A Basic Guide to Detecting Doctored Gold Coins

There is no getting around the fact that doctoring of rare United States gold coins is a problem in the market. Doctoring is not new. I've heard stories of American collectors and dealers "messing" with coins as far back as a century ago, and I have no doubt that the problem dates back even further in Europe. But it is really only the last decade or two that we've seen increasingly sophisticated doctoring done in an attempt to fool the grading services. At first, I thought about using lots of photos to verify what I am going to discuss in this blog, but I don't want to taint specific coins that don't belong to me by pointing out obvious doctoring. So I am going to be as descriptive as I can be without using images. Hopefully, this will work.

For me, one of the most obvious ways to detect a doctored gold coin is by looking at its coloration. One of the reasons that I spend a significant amount of time describing the coloration of specific coins in my books and on the descriptions of coins in my inventory is so that collectors will become familiar with what natural color is supposed to look like.

Once a collector becomes familiar with the way a coin is supposed to appear, it becomes easier to detect coins that don't look the right way. For instance, the early date Dahlonega half eagles have a specific deep green-gold color that is easy to appreciate. Conversely, an issue from this era with the "wrong" color will not look right to a collector who is familiar with the series.

Many of the people who doctor gold coins aren't great numismatists, so they don't necessarily know the right color for an 1840-D half eagle or an 1878-S eagle. Becoming a knowledgeable numismatist within your field of collecting will put you in a far better position when it comes to determining whether or not a coin has been doctored.

There are a number of different types of artificial coloration that are found on gold coins. These depend on the specific chemical that is applied and how the process is undertaken.

Typically, chemicals placed on gold coins break down after they have been on the surface for a period of time. When you see a gold coin that has crazy color in a PCGS or NGC slab, this color didn't exist on the coin at the time it was graded; it changed within the slab.

One color that doesn't naturally exist on gold coins is deep orange or what I refer to as "Cheeto Orange." Think of that crunchy corn snack and the color it left your hands after you ate a few handfuls. I see many United States gold coins in holders that have this flaming orange hue. In 100% of the cases that this color is present, it is artificial,

Another color that indicates a coin that has been doctored is deep reddish-gold. There are many gold coins that have natural reddish-gold hues, but the hues that they possess are subtle and tend to deepen towards the borders. Coins with fake red color almost look like they've bled as the result of being stabbed. This deep red color doesn't exist on natural, original coins.

I see 20th century gold coins from time to time that have a bluish or purple tint and this is the result of the surfaces having been heated; probably in an attempt to remove spots. Back when copper spots were not considered a detriment, you never say any U.S. gold coins that had blue hues. Today, with copper spots being the numismatic equivalent of melanomas, you see fewer gold coins with these spots and more with funky heat-produced hues.

Many of the U.S. gold coins that have been doctored have had substances put on the surfaces in an attempt to hide hairlines or marks. Often times, substances such as auto body putty or dental wax are lightly coated on the surfaces.

Why are these substances not detected by the services when the coins are submitted? Some are, but on other coins, the application is light enough to not be easily detected. After a period of time, the putty begins to break down and it turns cloudy or even white.

Putty that has broken down is easy to spot. How can a collector spot fresh putty on a coin? It's not easy; it can fool both the services and savvy dealers, myself included. In this case, I think its as important to "buy the dealer" as it is to buy the coin.

Certain dealers have reputations as people who doctor coins. As you become more experienced in your area of specialization, try to learn what dealers have these bad reputations. If this isn't realistic, study the coins on their website. Do they show signs of having been puttied?

This very problem is a reason why coins in old holders have become so popular with collectors. The chances are good that a coin slabbed by NGC or PCGS in the early 1990's is not going to change dramatically in appearance if it hasn't already in two decades within a slab.

I'd suggest that whenever you do get the chance to study coins that are 100% fresh (from old collection, in old holders, etc) you pay careful attention to the quality of the surfaces. What is a gold coin that hasn't been doctored supposed to look like? Make mental notes of original surfaces and use this as a comparison for coins in your collection or those you are thinking of buying.

A less innocuous type of doctoring involves artificially brightening a coin by stripping its surface. The most common way to do this is by placing a coin in a solvent such as Jewelustre and "dipping" it.

