For as long as coin collecting has existed, there have been dishonest brokers looking to make a fast buck by selling fakes. Silver coins are some of the most commonly faked, but fortunately there are methods of spotting frauds. Equally fortunately, each method is simple to learn and implement.
The 7 ways to spot fake silver coins are:
- Visual inspection test
- Vertical and horizontal flip test
- Weight test
- Magnetic test
- Slide test
- Ping test
- Ice test
Figuring out the legitimacy of a coin is not difficult if the right tests are employed. Each test, however, has its weaknesses. That means an overall testing strategy must be used except for coins that are very obviously fake. Below, we discuss how these tests work together to uncover imposters.
Why These Tests?
Each test was chosen as they are affordable for the average coin collector and effective and easy to perform, while still being reasonably reliable. Most collectors will prefer them over purchasing an expensive metal analyzer or performing tests that could damage the coin in question.
Why, after all, invest a significant amount of money on a testing method when a visual inspection or buying a simple magnet will do the trick?
Following a summary of the 7 ways to spot fake silver coins, 4 additional testing methods are explained. These methods are not part of the initial 7 for four reasons:
- Ease of use: All of the initial 7 tests are easy t`o complete and interpret
- Technical details: Each of the 4 extra tests requires more than just a single tool or basic understanding of how to interpret the results
- Coin integrity: 3 of the 4 extra tests will at least blemish the silver that is exposed, reducing the value of the coin from a numismatic perspective
- Expense: One of the tests requires equipment that is more expensive than a standard collector would consider a sound investment
As mentioned, there are more expensive and elaborate forms of testing out there. These include utilizing metal analyzers, elaborate testing equipment and/or possibly destroying part or all of a coin. With collectors that have high value collections these types of tests are the better choice only if absolute certainty is the goal.
The Standard Of Evidence
The validity of the first 7 tests are not dependent on a “magic bullet.” There will be coins that one test will prove an obvious fake, but more likely, more than one test and usually several tests will be needed to build the case that a coin is fake or legitimate.
In civil law, this is referred to as a “preponderance of evidence.” A preponderance of evidence in this case is when the evidence of a fraud or authenticity are proven in several tests. This allows you to reasonably conclude a coin’s disposition.
If a collector is not performing more technical analysis, building a preponderance of evidence should be the first step in the process of determining the legitimacy of a coin and whether to invest in it or not.
Types Of Fakes
There are two main types of coin fakes: Composition and Designation.
This is the formula of materials that make up a coin. It includes materials that were intended to be used and materials that were not anticipated. There is no 100% pure silver coin or bar and even the purest (99% or so) have impurities and other matter that keep them from the coveted 100% purity.
With outright fakes, those materials, as a percentage of the coin’s volume and weight, will be much more prevalent.
The designation of a coin entails the details that indicate:
- Type of coin
- Possibly the city where it was minted
- Its size and thickness
- Perimeter markers such as reeding on the ridges or smoothness
- Fonts used
- Imagery and height of imagery
These indicators are universal to all coins for a particular date range. However, the markers may change when the mold is modified.
Why Is Testing Necessary?
The creation of fake coins or faking the value of coins has been around for as long as coins have been used as currency. The earliest recorded examples of coin fakes were in Ancient Greece, where coins were manipulated and even defaced to be used to create other coins, and metal compositions were altered to dilute gold or silver in order to get more coins from less of each material.
In fact, the Roman Empire itself diluted gold coin composition to be able to mint more coins. The practice of creating fake coins by default via official sanction has occurred throughout history to the present day.
The United States of America, for example, has altered the formula for several coins with the result being purer, more valuable coins predating diluted coin formulas. The US treasury has even abandoned “pure” ingredients when making coins in some cases in favor of inexpensive lookalike ingredients.
Coins the US Treasury has diluted include, but are not limited to:
- Quarters – Silver content was diluted and then replaced in the mid-1960s
- Pennies – Copper content was diluted and then replaced in the early 1980s
- Half Dollars – Silver content was diluted, progressively, over time
- Gold Coins – Gold content has been diluted and then replaced with gold plating
These are a just a few examples of a modern government diluting valuable metals or substituting them with less valuable metals.
