By Thomas K. DeLorey …..
Many U.S. numismatic items have been counterfeited or otherwise imitated over the years, some so often that authenticators such as myself are automatically suspicious of them. Near the head of this list are the Indian Peace Medals issued by the United States government from the 1790s up to 1890, of which perhaps 90% of the allegedly rare pieces are fakes.
In the other fields of numismatics, some of the lesser fakes that we see are so easy to identify that we can do it over the phone with one hand tied behind our backs. For instance, many early U.S. and Confederate banknotes have been widely reproduced in what is commonly called replica form. These replicas are similar to the genuine items but significantly different in some important way so that the maker cannot be accused of counterfeiting with intent to deceive, an important legal point.
On the replica banknotes, the key difference is usually in the heavy, parchment-like paper used, which one replicator “antiqued” by dipping the notes in pots of tea and drying them on a clothesline in the sun, giving them a look and feel much different than the flimsy rag paper typical of the originals. When I was with the Collectors Clearinghouse department at Coin World, or later with the American Numismatic Association Certification Service in Colorado Springs, we kept a list of the commonly seen replicas in our desks, so that when people called about one of the bills we could ask them the date and denomination of it and be able to tell them the serial number of their bill from the list.
Many colonial and territorial coins were also issued in replica form before the passage of the Hobby Protection Act of 1973, and many of these had distinguishing marks such as misspelled words or incorrect designs or a cryptic “R” (for REPLICA) that made them easy to spot over the telephone. Unfortunately, when people called us about Indian peace medals, there was almost nothing we could do without seeing the pieces, as most of the fakes were originally made by the United States Mint!
An excellent article on the entire Peace Medal series written by Robert W. Julian appeared in the November 1994 issue of COINage (q.v.). For additional information on the struck pieces in this series, the reader is referred to the Peace Medal section of Julian’s definitive “Medals of the United States Mint–The First Century, 1792-1892,” published by the Token And Medal Society and available to members of the ANA through its library at 818 N. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80903.
To briefly summarize the history of Indian Peace Medals, the British, French and Spanish Empires had each produced elaborate pieces of various sizes to present to Chiefs of varying importance whose tribes were friendly to their respective causes. Upon achieving independence with the help of certain tribes, and faced with the hostile opposition of other tribes who had been paid or persuaded to oppose the independence movement, the young American government quickly decided to continue the practice of gifting medals to native American chieftains it considered to be its friends.
Some of the earliest U.S. Indian Peace Medals were hand-engraved affairs on which large, thin ovals of silver were carved with the images of (usually) George Washington shaking hands with an Indian in front of a tranquil farmstead on the obverse, and the heraldic eagle from the Great Seal of the United States on the reverse. A heavy silver wire border was soldered about the edge to strengthen the disc, and either a loop or hole was added at the top so as to suspend the medal on a thong. Many were engraved by Joseph Richardson, Jr., a Philadelphia silversmith who was later employed by the Mint as Assayer, while others were cut by different hands in varying styles.
Unfortunately, these pieces are almost impossible to authenticate or condemn, because no two medals are exactly alike due to the hand engraving technique used to inscribe the designs. Similarly, there were different techniques used to shape and apply the borders, loops and holes. One unique piece has the designs engraved on separate sheets of metal that are held together by the border, but even this variance is insufficient reason to suspect the piece is not genuine, as will be seen by the Jefferson pieces which follows the next series.
Experts can offer learned opinions on the authenticity of specific engraved pieces, but often they respectfully disagree with one another. At ANACS we usually sent pieces submitted to us to at least three consultants in the field, and I do not recall that we ever reached a unanimous opinion on any one of them to where we reached a point that we felt confident enough to certify it as genuine.
Near the end of Washington’s presidency, a set of three different obverses bearing peaceful domestic scenes depicting livestock raising, the sowing of grain and the spinning and weaving of cloth were paired with a common reverse commemorating Washington’s second term in office. Because the U.S. Mint did not have a medal press strong enough to strike these pieces, they were struck at Matthew Boulton’s private mint in Birmingham, England. These “Seasons” medals are legitimately rare, and have not been a problem as far as counterfeits are concerned because most U.S. collectors are unaware they exist.
Because the supply of Seasons medals lasted through the term of John Adams, the next medals were created for Thomas Jefferson in 1801. These round-format pieces in a two-inch, three-inch and a magnificent four-inch size were all too large for the Mint’s medal press to strike in solid form, but they could be embossed as two separate shells which were then filled with soft metal and soldered together at the edge with an attached loop. Jefferson medals are known to have been carried by Lewis and Clark on their voyage of discovery through the Louisiana Purchase and beyond, and a copy of its portrait was used on some Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollars struck in 1903.
