By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
 

The presence or lack of a particular mintmark can make or break the difference in the price of a coin.

Consider, for example, the values of coins from so many popular series minted during the late 19th and 20th centuries. A 1916 Mercury Dime without a mintmark? It’s worth maybe $2 or $3 in worn condition. But a 1916-D? That rarity is worth about $1,000 and up.

Unfortunately, many unscrupulous individuals have forged, altered, and otherwise tampered with mintmarks for decades. But thankfully, there are many ways a collector can authenticate their coins simply by looking for specific diagnostics that can rule out such spuriosities.

That 1916-D Mercury Dime? There were only four reverse dies used to make it, so those who become familiar with the placement and shape of the mintmark on that coin can better authenticate real ones.

And what about authenticating coins that are rare when they don’t have a mintmark? One example of such a coin is the 1922 No-D Strong Reverse Lincoln Cent. Only the Denver Mint made Lincoln Cents in 1922, but overzealous polishing on a pair of damaged dies left a mint employee to replace the reverse die and polish the obverse – to the point of obliterating the “D” mintmark! While 1922-D Lincoln Cents are relatively common, perhaps only 15,000 specimens exist lacking any evidence of the “D” mintmark.

Many counterfeiters will try tooling off the “D” mintmark from the obverse of the 1922-D Lincoln Cent, with the hopes of passing it off as a the rare “No-D” variety. But astute collectors will know to look for obverse diagnostics such as a weak overall appearance, the “L” in “LIBERTY” touching the rim, the letter “TY” in “LIBERTY” being stronger than “LIBER”, the “IN GOD WE” is weaker than “TRUST”, and the second “2” in the date looking stronger than the first “2”. Also, all 1922 No-D Strong Reverse Lincoln Cents should certainly have, yes, a strong-looking (or bold) reverse.

But what about alterations on mintmarks that are supposed to be on the coin? This can often be much trickier…

It seems that one particularly tricky type of mintmark alteration has been appearing on the market. This curious alteration, known as an embossed mintmark, began turning up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s on coins bearing thick edges and on which any mintmark would typically be found near the rim. Buffalo Nickels certainly fit that bill. So, too, do Morgan Dollars.

Take a look at the reverse of this 1889-S Morgan Dollar. Look suspicious? Many collectors and even some dealers probably wouldn’t catch it, but this 1889-S Morgan Dollar has an embossed mintmark.

This 1889 Morgan Dollar has an embossed mintmark… At first glance, many wouldn’t pick up that there’s anything wrong with this coin. Click image to enlarge.

This 1889 Morgan Dollar has an embossed mintmark. At first glance, many wouldn’t pick up that there’s anything wrong with this coin… Image courtesy PCGS.

What’s an embossed mintmark? It’s a mintmark that has pushed up from inside the coin – that’s the embossing process. But how’s something like this done? By drilling a tiny hole through the edge of the coin under the place where the mintmark will be situated on the coin. To emboss the mintmark, a device resembling needle-nosed pliers is used; on the inside of one jaw is the mintmark, and on the inside of the other is padding to prevent scratches and other damage on the surface receiving the embossed mintmark. With the mintmark-side of the pliers in the drilled-out hole, pressure is then applied on the pliers and the mintmark is embossed onto the coin from within. The access hole on the edge of the coin is then filled with a material such as lead and sanded or sculpted to resemble the surrounding authentic edge.

Take a careful look at the edge of this coin - note just to the right of center that the reeding looks a little off? That’s where the hole was filled in and fake reeding applied. Image courtesy PCGS.

Take a careful look at the edge of this coin – note just to the right of center that the reeding looks a little off? That’s where the hole was filled in and fake reeding applied. Image courtesy PCGS.

A collector or dealer can protect themselves from embossed mintmarks by carefully inspecting the edge of the suspect coin. Look for any inconsistencies in the reeding or plain edge. Those who are checking out a coin with a reeded edge may have the advantage of knowing what number of reeds a coin should have. Let’s go back to the 1889 “S” Morgan Dollar for a moment. A typical 1889-S Morgan Dollar should have 186 or 187 reeds. This fake didn’t!

A miscreant who endeavors in such fraud must have a lot of patience – and access to dental tools – to emboss bogus mintmarks. But it’s been done… countless times. How many embossed mintmarks are out there is anybody’s guess. But these phonies are prevalent enough on the marketplace that collectors need to be wary. It goes without saying that you should buy your coins from skilled, reputable coin dealers who carefully inspect their coins before selling them.

One of the major concerns about an embossed mintmark on a coin like the pictured 1889-S Morgan Dollar is that they’re often found on pieces that relatively few collectors or dealers would take the time to carefully inspect. Surely, anybody considering the purchase of an 1889-CC Morgan Dollar – a coin that trends for approximately $6,250 in AU50 – would scrutinize the “CC” Carson City mintmark and many other aspects of the coin. But an 1889-S Morgan? It’s just scarce enough that it carries a premium over its no-mintmark Philadelphia counterpart ($115 for the 1889-S versus $35 for the 1889[-P] in AU50). Yet it’s not quite expensive enough to register on the minds of many numismatists as the target of counterfeiters. Many folks considering the purchase of such an 1889-S Morgan would glance at its surfaces for a New York minute and likely move on to buy it.

The problem is, there are many, many of those mid-range semi-key coins that are worth just enough to give counterfeiters the monetary incentive to try their hand at altering a mintmark. And some are just skilled enough that their fraudulent handiwork will pass under the eyes of many unassuming numismatists.

As in every other area of our hobby, knowledge is power (and ignorance isn’t very blissful). Embossed mintmarks are one of just many types of alterations encountered in the PCGS grading room – one that we hope you’ll also be on the watch-out for, too.

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4 COMMENTS

    • While this is not a totally foolproof method for ruling out counterfeits, you might consider consulting a guide that depicts the various known mintmark positions/obverse dies that struck the 1909-S VDB cent. To my knowledge there are four known and well-documented mintmark locations/positions for the coin.

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