I have certainly been asked this question enough times to stop and answer it again. After 20 years in this business I think I may have the chops. What is the question? How do I spot Fake Challenge coins/
When I look at challenge coins for sale, how do I know they are not fake?
First let me say that there are a whole lot of fake challenge coins out there. How do I know? I have seen fakes of coins that I have actually made for specific military units.
I am going to stop right here and say this in big letters:
WE DO NOT SELL INDIVIDUAL EXAMPLES OF COINS WE HAVE MADE FOR OTHERS AND NEVER WILL.
So why do some companies do it? Because they can make a bunch of money selling them on eBay of course. But who is the market for these coins? Well real collectors have to be up there on the list. I get calls fairly frequently from people asking me to appraise challenge coins. (I don’t by the way. Not my area of expertise.) They usually are considering selling the coins they have been presented to raise a little money or just cull the herd. So, having seen the outrageous prices that some (often fake) coins bring, they want to get a piece of the action. Ironically, the fakes out there can degrade or artificially boost the amount of money they may get for their genuine coins.
REAL, COMMEMORATIVE, GENERIC or FAKE COINS
Perhaps it would be good to define some terms at this point.
REAL MILITARY COINS
These are coins actually produced for a unit, individual or organization and handed out while on duty. Often these coins are paid for using government funds are are carefully passed out complying with strict rules. They frequently change with new commanders or command sergeants major so the simple fact that a there are multiple examples of coins does not mean that any one of them is necessarily fake. Fake challenge coins are another thing altogether.
REPRESENTATIVE MILITARY COINS
These are coins that have been produced by manufacturers for sale to individuals, to commemorate an event or a unit. They were produced for sale to the public and should be advertised clearly as what they are. A good example might be a coin to commemorate the fall of the Berlin wall. Old cold warriors might like to have something like that to remind themselves of their own service during the era. There are many commemorative military coins out there and they can be a fun keepsake. We do not do them as we concentrate on designing and manufacturing custom coins but these can be a good revenue stream for companies starting out.
GENERIC CHALLENGE COINS
There are quite a few companies making and selling these. They are designed for people who simply need a few coins to give to their friends of compatriots. A good example is the promotion coin. Perhaps a soldier earning promotion to staff sergeant may want some to give to his family and coworkers. You can spot them because they are generic. There is, for example, a coin struck for the 1st Armored Division on Amazon as we speak. The key to recognizing these is to note that they do not say, “PRESENTED BY THE COMMANDER” or “FOR EXCELLENCE” on them. You could almost think of them as replica coins. But a unit member might buy a few to give to mom and dad and brother and sister. There is nothing wrong with this as long as everyone knows what they are. Some of them have engraving blocks on them so the purchaser can put his/her name on them. Are they collectable? In my opinion, not really. Not unless there is some other special factor about them such as ones purchased by people who later became famous. (Or I guess imfamous.)
FAKE CHALLENGE COINS
Ok. You waited through the above to get to this. What is a fake challenge coin? It is one that was not produced for the actual military unit or individual and passed out by them. Simple as that. If you want to see some just go to eBay and look at coins represented as being from famous units. Seal Team Six for example. So many choices and who knows which one is real? Well the unit does. That is for sure. (I picked them for a good reason and you people who know why will be chuckling right now.) So let’s start there. If the coin you are looking at is from special operators, intelligence agencies and other famous organizations, be very careful before you fork over the money.
But that brings up the obvious question…How do I really tell? The short answer is that sometimes you can’t. If someone is bent on reproducing a coin from an actual sample it is not that hard to do. It is unethical as it can be but not hard. That aside. First and foremost is the source of the coin. I am not talking dealers. They can describe their credibility in any way they want. I am sure that many are quite reputable. But when you are buying from someone other than the person to whom the coin was actually presented, you are taking a leap of faith. Even then you have to trust the story you are told. But if that old Sergeant Major who is selling some at a yard sale tells you he got them on active duty that is a good place to start. You can also contact the unit from which the coin is said to come. (They may be able to help you but remember that they are not in the business of vetting your coin collection.) My recommendation is that if you get a coin from a former unit member, ask for a letter from them talking about the authenticity of the coin. It may seem like a lot of trouble but it could be worth it. You be the judge. Certainly before you plunk down a pretty-penny for a challenge coin, it would behoove you to do your homework. Or you may get stuck with just a pretty coin.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you want to collect challenge coins I am certainly not trying to discourage you. Indeed I think it is a great and easy hobby to get started in. Just remember this. Every current and retired soldier, sailor or marine can tell you stories about how they sat next to a guy in a bar who told them all about his service with some famous unit, all the while knowing that the individual was just blowing smoke. These guys love to pull out their “personal coin” to back up their story. They don’t care if it is a fake challenge coin. Do they? I even had a guy tell me all about how he served in Korea with a unit in I happened to be in. He told be all about the DMZ and scary missions and all that. You see the only minor flaw in his story was that I knew for certain knowledge (because remember I was in the unit at the time) that the unit was in Germany. Not Korea. He even had a good fake challenge coin to show me. This guy left LAX with his story intact. I did not bother to tell him he was full of….that is to say, sadly mistaken.
But really folks. Have fun collecting coins. They are beautiful and an important part of our country’s history. Just exercise a modicum of caution. Do a little research or just accept that you are buying a beautiful thing and admire it for that. Honoring those who served is never a bad thing.