Sunday, May 17, 2015

Is That Really a Silver Coin?

If the days to come unfold as I expect them to, we're likely to reach a stage where barter and trade with something other than "legal tender, backed by the full faith and trust of the US government" is going to be taking place.  (I've long said, ".22LR, it's the dime of the new millenium!").  It may be fully out in the open and it may be black market because use of anything other than federally managed digital money is illegal.  I expect, as many others do, that silver coins and other pieces of sterling or fine silver will be used for this to some (unknowable) degree, simply because they're recognizable.  Everybody in the US knows an American dime when they see one.  It won't take too long for Ma and Pa Sixpack to know they're seeing a US denominated coin and that coins from before 1965 are more valuable than those made from cupronickel sandwiches since then.  If the grid is up and TV news is running, I suspect that the price of silver will be a daily news item. 

So how do you know if that 2015 Silver Eagle you're being offered is real?  If you want to go beyond trust, now would be a good time to look into the ways that jewelers tell silver alloys apart.  A kit like this one is a really good way to start.  It also includes test solutions for gold alloys, too.  Like most things that come from the world of jewelry, to use it well requires a bit of skill on your part.  Practice will only help.

How do the kits work?  The essential parts of the kit are a test stone and a solution of an acid.  You wipe the edge of the coin on the stone and leave a visible trail of metal on it.  It doesn't have to be really heavy, you are taking metal off the coin.  Then you add a small drop of the acid on the trail and read the color.  You've heard the expression, "the acid test"?  This is it!  Pure silver (also called fine silver) like you find in the real US Eagles, turns bright red.  Sterling silver (92.5% silver, 7.5% copper) turns a darker reddish brown, and US "junk silver" coins (90% silver) turn a little browner than sterling.  80% silver will turn pretty brown, but I don't think you'll see that.  It's a pretty crude fake.  The difference between sterling and the coin silver is tricky to see.  Side by side you can tell, but either way you can be sure they're not pure silver.

Important: there are different kits with different test solutions on the market that produce different colors.  You might get a kit with a different color system.  Same concept, different colors, so be sure to Read That F(ine) Manual!

The risk here is that if the fake is real silver that was  plated onto a base metal coin, you'll only test the plating.   There are two ways out of this.  Sometimes, all you need to do is weigh the coin.  If the fake uses something silvery in color like nickel silver (AKA German silver, which contains no silver) it could be that a reloading scale, is all you need to tell you if it's the right weight. You may have heard of counterfeit gold coins and bars on the market.  The gold bars were gold plated tungsten and they were found by measuring specific gravity of the bars.  Specific gravity compares the density of the coin to an equivalent volume of water.  There are test kits on the market, but if it's really not that hard to do it yourself using nothing but your reloading scale, a small container of water, and a small piece of wire. Finally, you may have to file into a coin to see if you can detect different colored metals inside it.  The really artful counterfeits, like some of the Chinese bars, could only be identified by high tech analysis. 
It might be a good time to start reading about counterfeit silver coins.  They're definitely out there, and it helps to know how to tell them apart.  Remember, it's completely possible the guy offering you a counterfeit eagle thinks it's real, and someone ripped him off.  As for whether or not you'll see counterfeit 90% silver coins, that's harder to tell.  If you see a bag of silver coins today, you'll see a wild mix of dates and conditions.  It would be hard to counterfeit the distribution like that.  That would require many molds and a lot of manual work.  The more valuable they become, the more likely counterfeiting becomes, though.  If someone offered me a bunch of coins with the same date that looked identical, I'd be suspicious, even though I know we can buy rolls of "Brilliant, Uncirculated" coins today... 


  1. Tungsten and gold have the same density to 3-digits. Can you make s.g. measurements to better than 1 %? If not, the good fakes pass scrutiny! The good fakes also have real gold cast to better than 100 mills thick. It passes the regular acid tests. It almost gets to where you have to refine the "gold" stuff, with a chlorine wash, to really know if the bar is real or fake.

    Now, about those gold bars in Switzerland that, when tested, turned out to be very elaborate fakes. Last I heard, there were some large quantities involved! And, they came from Uncle Sam, too

    Most interesting!

  2. A quick survey of the 'testing' web-pages assume there is a collectors value to the 'coin', Here we are looking at commodity value.

    Given the relative hardness between gold and tungsten, the old bite test would work just fine. Or cutting the coin into pieces of eight. Or use a awl to punch it.

    Pure tungsten has a hardness on order of hardened steel (even pure copper is harder than pure silver and gold) and an awl would clearly imprint in gold. If a counterfeit is tungsten carbide, aside from a few exotics up there in price with gold, only diamond is harder.

    So you might have a few gold coins or bricks with dimples in them.

    They're even counterfeiting Indian Head pennies. No coin is safe.
    After I saw this, I thought that maybe new, in-box firearms are a better choice for investments.
    Selling either guns or silver will probably be equally risky.

  4. A good fake bullion silver coin (not bar or jewelry) is difficult and the effort for perfection may exceed the value of the coin. Gold, because of it's far greater value can be worth the effort. Bullion coins are more difficult to do well but bars, especially larger bars are easier or at least offer more return for the effort. Most fake bullion coins can be detected by feel, by measuring and weighing, by tone when tapped and by the look of the coin itself. It is really difficult to get the perfect and very sharp look of a freshly minted coin.
    My local coin shop has about a dozen fake silver bullion coins on display and without exception they look like fakes. The problem with identifying fake coins is mostly when they are in a roll or container and you don't examine each coin. Go to a coin shop and ask if they have some fake silver bullion coins that you could look at and compare with the real thing. You will be amazed at how easy it is to differentiate between them once you actually have them in your hands.

  5. Wonder how long it'll be until somebody starts faking the 90% pre 64 stuff...

    Probably when it's profitable.

  6. Have you heard about the electronic testers for gold and silver? Last year I saw an ad for one you just lay the item on and it tells purity - I couldn't find it today, but I did find some other units such as these (Not an endorsement - just and example):
    A non-invasive unit would be very useful and could potentially be sold as a service to concerned people.

  7. Jonathon - I've heard of them but don't know how much better they are than some of those simpler methods like specific gravity. Or if they're better at all.

  8. Issues like the difficulty of determining fakes and the relative rarity of precious metal coinage make me rather doubtful that they will ever see use in wide-scale transactions. Even though I'm not a fan of Bitcoin, I'd expect that sort of cryptocurrency to be a more realistic option. I bet more people know the current exchange of Bitcoin than know the spot price of silver or gold. Foreign currency and store certificates also seem like better candidates than precious metals.

  9. You can use ultrasound testing to measure the sound velocity of metals. Fine gold is 3240 m/s and tungsten is 5400 m/s.

  10. That's really cool. The one on their website was $500, so it's a bit pricey compared to the chemical test sets, but much more accurate. If I was a dealer/seller, I think I'd justify it.

    On the other hand, a quick search of eBay shows a bunch of meters that do the same thing - ultrasonic thickness testing - in a wide range of prices, including one that looks identical to the GT-Ultra. Usual disclaimer: I don't know nothing about this seller, never bought from, never sold to, I just used the eBay search feature a few times.