Badly-milled edges reveal three fakes, with a genuine article to show them up

The Pound In Your Pocket…

28th February 2009

…may not be all it seems. Phil Wall explains.

If the BBC is to be believed, the pound coin could soon become one of the shortest-lived pieces of currency in modern British history. They recently reported that around two per cent of pound coins now in circulation are fake. They went on to say that this figure might represent a critical mass that stops the public trusting the coin to the extent that it has to be withdrawn from use and reissued in a new design. They cited the case of the South African 5 Rand piece, reissued in 2004 when public confidence in it had disappeared. Independent investigation found that the forgery level was one in 50, the same as the claimed level for pound coins now.

I must say I’m dubious about all this. I don’t doubt that there are fake pound coins around, because occasionally I come across one. But one in 50? It seems unlikely, given that I’ve collected the princely sum of five over several years. And I do tend to look closely at coins, since I started my working life behind the counter of a high street bank.

The pound coin was introduced in 1983, with a statement from Mrs Thatcher’s government that they had no intention of getting rid of the popular pound note. A year later they stopped printing pound notes, and in 1988 they were withdrawn from circulation. The public gradually got used to the coin, perhaps helped by the novelty of the design on the reverse changing year by year. The original 1983 coin featured the royal coat of arms, with lion and unicorn rampant, and the following years had a Scottish thistle, Welsh leek, flax plant (representing the Northern Irish linen industry) and English oak. Since then a further ten designs have been used, with all but the recent ‘bridges’ series and one other being repeated. With 15 designs in 25 years there can’t be many people who can remember them all, and that would seem to play into the hands of forgers. Virtually any design might be genuine – who can tell? Coins from British territories such as Gibraltar and the Channel Islands also mingle with our own and are rarely spotted because of the variety in use.

Some forgeries are easily spotted, being made of painted lead, which soon peels, or from alloys that are obviously the wrong colour. These are usually quickly removed from circulation. Most, however, are made from a copper alloy that’s a fairly close match to the real thing. If it survives a cursory glance, then the best way to detect a forgery is to look at the edge of the coin. It’s relatively easy to stamp a design on the faces (albeit one that is not usually as ‘clean’ as the real thing) but harder to mill and inscribe the edge. Genuine coins have a clean, clearly defined typeface that will be distinct around the whole circumference. Many fakes have edges with writing that can barely be read. The pound coin is also the only piece of modern British currency with a mint mark – a small cross on the edge that represents the town of Llantrisant, where the Royal Mint has been based since the decimal currency was first manufactured in 1968. The ‘crosslet’ is very difficult for forgers to get right, and is usually very indistinct compared to the real thing.

On genuine coins, the front and back are always aligned: hold a pound with the Queen’s head upright and spin it round, and the reverse should also be upright. Another give-away is a coin with, for example, a Welsh dragon or Scottish thistle on the reverse, but the ‘English’ motto Decus Et Tutamen (An Ornament And A Safeguard) around the outside. Welsh designs are always edged with Pleidiol Wyf I’m Gwlad (True Am I To My Country, from the Welsh national anthem), while Scottish versions have Nemo Me Impune Lacessit (No One Provokes Me With Impunity). Criminals don’t always seem to bother too much with this detail, or indeed with matching a specific design with the years it was issued. No doubt their preference is to copy whichever examples they think are easiest to pass off. If you’re still not sure, try using a suspect coin in a vending machine – most fakes aren’t made with the required accuracy of shape and weight to be accepted.

Although passing a forged coin is actually as illegal as making one, perhaps the main obstacle to removing counterfeit coins from circulation is that people don’t really care very much. If they even notice they have a possible fake, most will just hand it to the next shopkeeper they visit. Shops will give them back out or pay them into a bank – and these days banks use automated counting machines, so the cashiers don’t even handle coins and notes as we used to in my younger days. There’s little chance of busy bank staff noticing a misfit coin in a bag they probably won’t open – so how likely is it that a tolerably realistic fake will be taken out of circulation? And with the country slipping into recession, traders who receive large numbers of coins are hardly likely to reduce their takings by handing in any forgeries they spot.

I do think the Bank of England is rather playing into the hands of forgers. Not only do the numerous varieties of pound coin cause confusion, but when the current portrait of the Queen was introduced in 1998, the writing on the obverse (heads) side was made larger and thus easier to read even on a poor copy. The 2004-2007 series featuring bridges do not even have writing around the edge, making do with two interlinked lines. It’s a bit early for many forgeries of these to turn up – criminals prefer to copy slightly older examples as their efforts tend to look worn anyway and don’t have anything like the brilliant shine of the newly minted genuine item. If the current size and shape of the pound coin remains in circulation, though, I do predict a large number of ‘bridge’ forgeries appearing in about five years’ time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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