[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Bruce Fox. This information was originally published in 1993 in The Complete Guide to Walking Liberty Half Dollars]
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There is a long history of counterfeit coins. However, in the Walking Liberty series, altered coins are more of a problem. Counterfeiting is the production of a whole coin outside the Mint. Alteration occurs when a genuine coin is made to resemble a similar coin (usually of greater numismatic value) by adding or removing a mint mark or changing the date.
Most of the relatively few counterfeit Walking Liberty half dollars were made by casting. In the “lost wax method,” a waxed or greased coin is placed in a container of molten rubber and impressions are made of both sides. Molten wax is then injected into a mold made of the two halves. This forms a wax replica, which is then covered with plaster of paris and placed in a vacuum to draw out the air bubbles. After drying, the wax is melted and removed, forming a near perfect mold. In earlier times, sand molds were used in lieu of rubber.
The most commonly encountered cast examples of this series are the 1918-P and 1920-P. Quality varies from crude to barely detectible. The pictured coin belonged to Ross Albergo’s father, who owned a laundry service in the depression era. He had a habit of biting coins that came in for payment, as we think of cowboys biting gold pieces at the bar to check for softness and, thus, authenticity. The Albergo coin was a crude casting, which broke into three pieces of pot metal when the “biting” test was invoked.
Don Taxay, in his book Counterfeit, Mis-struck and Unofficial U.S. Coins (1976), describes 11 ways to detect cast counterfeits with-out sophisticated equipment. Interested readers should consult his text for more information.
Altered coins are engineered by craftsmen who could better serve themselves by using their talents for legal activities. Some alterations are the result of incredible craftsmanship, barely visible to even the expert authenticators. Others like the cast counterfeits, are poorly done and easily detected. In March 1954 Lester Greenwood, president-elect of the Inland Empire Coin Club of Spokane, Washington wrote The Numismatist of seeing a Walking Liberty half dated 1915 which did not appear to have an altered date.. The members of his coin club were seeking further information. In particular, whether it had been made in quantity and if any others had shown up. I have not seen anything further about this piece. If anyone knows any more about it please contact me.
The most common dates found altered are the 1917-S (OBV) and the 1921-S. Rick Montgomery of PCGS was kind enough to share his diagnostics.
The altered 1917-S (OBV) is created by adding an “S” mintmark to a Philadelphia issue. One way to check authenticity is by the shape of the added “S.” Rick explains that the same mint mark punch was used for all “S” minted coins from the 1909 Lincoln cent up to and including some 1917 issues. But when the mintmark was moved to the reverse of the 1917 halves, it is believed the punch was damaged and the “S” appeared as a different style. Most of the mintmarks added to the 1917 half dollars (and the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cents) are of the second type (see photo below). This is a quick check diagnostic.
The other diagnostic sometimes requires a microscope. When a mintmark is added, there is a film and oxidation around the mintmark due to solder or glue used to attach it. Most of the time a seam can be seen. A genuine coin has a mintmark that flows into the field with uninterrupted microscopic metal flow lines.
Also, if the strike is unusually good, beware. There were many more 1917-P halves with nice strikes than the 1917-S (OBV). This is not to say it can’t be genuine if it has a great strike or that it is genuine because it doesn’t have a nice strike. It is just another diagnostic to consider during an initial evaluation.
In the 1921-S, the alteration is normally a 1941-S with a modified “4” in the date. Rick Montgomery points out the shape of the “2” is one of the main diagnostics. The genuine “2” has a wavy base with an angled slope to it. The altered “2” normally has a flat base and is straight across. Under magnification, tooling marks can be seen as well as interrupted flow lines into the field. In comparison to the other digits of the date, the altered “2” appears to sit on top of the coin instead of being part of the coin..
Altered dates/mintmarks are not limited to the 1917-S (OBV) and 1921-S. John Marshek reports seeing a 1916 with an added “S” mintmark, as well as a 1920 with an added “D.” He also has viewed a 1921-S with an added mintmark, which is scarce because of the rarity of the 1921 Philadelphia issue. Rick Montgomery also reports seeing several 1938-P halves with an added “D” mintmark. He points out the genuine 1938-D should exhibit slight machine doubling of the “D” when tilted away from the light source. However, this is not a foolproof diagnostic. Rick also reports “D” mintmarks added to the reverse of 1917 and 1937 Philadelphia coins.
Many other counterfeits/alterations are sure to exist. A small article by Farran Zerbe appeared in the July 1934 were of The Numismatist.
Dangerous Counterfeit Half-Dollar
The most dangerous counterfeit silver coin that the Secret Service, banks and the public have to contend with is a spurious half dollar of the current, full-length Liberty type that has been discovered recently. It cannot be detected by weight or ring, appears as of standard coin siver and has been found with several different dates.
They are worn smooth on the high parts of device, as are most all half dollars now in circulation in the East. The die work is good. On the spurious pieces the sun rays differ from the genuine and there is no line dividing sole from the shoe-upper on foot near border; on reverse the lettering and spacing is slightly lack in uniformity and the designer’s mark, at right under eagle’s tail, monogram AW incuse is perfectly formed.
New York, June 12, 1934.
Unfortunately, there is no mention of the dates on these halves.
Walter Breen cautions us to beware of 1928-D counterfeits. The only genuine issue of this year was from the San Francisco Mint.
Be alert to the possibility of buying a counterfeit or altered coin. Some dealers may not know the coin is altered unless he/she is a specialist in the series. Authentication by one of the major certification services is recommended when buying a scarce date in valuable condition.