Along with checking weight and dimensions, one of the most basic evaluations of a coin or bullion piece is examining the visual details.  Counterfeits mimic the designs of legitimate coins and recognizable bullion brands, but they are usually imperfect copies with tell-tale differences.  The only tool potentially required for a visual comparison is a magnification loupe, though many differences are visible with the naked eye.  You also need a reference piece for comparison, either a known genuine example in hand, or a resource like the Fake Bullion Database which provides detailed scans and photos.

One area to check is the blank background or "field" surrounding the main design on a coin or bar.  Modern counterfeits tend to have perfectly even proof-like field finishes that contrast highly with matte-finished raised designs, where genuine mass-produced bullion items more commonly have matte or burnished finishes and less contrast between the background and design. This is due to the difference in manufacturing processes.  To produce genuine bullion items, mints roll silver or gold into strips, use a punch press to punch blanks out of the strips, anneal and wash the blanks, and usually tumble or burnish the blanks before striking them with a set of coining dies.  This results in a fairly consistent surface finish across the entire piece, which usually has some light texture.  Some contrast can be developed between the main design and the field by applying different surface finishes to different areas of the coining dies, by striking the piece multiple times, and by striking at very high pressures, but these extra efforts are usually reserved for higher end collectible coins.  Counterfeit coins and bars are produced by striking the pieces in a cheaper metal like brass, then electroplating a thin layer of silver or gold over it.  The plating process results in a very even and reflective finish, proof-like and sometimes almost mirror-like, that is less common on generic bullion items.

Counterfeiters copy genuine designs either by re-drawing the artwork from photos of genuine pieces, or by scanning a genuine sample with a laser measuring device and using computer software to turn the data into a three-dimensional model.  Either way some fine details are often lost or are replicated crudely.  Simple designs, such as flat logos and lettering, can be replicated quite easily, but complicated three-dimensional designs are more difficult to reproduce accurately.  Human and animal figures often appear somewhat cartoonish on counterfeit pieces, and textures may be omitted or reproduced with less detail.

Many early counterfeit bars were made with a much smaller corner radius than genuine bars, making the corners "sharper" or more rectangular.  This difference is quite obvious and a tell-tale giveaway that the bar is fake.  However, the counterfeiters have fixed this flaw on newer fakes, and have even issued revised versions of some of the early fakes with a larger corner radius that more closely matches the genuine bars.

Early (middle) and updated (right) counterfeit Silvertowne bars next to a genuine (left) Silvertowne bar.

Packaging can play a big role in identifying fake bullion.  Certain types of packaging are a dead giveaway that the contents are fake, but others very closely resemble the real deal and can make additional testing difficult for prospective buyers.  In the event an item is packaged, and especially when the item cannot be removed from the packaging (such as examining an item that is for sale), it is important to examine the packaging just as closely as the metal piece itself.

Examples of counterfeits in various types of packaging.

Many counterfeit bars and rounds ship from China in individual plastic capsules.  Most counterfeits are made slightly larger and/or thicker than genuine pieces to achieve the correct weight using less dense base metals, and packaging the fakes in capsules can help hide this.  However, the capsule can also be an indicator that the item within is fake.  The Chinese plastic cases tend to be thicker than the name-brand capsules most collectors are familiar with.  This is especially evident with one ounce bars, where the cases have a distinct "chunky" appearance with sharp corners.  The material is often more brittle, exhibiting hairline cracks around the rim, and is sometimes slightly cloudy.  For both bars and rounds the capsule is often ill-fitting, allowing the piece to rattle from side-to-side, and with rounds one side of the capsule will sometimes have a larger outside diameter than the other.

"Chunky" capsules commonly included with counterfeit bars and rounds.

Bars and coins are sometimes packaged in plastic sheets.  There are several legitimate variations of such packaging and it is most commonly used for bars.  Several brands use the same style packaging, where bars are packaged in thermoformed sheets in a two row by five column configuration, sometimes with multiple sheets left attached to each other.  The bars are contained in individual pockets with the extra material between each pocket fully heat sealed to itself.  The seal lines are usually smooth, not serrated or crimped, although some older styles did leave a serrated border around each pocket.

An example of older style genuine sheet packaging.

Current production Johnson-Matthey bars are packed in large sheets of 20, which are commonly cut down to sheets of 10 for shipping.  The current packaging is smooth with no serrations or crimps, and large flat sealed spaces between the bars.

An example of the current genuine Johnson-Matthey sheet packaging.

Some counterfeiters are approximating this packaging by sealing fake bars in plastic strips, but there are notable differences.  The counterfeit packaging is typically in single-row strips instead of sheets, the pockets are sealed with a thin seal line only around the edges and do not have the large flat sealed areas between bars like the above genuine sheets, and the strip is usually flat along one edge with small inlets from rounded corners on the other.

Counterfeit Johnson-Matthey bars packaged in plastic strips.

Some counterfeit bars are also arriving in sheets.  These are a closer match to the genuine packaging than the strips, but similarly to the strips, they are sealed with single thin seal lines between the bars instead of the wide sealed areas visible on the genuine sheet packaging.

Counterfeit Johnson-Matthey bars in sheet packaging.

Counterfeit Johnson-Matthey bars in sheet packaging.

Counterfeiters are now packaging some fake gold and silver bars in very convincing assay cards.  Early counterfeit assay cards had obvious flaws.  The were constructed of cardboard inserts and crimped plastic shells where the genuine cards were fully bonded layers of plastic.  However, the latest generation of counterfeit assay cards mimics the genuine construction very closely.  Some versions have printing errors, but those could easily be corrected in the future.  Currently the most practical way to test bars in sealed assay cards without opening the packaging is by using a Precious Metal Verifier.

Examples of counterfeit bars in assay cards.

Counterfeiters are always refining their fakes and many modern counterfeits are best identified through the use of objective testing methods.  But when a counterfeit has notable visual flaws, you may be able to identify it with just some background knowledge and a keen eye.

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