Button Fakes, or the Art of Counterfeiting Coins
As long as there has been currency, there has been counterfeiting. When I set out to create a villainous underground for my work-in-progress forgery attracted my attention. The temptation to manufacture money is great indeed. Still, as crimes go I always thought it took more effort to be a successful counterfeiter than a bank robber or highwayman. It requires a fairly complex operation. Perhaps part of the lure, however, lies with the low probability of violence and the ease of recruiting accomplices.
Counterfeiting is not now and never has been a victim-less crime. Unauthorized coins devalue real money, bring on inflation due to an artificial increase in the money supply, and cause losses for individuals and banks stuck with them when they are uncovered. Nations have even used counterfeit money as a weapon of war to debase the enemy’s money supply and create instability. As long as there have been forgers there have been governments seeking to stop them.
Governments have always aggressively prosecuted forgers. Kings have been known to debase—and therefore devalue—their own currency to enrich their treasury, but they never tolerated others doing so. In Great Britain the Counterfeiting Coin Act of 1741 declared the counterfeiting of silver, copper or brass coins to be high treason. Since the punishment for that was death, we might assume that counterfeiters faced dire consequences indeed if caught. A similar act in 1791 extended the provisions to half pennies and farthings. The Forgery Act of 1830 specifically excluded coins from its provisions, letting older statutes stand.
In researching my current work I discovered that coin counterfeiting or button-fakery as it was known at one time, has been around since the first coins appeared in Greater Greece around 600 BC. It has been called the world’s second oldest profession.
Forgers use roughly the same tools and techniques as official mints. Historically there have been two primary ways of making coins and three main ways of counterfeiting them.
When the primary method of coin production involved pouring molten metal into molds, counterfeiters would duplicate official coins using a mixture of base metal and silver or gold. There were single coin and more efficient multiple molds for coin production. The quality of the fakes depended on the quality of the mold and the degree to which the precious metals were diluted.
The more common method, in use from very early times, involved striking a design into a blank piece of metal from a die on which a design had been carved. Done first with a hammer to pound the design from a die onto the blank, techniques eventually evolved into the use of a screw press, to more elaborate screw type and milling presses that could strike blanks with both top and bottom dies, to mechanized versions. The technique used today is highly mechanized but essentially the same.
Blanks for striking coins are made from sheets of metal. Just as with molded coinage, base metal could be mixed with precious metals to create the sheets. However, coins might also be struck entirely of base metal and then plated with precious metal. This technique is called fourée. Again, the quality of the fake depended on the quality of the die and techniques used to plate it.
The third, cruder, technique is debasement or decreasing the amount of precious metal in a coin. Gold and silver are very soft. In eras in which legal coins were made entirely of those metals, a certain amount of natural wear and tear slowly eroded the weight (and value) of the coins. It was fairly easy to skim or clip coins to remove—and reuse—some of the gold or silver. A subtler technique involved shaking bags of coins and retrieving the gold or silver dust that created.
Techniques for inhibiting counterfeiting evolved in parallel with the techniques of the criminals. The more elaborate the art work on the coin, the harder it is to fake. The more complex the design, the harder it is for counterfeiters to avoid mistakes. Designs or words were added to the edges of coins to make them even harder to duplicate. Milled coins, those produced by machine sometimes have what is called a milled or raised edge created my machines designed for that effect. Modern coins generally use less precious metal, employing harder metals more difficult to debase and combining them using techniques difficult to duplicate.
Present day circulating coins may not appear to have sufficient value to be worth the effort, but you might be surprised. The European Union, which relies on coinage for its smaller denomination currency, removed over 164,000 counterfeit coins, most of the 1 or 2 Euro denominations, from circulation in 2006 alone. In the US there are periodic calls to eliminate the $1 bill in favor of coins. Whenever they are issued, Americans are slow to use $1 coins, and experts worry they would be easy to counterfeit.
High value collectors’ items are still tempting targets for forgers. Rather like faking great art, faking ancient or historic coins can be lucrative. Any high value coin is subject to counterfeiting by altering genuine coins to make them look like related coins that are more rare and have higher. A common example is altering the mint-mark on an actual coin to make it appear to have more numismatic value. Other coins are outright fabrication. Among the more interesting fakes are the 1923-D and 1930-D U.S. mercury dimes. They are a mystery because, while they turn up among collectors and once turned up in circulation, no such coins were ever minted by the U.S. It has been suggested that at one time the Soviet Union was dumping its silver through counterfeit coins but their origin is, as we said, a mystery.
Governments no longer hang draw and quarter counterfeiters, but they don’t tolerate it either. Still, coin collectors are well advised to be careful.
If you want to learn more, visit the Philadelphia Mint, which is a half hour by train from my house. The tour is free and well worth a trip if you want to see modern coin production. They also have a fascinating historical exhibit. I recommend it highly.
Caroline Warfield is currently writing a historical romance set in Canada and England in 1832 involving some truly villainous counterfeiters. For more about Caroline and her work, see
For methods of making and counterfeiting coins:
“Counterfeiting Coins” in the exhibit Funny Money: The Fight of the US Secret Service Against Counterfeit Money by The American Numismatic Society: nd; retrieved Feb. 24, 2016; http://numismatics.org/Exhibits/FunnyMoney1a
“Minting in Ancient Times;” Fleur de Coin: Your Online Guide to Coin Collecting; nd; retrieved Feb. 24, 2016; http://www.fleur-de-coin.com/articles/ancient-minting
For modern day counterfeiting:
Collins, Paul; Do You Know What James K. Polk Looks Like?; Slate; February 27, 2011; retrieved Feb. 24, 2016; http://www.slate.com/articles/business/cashless_society/2012/02/the_chester_a_arthur_1_coin_and_the_scary_threat_of_coin_counterfeiting_.html
“Euro Coin Counterfeiting in 2006;” European Commission Press Release Database; retrieved Feb. 24, 2016 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-07-19_en.htm?locale=en
For more on the “Soviet” dimes:
Lange, David W.; “Counterfeit and Altered Coins;” DLRC Press, reprinted on David Lawrence Rare & Certified Coins; retrieved Feb. 24, 2016; https://www.davidlawrence.com/books/the-complete-guide-to-mercury-dimes/chapter-4/counterfeit-and-altered-coins/