This technique makes the piece highly susceptible to the making of electrotype shells which could be soldered together like the originals. Since the outer surfaces can be easily “antiqued” with a little deliberate abuse, the only way to disprove such a piece would be to destroy it so as to look at the inside of the shells.
The Jefferson design was later struck in solid form from new three-inch dies after 1840, when the U.S. Mint began to get into the business of restriking early items en masse. At first this was done with the semi-ethical purpose of providing trading material to be used to improve the Mint’s cabinet of coins, now the basis of the National Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, but later it was done from pure greed to line the pockets of Mint employees.
The James Madison Indian Peace medal was the first to be issued in solid form, in two-inch, two-and-a-half-inch and three-inch sizes. As with the Jefferson pieces the larger medals were given to the more important chiefs, with the lesser pieces given to the lesser chiefs. This has affected the survivability of all of the smaller format Indian Peace medals, as the lesser chiefs died without fanfare and their goods and possessions were less likely to be preserved by their heirs.
Production in the three sizes continued for all Presidents through Zachary Taylor in 1849, except for William Henry Harrison who died after only one month in office in 1841. All had a common reverse copied from the Jefferson piece, namely a pair of hands shaking each other with crossed tomahawk and peace pipe above and the legend PEACE AND PROSPERITY.
Taylor’s successor, Millard Fillmore, saw his medals changed drastically. The two-inch size was dropped, and the engraving and striking of the medals with a new reverse design was entrusted to a private party. The same was done for his successors, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Abraham Lincoln’s medals were engraved outside the Mint but struck in it, while Andrew Johnson’s medals were engraved inside the Mint by a former employee of the Engraving Department. The Mint eventually obtained custody of all of these dies.
Ulysses S. Grant’s medal was only struck in the two-and-a-half-inch size, and is only recognizable as an Indian Peace Medal by the presence of a peace pipe beneath Grant’s shoulder. Not only was the Indian’s omitted from this medal, but Grant’s name was left off of it as well.
The next five presidents saw a return to the oval format of Washington’s day, with a stock reverse reminiscent of that era. A final round piece was produced in 1890 under the administration of Benjamin Harrison, after which the practice of issuing Indian Peace Medals ceased. Perhaps the successful destruction of the Native American civilization during the Indian Wars of the 1870s and 1880s made Peace medals irrelevant.
All of this would have made for a fascinating collectible series except for the U.S. Mint’s modern practice of restriking the largest available dies for each design in Bronze and selling them at a nominal price to collectors. This restriking in the original designs (though not in the original metal, silver, or with the original Proof-like finish) has resulted in thousands of the bronze restrikes being holed, polished down to simulate wear, silver plated and then antiqued for the deliberately fraudulent sale as a silver original.
The most common outlets for them are gun shows, antique shows, and flea markets, in that order. If you have purchased what purports to be a silver original Indian Peace medal at any of these venues, I would say that the odds are 9,999 out of 10,000 that it is a fake.
How can you tell? Well, a foolproof method is specific gravity, which will tell you if it is made out of bronze rather than silver without damaging the piece. The only problem with s.g. is that few people have a scale setup that can accommodate a piece that large and heavy, so you will probably have to pay one of the certification services to do it for you.
Another test is to check the hole at the top. Does it look freshly drilled, with clean, sharp corners at the tops of the ends of the hole? A genuine piece with genuine wear on the surfaces will also show wear at the tops of the ends of the hole where a metal loop has rubbed it over the years.
If the loop is missing, check inside the hole. Some of the less intelligent fakers silver plate the medal before they drill the hole, leaving a nice coppery tint inside. It should be silver.
Is there a lot of detail missing from the high points, without corresponding wear on the rest of the designs? Some fakers grind the high points down to simulate wear, while ignoring the fact that the rest of the coin does not have the random nicks and scratches typical of actual wear. A VF medal should look something like a VF silver dollar, with a lot of wear on the high points and some wear everywhere else.
“Antiquing” in the form of simulated contact marks may make the piece look old, but the pattern to the contact marks will probably be uniform all over the surface of the piece. Remember that the contact marks a piece received on its high points early in circulation or use will be worn off as those areas are worn off, so that the contact marks should be thicker in the exposed but recessed areas such as the field than they are on the head or other designs. Again, think of how a circulated silver dollar looks.
Your best protection is common sense. If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. Buy only from established dealers who will refund your money if a piece is proven to be false in a reasonable period of time. It is very difficult to go back to a flea market stall after the market has closed for the day.
Originally published in COINage magazine. Reprinted with permission. Copyright by Thomas K. DeLorey.