While I am much more of a purist than most dealers, I do not have an issue with gold coins that have been carefully dipped. Of course I would rather see coins that are dark and crusty, but a lighter coin with mostly full "skin" is commercially acceptable. On certain coins, like Brilliant Proof gold, it has become the rule rather than the exception and many collectors of Proof gold have literally never even seen a truly original example.

There are other ways of brightening coins that I personally do not care for. At one time, it was common to see gold coins that had been "baking soda-ed" in a way to simulate mint luster by making them bright and shiny. Unfortunately, many gold coins with this sort of appearance were graded and encapuslated (and often "maxed out" from a grade perspective, in my opinion).

Coins with this sort of appearance have fallen out of favor and the services have become much better about putting such coins in overgraded holders.

How do you tell a gold coin that has had this done? Often the appearance is grainy in texture and the color is drab and almost monochromatic in hue. Also, the surfaces will lack any cartwheel luster, although this may be difficult for a new collector to determine. The best thing is to, again, learn what original surfaces look like.

To me, the worst type of doctoring is the sort that involves moving metal on the surfaces. This is deceptive and dangerous to the hobby. Luckily, the grading services are extremely good at detecting coins that have had this done, and for most collectors this will never be a problem unless they move out of their comfort zone and purchase raw coins from non-reputable sources.

If you do purchase raw coins, there are a few things to check. Collectors often forget about a coin's rim and should remember that this is the third side of a coin. Some 18th and 19th century coins have been cleverly rim filed in an attempt to remove old bumps and bruises.

Other raw coins have had scratches or marks removed. Often, it is easy to detect this as they will show smoothed areas in the fields. The grading services are extremely good at detecting this and I can't recall having seen many gold coins in holders that had scratches or marks removed but missed.

Will the coin doctoring problem that we are facing go away any time soon? It is doubtful but as a consumer, you can do your share in eradicating the problem by becoming knowledgable. If coin doctors lose their audiance for doctored coins, they will stop (or at least cut back) on their work. This sounds naive, I know, but in this case an educated consumer is one solid way to begin eradicating this problem.

What are your thoughts on coin doctoring? Leave a comment after you've read this blog and let's begin a discussion.

What Do Original United States Gold Coins Look Like?

Around a year ago, I wrote a blog that discussed original 19th century United States gold coins and used photos of specific coins to illustrate the points I was attempting to make. This was one of the most popular blogs to ever appear on www.raregoldcoins.com and I was pleased to get the positive feedback it generated. At the recent FUN show, I was shown two collections of coins. One consisted of around two dozen Charlotte and Dahlonega coins while the other had around 30 early gold coins. All were graded by PCGS or NGC and in both instances the owner prefaced his show-and-tell by informing me that all the coins were sold to him by dealers who stressed their "originality."

Out of the 50 or so coins I looked at, around five were what I would describe as being "original." This made me realize that most collectors do not understand the concept of originality and that it would be a good time to dust off the old "how to tell originality" blog.

1. 1807 Bust Left $5.00 Graded AU55+ by PCGS

1807 $5.00 PCGS AU55+

To me, this coin is just about the most perfect piece of lightly circulated early gold that you are likely to find. I think its an AU58 instead of an AU55+ but that's just splitting hairs; what can not be denied is this coin's exceptional color and overall originality.

There are a numbers of factors that make me believe that this piece is original. First is the depth and evenness of its color. Note the "age" of the color and how well it blends. Artificial color looks "newer" and never blends as well as old, mellow natural color. Secondly, note how the underlying luster is still undisturbed and in a perfect cartwheel pattern. This is most clear at the obverse border where there is considerable mint luster at the stars. Thirdly, note the absence of hairlines or other imperfections that might have been caused by a prior cleaning.

2. 1852-C $5.00 Graded AU53 by PCGS

1852-C $5.00 PCGS AU53

I almost decided not to use this coin as an example. Its sort of like going to the gym, choosing the biggest lunkhead you can find and then holding him up as an example of a fit guy to a bunch of scrawny non-lifters. Just not fair, right?

