Authentic and counterfeit gold coins side by side

All that Glitters: The Scourge of Bullion and Numismatic Counterfeits

A recent story that broke in Ottawa caused significant ripples in the public interest, but only scratched the surface on a problem that has been plaguing our industry and hobby for the past few years. See the article here on the CBC website.

In this case, a jeweller in downtown Ottawa visited his nearby Royal Bank branch and purchased a purported one-ounce gold wafer manufactured by the Royal Canadian Mint. Upon beginning to process the bar for use in his jewellery-crafting, however, the piece was quickly revealed to be counterfeit. In other words, neither an authentic Royal Canadian Mint product nor an item with any actual gold content.

There is no debating the importance of this story to casual investors and the bullion/numismatic industry at large, however – as is often the case when the press chews down on a juicy news-bone – the key points to be taken became diluted and misdirected.

First and foremost, the issue of counterfeit bullion is not a new story. Indeed, a search of the CBC’s own online archives reveals several references to counterfeit gold (both bars and jewellery) being peddled to inexperienced purchasers in the Canadian market over the past few years. Further, in one of the most glaring examples of the experts themselves being duped, gold-dealers in Midtown New York found themselves victims in 2012 of a rash of fraudulent 10-ounce gold bars, each with a then-value of almost $20,000. Even with their experience and intuitive understanding of the material, complacency led to a failure in standard due-diligence, with somewhat devastating financial results. Indeed, as gold-refiner and trader Ibrahim Fadl reflected in the aftermath of his $80,000 loss, “I and the others on the street work off trust; now that trust is strained”. Thus, this is not a new concern to present-day consumers, as further evidenced by the ongoing offering of outright counterfeit Royal Canadian Mint gold bars on websites such as wish.com, referred to as “replicas” and sold at correspondingly cheap prices. In fact, this very point causes me to take significant issue with perhaps the most erroneous statement to come out of this most recent press coverage, namely the Mint’s assertion that “counterfeiting of the Royal Canadian Mint’s gold bullion is very rare”. We will return to this point, however.

The involvement of the Royal Canadian Mint (or lack thereof) in this current fake gold scandal brings me to my second observation of CBC’s coverage. Although the Mint and I don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to their Numismatic policies, having to listen to them steadfastly deny any responsibility for Royal Bank’s counterfeit sale made me cringe. To say they had nothing to do with this singular issue is simply a given. Certainly, to ask them the question is fair game in journalistic due-diligence, but once answered, it really is time to move on to the more pertinent facts and concerns.

Yes, the RCM was somewhat on the hot-seat as it was their product, trade-mark and reputation being abused here, but make no mistake – counterfeit products do not, and simply never will originate from within the walls of their venerable Sussex drive institution. Quite aside from their stellar international reputation, this is a business where security protocol requires both staff and management on the refining side of the plant to exit in sock feet at the end of their work-day, so that even their shoes can be separately x-rayed. Not-withstanding a crafty employee’s recent rectal smuggling campaign, the design, production and distribution of counterfeit gold bars at the Mint with either tacit or covert approval could simply never happen. Thus, to continue to look in their direction on this is an unproductive red herring.

Understandably they are feeling the intense pressure at the optics of having their name bandied around in the press. In the third of three interviews I did for CBC on the story, I met a news crew on a dark Sussex Street corner in the rain, just a few paces from the Mint’s main gate. I had not been there for two minutes when the door of the guard-house popped open, and a trench coat with an umbrella walked over to see me. It was the Mint’s director of communications, and – like myself – he wasn’t entirely clear what the CBC was doing on their doorstep in the early evening. We chatted briefly, and it was clear he was just looking for reassurance that we weren’t there on a Mint-bashing exercise. I clarified my own position (that I was steadfastly in their corner), although he did make one comment on the seemingly limited concern he had for those counterfeit RCM numismatic (i.e. “collector”) coins being sold online from overseas that were described and priced as “Replicas”. In reality, our dealer association feels these coins are every bit as damaging to the integrity of our hobby as are counterfeit gold bullion products, and I will return to this point shortly.