A Balancing Act
When a government does it, diluting a precious metal or replacing it with plating or even another metal is considered legal, but yields a less valuable coin. The purpose is to allow that government to produce more coins without increasing the overall value of all coins in circulation.
Whether that is good economic policy or not is debatable, but the result is the same: Coins that are not diluted are worth more than those that are.
When a non-government entity does the same, it is considered fraud. The purpose in that case is to fool someone into investing more into the coin than what the coin is actually worth, handing a profit to the party conducting the fraud.
In either case, however, testing lets the collector verify that what is being invested is a fair market assessment of the coin’s worth. It also helps prevent the collector from being taken advantage of and paying more than a coin is worth. In some cases, knowing that a fraud is a fraud can save the investor thousands of dollars.
Testing Progression And Priority
The tests below are listed in exact order of recommended testing progression. Following this progression will make the validation testing easier to interpret and faster. No single test should determine whether a coin is absolutely fake or legitimate.
Additionally, no one test has priority over another, unless that test illustrates clearly that a coin is a fake. A silver coin that solidly sticks to a magnet or has details that are obviously wrong, for example, is obviously fake and no further testing is needed.
If the test results are murky, however, further testing is needed before making any determination. A coin that has obscured details from wear and tear, for instance, might be legitimate but may fail a visual test for lack of clarity. Likewise, a coin that does not register a distinctive “ping” does not mean it is necessarily a fake.
The key is to perform each test until it is proven conclusively that a coin is fake or legitimate. So, what are the 7 ways to spot fake silver coins?
The 7 Ways To Spot Fake Silver Coins
1. Visual Inspection Test
Before completing any other tests, perform a visual inspection. Look for obvious signs that a silver coin is a fake, primarily in designation. Every detail associated with a coin or mint run should match the coin being examined.
The visual inspection should never be used as the sole determiner of authenticity. This is because some fake coins are very well crafted and can fool even the savviest of coin collectors. Some discrepancies are instant proof that a coin is a fraud. For others, though, no obvious flaws does not equal authenticity.
2. Vertical And Horizontal Flip Test
This is another type of visual test. If you hold the coin with one of the raised images right side up and flip the coin in your hand vertically, the feature on the other side should be in the same direction. If you flip the coin horizontally, the feature on the second side should appear to be the opposite of the first side.
For example, if a feature is right side up, the feature on the other side should be right side up as well if the coin is flipped vertically. If the coin is flipped horizontally, the feature on the second side should appear upside down. If there is a discrepancy with either type of measurement, it is a dead giveaway that the coin is a fake.
3. Weight Test
Just like every coin type has a specific size, every coin in a run of coins has a specific weight. That weight is determined by the US Treasury. The specific weights of coins is available online at the US Treasury website.
There are some deviances in coin weight that are acceptable. A used coin, for example, could have lost some material due to wear and tear and that will make it a little lighter than a newly minted coin.
If the weighed coin is within an accepted deviation (often accepted as within 1% of the expected weight), then this is one indicator that it is authentic. If a coin is more than a gram heavier or lighter than you expect, it’s a sign that the coin might be a fake.
4. Magnetic Test
Silver is not magnetic. It will not be held in place by any type of magnet. Thus, if a coin that is pure silver is applied to a magnet, it will display zero attraction to the magnet. If a coin is attracted to the magnet in any form, you know instantly that the coin is not pure silver. That does not, however, mean it is a fake, unless it is being billed as 100% pure silver.
The way to perform this test is amazingly simple. Just hold a magnet up to the coin in question.If it sticks, you know it is not pure silver. If it does not stick, move onto the next test.
Don’t rule out a coin based on the magnet test alone. Silver coins can exhibit what may look like very slight adhesion. It is actually the coin acting in an opposite manner to the magnet. That is where the next test comes in.
5. Slide Test
The slide test entails placing a magnet on the face of the coin, holding the coin vertically and letting it go. If the magnet slides off as if nothing was holding it, the coin is not silver. If the coin appears to adhere to the magnet slightly while it’s sliding down, it is likely an authentic silver coin.
