than a struck counterfeit, made from skillfully hand-cut dies at some unknown time and place, but thought to have been possibly of Soviet Russia origin like numerous other modern silver struck counterfeits.

The variations found in the 1923-D dime which enable it to be positively identified as not from dies produced from Philadelphia Mint hubs follow…6

The two experts went on to detail the characteristics of a genuine Mercury Dime and specified how the corresponding features of the counterfeit 1923-D differed.  They then amplified their comments:

After 1916, dime dies were fully hubbed, any differences (other than placement and possible size of Mint marks) being microscopic or nearly so, and originating in clashing, minor shifting, or (as in the case of the overdate) unintentional use of two different hubs on the same working die.

Differences in letter placement or shape can be excluded by knowledge of the minting processes then in use, and their presence on a suspected coin is confirmatory of its non-Mint origin.

When this situation is combined with the presence on the coin of a date-mint mark combination not known to exist on genuine dimes, as in 1923-D and 1930-D, evidence of non- Mint (counterfeit) origin, already conclusive, becomes blatant.

In their summation, Breen and Taxay addressed the background of these counterfeits:

The 1923-D dimes have only been reported since World War II, and all are similarly worn… an extremely suspicious circumstance even for coins reported from circulation, as they have more than the normal amount of wear for dimes of the 1920’s.  [Author’s comments: In fact, they were less worn than most genuine dimes of those years.  They were also known as early as 1940, but this fact had been forgotten by 1963.]

In conclusion, the combination of excellent die work and an egregious blunder (of a non-existent date-mint mark combination) points to a foreign origin, very likely the Soviet Union, which has a known record of counterfeiting U. S. silver coins during World War II.

This last remark lies at the heart of what makes these counterfeit dimes so interesting and collectable.  The mystery which began for American coin collectors during the late 1940s actually originated in the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s.  Although rumors of a Soviet connection had passed in some circles, the collecting fraternity was not apprised of this fact until 1957.

At that time New Netherlands Coin Company in New York City was one of the prestige firms of the hobby, and its house organ Numisma was eagerly awaited by advanced collectors seeking knowledge of United States coins.  John J Ford, Jr. was the editor of Numisma, and it was he who penned the following account.  His wartime service in the army saw him posted to the American headquarters for the European Theater of Operations, a position in which he would have been privy to the gossip concerning Russian/American relations.  His remarks reveal much of the curious history behind the dimes dated 1923-D and 1930-D:

To the best of our knowledge, these are counterfeits made of good silver and struck from excellent false dies — evidencing better technical facilities than those available to American crime rings.  They were made, along with many wornappearing (dateless) Liberty Standing quarters, prior to and during World War II — and probably to the present day — in the Soviet Union.  Evidence of this practice turned up during the war, but nothing was done because of the probability of antagonizing our “gallant Soviet ally!”  The Soviet technical experts evidentially perfected some process of transferring genuine designs from coins to plaster and from plaster to steel dies, the latter presumably by some machine similar to the Contamin portrait-lathe used in Philadelphia and Tower Hill (English) mints for over a century.  They also have good silver, heavy presses and collars — equipment available to no American counterfeiter.  The purpose has nothing to do with numismatics. So far as we know these coins were intended (like those made by the Chinese and Italian imitators of American gold coins) to pass as a circulating medium.  Silver, or gold, in the form of coins seemingly backed by a stable government, can be spent at a far better rate (i.e. has a higher purchasing power) than its bullion price as ingots.  The Soviet imitations have evidently succeeded, as to date all specimens seen are considerably worn. The differences between them and the genuine are microscopic.  It is highly likely that other dates have been manufactured and passed unnoticed.  Fortunately for us, the quantities passed in this country have apparently been too small to disturb the economy.7

To the opinions of the above-quoted authorities, the author has only a few comments to add.  The first of these is that much of the wear evident in these counterfeit dimes seems to have originated with the host coins from which the transfer dies were evidently made.  In other words, two different coins (hence the mismatched date/mintmark combination), both moderately worn, were employed in the generating of counterfeit dies.  The author does not agree with Breen and Taxay that the dies were hand cut.  The similarity of these coins to genuine pieces is simply too great to allow for this possibility.

The weight of the 1923-D dime illustrated is 2.41 grams, less than a tenth of a gram under normal.  This observation, when combined with the fact that the dime was obviously coined of fine silver, establishes that it was not the work of conventional counterfeiters.  The net profit would simply have been too small for a circulating counterfeit, and there was little chance of establishing this coin as a numismatic rarity.  There remains no reason to doubt that the Soviet connection was a valid one, and this makes for a very interesting and collectable tie-in for a set of Mercury Dimes.