The first sign that this coin is very original is the depth of its coloration. Note the very deep and very even hues that can be seen on the obverse and reverse. Coin doctors are never able to reproduce this deep green-gold hue and most artificial toning on gold tends to be more of a bright orange or slightly off-kilter red hue. Another sign of this coin's originality is the fact that the few marks on the surfaces are not shiny or bright. On artificially toned or processed coins, the chemical agents used to color the coins tend to break down over time and there is often discoloration or brightness within the recesses of the marks on the surfaces.

3. 1856-O $10 Graded AU53 by NGC

1856-O $10.00 NGC AU53

This attractive coin has a few things that lead me to believe that it is original. The first is its deep, even green-gold color. Note that the hues are consistent on the obverse and reverse. The second is that there is no "filminess" atop the surfaces that might be caused by it having been puttied. The third is the presence of dirt deposits in the protected areas of the obverse and reverse. Note around a number of the stars and within the reverse lettering: there are raised black dirt "chunks" which would quickly dissolve if this coin were dipped in a chemical solution or even put into a soap and water bath to lighten it.

4. 1833 Large Date $5.00 Graded MS63 by PCGS

1833 Large Date $5.00 PCGS MS63

The common theme so far in with these coins have been their deep, dark original coloration. But what about coins that are lighter in hue and higher in grade? Can a coin that is not dark still be original? In the case of this 1833 half eagle, a coin that I bought and sold at the 2011 FUN show, it certainly can. One of the first things of note about this coin is the fact that it is an old green label PCGS holder. This, of course, doesn't mean it is a guaranteed original coin. But what it does mean is that it was graded at least 15 or so years ago and nothing was placed on the surfaces by a coin doctor as a chemical or substance would have broken-down by now and become visible.

This coin is bright and vibrant but it isn't too bright or too vibrant. I'm not sure this makes sense to a new collector but long-term collectors will immediately realize the difference between a coin that is naturally bright and one that has been brightened. The luster on this coin is completely undisturbed and, as is typical for half eagles from this era, it has a sort of "pillowy" texture. Also, note that the color is a rich light yellow and green-gold. This is characteristic of original Fat Head eagles and this is something that is not seen much, anymore, on the surviving coins from this era.

5. 1814/3 $5.00 Graded MS62 by NGC

1814/3 $5.00 NGC MS62

This is a tricky coin and one that would probably cause the greatest amount of dissent if I showed it to a number of experts. As you can see from the photos, it is very richly toned, in fiery reddish-gold hues. Red is often a color on early gold that has been applied. But in the case of this coin, the hue and intensity of the red is "right" and it has, to the best of my knowledge, never been duplicated by coin doctors. You can also see that the color lies nicely on the surfaces and is variegated with a number of different hues. Artificial color is more monochromatic and does not have the subtle gradations that a natural piece like this displays.

A few other facts about this coin are compelling. First, it is interesting to note that I have handled at least three 1814/3 half eagles in Uncirculated that have had reasonably similar intense reddish-based color. Having seen similar colors on other examples makes me even more certain that the color is genuine. And, the coin is housed in a very old NGC "fatty" holder which means that it was graded nearly two decades ago. If this color wasn't real, it wouldn't look so good after two decades in an NGC holder.

6. 1880 $20.00 Graded PR63 by NGC

1880 $20.00 NGC PR63

Brilliant Proof Liberty Head gold coinage is almost never seen anymore. Most examples have been dipped and/or conserved in an attempt to generate higher grades from the third-party services and in order to receive Ultra Cameo designations.

In the 2011 FUN auction, Heritage sold a number of superb quality Proof gold coins from the Miller collection that were notable for having natural coloration. These coins were purchased in the 1970's and 1980's; back when collectors knew what original proof gold looked like and it was appreciated for what it was. This 1880 double eagle was from that sale and collection.

There are a few things that immediately show this coin is original. As simplistic as this sounds, the first is that it isn't blindingly brilliant. Note, instead, how there is rich copper-orange toning which deepens towards the borders. Also, there is a copper spot on the reverse between the two L's in DOLLARS. Proof gold that has been conserved doesn't have these spots. Finally, there is an even natural "haziness" atop the surfaces that exists on original Proof gold. Note that I did not say "filminess" as in "this coin has been puttied and is now filmy."

Hopefully, this blog has been helpful. There is, of course, no substitute for seeing original coins live and in person but in the absence of doing this, these images and descriptions should be a step in the right direction.