Silver coins are diamagnetic, which means silver will do the opposite of adhering to a magnet. As the magnet slides down the coin, it appears to have some magnetism. That, however, is the silver working against the magnet.
Compared to a coin that has no silver, it takes longer for the magnet to slide down the silver coin, while in the non-silver sample, it will fall as if nothing was holding it back.
6. Ping Test
The ping test is somewhat subjective and should never serve as the sole basis for determining a fraudulent silver coin. When struck with metal, silver has a distinctive ring to it, almost like a bell. The sound also lingers for a few seconds, making it sound melodic.
Non-silver metal will still have a ring, but it is not as pronounced, deep or persistent. It sounds like you would think a non-silver piece of metal would sound when struck. A sound like that is a good indicator you are not dealing with a real silver coin.
7. Ice Test
The ice test is another highly subjective test in that external variables can affect it. On principle, however, ice will melt much quicker when placed on silver than when placed on other metals. This is because silver is the best conductor of heat of all metals.
The metal that is the closest in terms of heat conduction is copper, followed by gold and then aluminum. If an ice cube placed on some regular metal melts as fast or faster than ice placed on the alleged silver coin, the coin is not silver. If the ice on the coin melts much faster than the ice placed on a piece of regular metal, there’s a high chance it’s real silver.
Combining The Tests
Each of these tests can prove conclusively if a silver coin is obviously fake, but beyond the obvious requires interpretation. For example, counterfeiters have used fillers in plated silver coins that are not magnetic. Likewise, with the ice test, the rate of melting can vary depending on external environmental factors.
Both require the tester to interpret the results and compare those results with other test results to lead to a qualified determination.
For example, by themselves, the magnetic and ice tests are potentially compelling, but not conclusive. Taken together, however, the results make a compelling case regarding the authenticity of the allegedly silver coin if the results from each test indicate the same thing.
When the other five tests are factored in, and if the results are consistent, it is reasonable to conclude the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the coin.
Alternative Testing Methods
If the coin or coins in question are worth a lot of money, you will want to have testing performed that is more conclusive and not liable to personal interpretation. Below are four tests that are more expensive or will potentially damage the coin or coins in question, but are more conclusively reliable.
Specific Gravity Test
This method involves weighing the dry coin and then weighing the mass of water displaced when the coin is submerged in it. This method requires some simple math, and reference to specific gravity values for silver.
If the coin is clad or plated, it will weigh a different amount, usually less, but not always, depending on the weight of the fillers used inside the plating.
The reason the weight is not always less than pure silver is that individuals making fake silver coins have figured out how to use fillers that weigh approximately what silver weighs. This is also why a pure weight measurement must be combined with our tests to determine authenticity.
Metal Composition Analyzers
An XRF analyzer uses X-ray fluorescence. It helps detect an array of precious metals and alloys. An XRF analyzer will provide a printout of the metal composition of any object that it scans.
While it is a fail-safe method to assess metal composition, the XRF is very pricey, often running in excess of $10,000. This makes it unaffordable for the average collector and not worth the investment for the average collection. Usually, only gold/silver bullion or jewelry shops have an XRF analyzer.
Using bleach to test whether a coin is silver is inexpensive and quick, but also will likely reduce the overall value of the coin if the coin possesses any numismatic value. This is because bleach will tarnish silver through oxidation. A bleach test is not recommended on any silver that possesses value based on its appearance.
A combination of nitric acid and muriatic acid comprise the ingredients in an acid test. It is another failsafe method of testing a coin, but it will damage the coin. The ingredients are also toxic and can injure anyone that uses them.
It is necessary to get to the core of the coin to test it for purity. The solution will also discolor the part of the coin that it touches. Depending on the metal filler used, a different color will emerge at the test location.
None of the 7 tests covered here should be used as a solitary testing measurement as all can indicate a false positive or a false negative. Done in sequence and in combination, however, these 7 tests are the least intrusive and least expensive ways to determine if a silver coin is fake without damaging the coin.