By Max Breitenbach - www.silverdollarco.net for CoinWeek ..........
In the first part of my series on eBay best practices, I discussed various coin seller misrepresentation tactics and how to avoid them. In this article, I’m going to discuss an even more dangerous scam—counterfeit coins.
eBay has long had a reputation as a haven for counterfeits. While the company has gotten better about cracking down on counterfeiters and deceitful sellers over the years, the fact remains that many fake coins still flow through eBay every single day. While some of these counterfeits can be easily identified and avoided, an increasing number of high-quality counterfeits are entering the market. It is becoming more and more difficult to conclusively determine a coin’s authenticity from a few pictures. But by following the guidelines in this article, you can at least minimize your risk exposure.
Certain types of coins are much more frequently counterfeited than others. It has been estimated by some numismatists that more than a third of all ancient coins sold on eBay are counterfeits. Ancient coins are particularly vulnerable to counterfeiting because of their lack of standardization. The quality level of hand-struck coins varied dramatically from mint to mint. The high level of variability in ancient coins’ designs and strikes allows counterfeiters an awful lot of wiggle room. As you might expect, the most commonly counterfeited coins are the most valuable ones. Two very heavily-counterfeited ancients are the Athenian “owl” and Alexander the Great tetradrachms, each of which can sell for hundreds of dollars.
Third-party grading services still remain relatively underutilized for ancients—the vast majority are sold unslabbed. That means that seller reputation takes greater importance. Try to stick to sellers who have the PNG (Professional Numismatists Guild) logo in their listing. Those sellers have been approved by PNG and must adhere to a very strict code of ethics, which almost guarantees their coins’ authenticity.
In terms of more contemporary coins, eBay counterfeits still abound. Some series of U.S. coins particularly prone to counterfeiting include Trade dollars, Draped Bust dollars, and Indian Head quarter eagles. When buying coins from those series, be extremely wary of raw semi-key and keydates. Beyond those series, many other U.S. keydate coins are also commonly counterfeited. The 1909-S VDB penny, the 1893-S Morgan dollar, the 1877 penny, the 1937-D three-legged nickel...the list goes on and on. When shopping for keydates, look for these signs of counterfeiting: strange color and lack of patina, porosity on younger coins, unusually rough or smooth areas around the mintmark, very weak strikes, visible seams, differing levels of wear between the obverse and reverse, and inaccurate design details. Common sense comes into play here—if the listing pictures make it difficult to see the coin’s details, do not place a bid.
If you aren’t completely confident in your own counterfeit-identification skills, stick to reputable sellers. A high feedback score does not guarantee anything. If you want to minimize your risk exposure, go with the aforementioned PNG sellers or with the eBay accounts of well-known coin dealers. Many national dealers use eBay to sell off their excess inventory. If you have a dealer or company you trust, check to see if they have an eBay account as well. You might even find some better deals on eBay than on their main site.
Another factor to consider is the location of the seller. A very high percentage of all counterfeits (mostly U.S. coins) come out of China. Avoid Chinese sellers. The customs fees and shipping time are reasons enough to avoid them, not even considering the high risk of counterfeiting. Another large hub of counterfeiting is Eastern Europe, though counterfeiters there tend to focus more on European crowns than on American coins. eBay makes it easy to sort search results by country. I personally restrict myself to domestic sellers. The way I see it, missing out on a few bargains is a small price to pay for faster shipping and lower risk. But don’t completely lower your guard for American sellers. If a coin appears suspicious, make sure to check the seller’s feedback history. If they have a record of buying a lot of coins from Chinese sellers, then odds are they’re just acting as middlemen and selling counterfeits for a small premium.
Unfortunately, not even slabbed coins are safe anymore. Extremely high-quality Chinese-made counterfeit slabbed coins have begun making an appearance on eBay. The counterfeiters seem to target PCGS and NGC slabs, probably as those demand the highest premium of any of the grading services. Most of the counterfeit slabs are of keydate coins, such as the 1893-S Morgan and the 1916-D Mercury. The slabs are virtually indistinguishable from authentic slabs, and the coins themselves are well-made. These aren’t the old steel-lead counterfeits. These are coins struck in authentic alloys, or even authentic coins of a lower grade stuck in high grade slabs. The same counterfeit diagnostics listed above still apply—don’t trust a coin just because it’s in a slab. Also make sure to check the slab’s certification number on the corresponding grading service’s website. While a database match doesn’t necessarily indicate authenticity (as some counterfeiters also copy genuine codes), a code that doesn’t return a record means the slab is a counterfeit.
The quality of counterfeits has improved to the point where it has become increasingly difficult to tell real coins from fakes. While eBay can be a great resource for coin collectors, it’s always wise for buyers to retain a healthy sense of caution. Common sense applies. If you stick to reputable sellers and avoid deals that sound too good to be true, you can minimize your risk of ending up with a counterfeit.
Max Breitenbach has been collecting coins since he was 10 years old, and has been buying and selling coins on eBay for nearly a decade. His main interests are U.S. silver dollars and foreign silver crowns, though he’s also starting to develop an interest in ancients. He recently founded Silver Dollar Co., an online company that specializes in high-quality Peace and Morgan dollars. The mission of Silver Dollar Co. is to offer attractive, problem-free coins with completely unaltered photographs and accurate descriptions. Max also runs a regularly updated numismatic blog, The Silver Dollar Scoop.