Dimes dated 1930-D are far more scarce than examples of 1923-D, and a specimen could not be located for inclusion in this book.  It’s assumed that its characteristics are similar to those of the more abundant 1923-D. Curiously, more than 40 years after they were widely publicized in Coin World, these infamous counterfeits are largely unknown to the current generation of hobbyists.  They still appear in the Red Book as a footnote, but specimens of either date are now rarely seen in the marketplace or in the numismatic press.  It’s likely that their fame fell victim to the passing of Mercury Dimes from circulation.

Although not intended to deceive numismatists, another category of altered Mercury Dimes exists which may cause some misunderstanding when first encountered.  Within this category fall love tokens, magician’s coins and elongated dimes.

A love token is any coin on which one or both sides have been partly or wholly effaced to receive an engraved message or sentiment.  Most commonly seen on dimes, these personalized tokens were presented to loved ones as a remembrance of the giver or as a souvenir of some special occasion or anniversary.  The practice of manufacturing love tokens reached a climax during the years 1880 to 1900, and this accounts for the fact that most were fabricated from Seated Liberty and Barber Dimes, very few from Mercury Dimes.  A rare example of the latter is illustrated here, along with one piece which was engraved without any particular message. It seems to have been simply the result of a few moments idleness in which the engraver revised the outlines of Liberty’s hair and wing.

A numismatic curiosity of a more commercial nature is the traditional magician’s coin.  This is made by halving lengthwise a dime and a cent and then bonding the two together.  This makes for a coin which is a dime on one side and a cent on the other.  Through sleight of hand, the magician can make the coin appear to change from cent to dime, or vice versa.

Since the cent is larger in diameter, its edge must first be turned down in a lathe or simply filed to the appropriate size.  The accompanying photos show how the coins are mated.  Two magician’s coins may be produced from each such operation.  Another, simpler trick is to cut two dimes and bond the halves such that one two-headed dime is produced, along with one having two tails.  Although many such coins have actually been used by magicians, most were made to sell as novelty items.  Quite a few have no doubt guaranteed the outcome of a coin toss.

A popular area of collecting is the field of rolled-out, or elongated, coins.  These are ordinary coins which have been compressed between two rollers, one being blank and the other having a souvenir or commemorative design.  This special design is thus imparted to the host coin, while the coin’s other side retains a faint image of its original design.  These novelty coins first appeared during the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893.  Although outlawed briefly around the time of World War II, their manufacture has been a thriving business in recent years.  The author has encountered no examples of rolled-out Mercury Dimes but it’s reasonably safe to assume that some must exist, and more can be made from new elongate dies at any time.

A rolled-out souvenir of another sort was created in 1923 by legendary numismatist Farran Zerbe, who was then president of the Pacific Coast Numismatic Society.  He forwarded it to a friend in San Francisco, along with a typewritten note:

A 1923 U.S. dime over which passed the funeral train (Penna.R.R., two locomotives and twelve pullmans) of President Harding at Tyrone, Penna., at 1:07 a.m., Thursday, August 9, 1923.  All that could from the surrounding country and the town assembled in silent sad tribute.  No train could have moved less noiselessly; no people could have been more reverent.

Placed on the rails by me particularly for my pal Charles B. Turrill of San Francisco.  (signed) Farran Zerbe.8

President of the United States Warren G. Harding had died suddenly while in San Francisco, and his funeral train made a slow and dramatic journey across the continent enroute to Washington, D.C. Zerbe created this souvenir while in his hometown of Tyrone, Pennsylvania.  Charles B. Turrill succeeded him as president of the PCNS in 1924 and served in that capacity until his death three years later.  In the settlement of his estate, this commemorative piece was presented to the society, where it remained until the recent dispersal of the society’s various collections.

Finally, in the realm of the ridiculous are dimes which have simply been damaged or chemically corroded.  An example of the latter is illustrated.  Surprisingly, such coins still make their way to the columnists in weekly coin newspapers who must tactfully explain to the submitters that their prizes are nothing more than worthless junk.  It seems that every new collector is puzzled by these mystery coins at one time or another.  It’s therefore all the more important to study the genuine error coins shown previously in this chapter so that an understanding of the minting process may be gained.

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