Perhaps obscured in CBC’s focus on the Mint and the perceived “new” threat of counterfeit gold, however, are the two most fundamentally pressing questions:

What was Royal Bank doing selling precious metals across the counter, and what are they doing purchasing gold bullion from the public, both of these activities evidently without the prerequisite product knowledge that the bullion business demands? Let me expand on both of these issues.

Banks & Bullion

Firstly, it has been years (even decades) since the chartered banks in Canada were active retail bullion traders. Back “in the day”, I remember walking to my local TD branch in Westboro and ordering a ten-ounce bar of silver. I would pay the fee, and some days later a brand-new TD bar would arrive for pickup. This was similar with most banks. Most especially, Scotiabank was so active in the precious-metal business in the 1970s and later, that you could even purchase older European gold coinage from them of all sizes and varieties. And this makes perfect sense. After all, in a trading business so dependent on secure facilities and abundant operating cash, who better to make a market for themselves in precious-metals than the banks? Over the past decade or so this has changed considerably, however, with most banks abandoning the retail trade of metals entirely. Even Scotiabank, who continues to maintain (I believe) a visible bullion counter at their main Ottawa branch, appears far less interested in dealing in metals and has become quite uncompetitive, making even the selling to them of products originally purchased there quite difficult. The product-knowledge seems to have evaporated at the front-line level, with Scotiabank usually requiring the “sending of coins/bars to head office for verification” before consummating a purchase from the public.

Thus, on the one hand, it came as both a surprise and significant concern to our Canadian Association of Numismatic Dealers that the Royal Bank was suddenly re-entering the bullion business. And I hasten to clarify this is not in the least an issue of concern for competition, but rather – as the core issue of this story hammers home in spades – an issue of product knowledge and, most critically, consumer protection and confidence.

The question, ultimately, is both a simple and important one. Where did this counterfeit bar come from? As we know definitively that it did not originate from the Mint at any time or in any scenario, it could only have come from a front-line, across-the-counter purchase from the public (assuming we eliminate the legitimate possibility of an internal “switcheroo” by staff). For numerous reasons, including some already highlighted above, this prompts some significant ethical and procedural questions. For a chartered bank to be purchasing precious-metals directly from the public in this way is fairly unprecedented in recent times. The controls put in place to manage inventory have to be effective, and most important of all, the product knowledge has to be rock-solid. The current police investigation into this particular incident will certainly shed light on the former; on the produce-knowledge side, we already have our verdict. As a bullion dealer myself, I have little tolerance or sympathy for Royal on this one. On numerous levels this crappy bar should never have made it past first review, and certainly never, ever have been sold to the public as authentic. Any dealer worth their weight should have had concerns on encountering this bar. True, this particular piece (as with most newer RCM Bars) was sealed in a plastic holder, making the rudimentary test of weighing the piece ineffective. As I demonstrated on CBC television, however, the simple $1,200 electrical conductivity tester we keep in our gallery would have permitted the successful scanning of the piece through the plastic, without having to necessarily compromise the integrity of the holder. Every recognized fineness of silver and gold gives off a different footprint, and – while nothing is a 100% replacement for experience and product knowledge – a ten-second scanning of this piece at the point of Bank purchase (and indeed, at point of sale) would have definitively identified the piece as counterfeit. There is no grey area here. True, the net dollars at risk here were fairly small potatoes (certainly in the eyes of Royal Bank), and the customer was promptly refunded his money. The irony is, however, that this particular purchaser was a working jeweller, rather than the typical casual investor. He was, therefore, the “one in a thousand” that would have immediate need to breakdown his gold purchase for crafting use, and hence almost immediately be able to identify the piece as fraudulent. How many other purchasers would simply have added the piece to the contents of their safety-deposit-boxes, perhaps not to be revisited for years or even decades? For this happenstance we are particularly fortunate.

Counterfeiting is not modern

The most important irony in all of this, and hence the source of our industry’s most acute concern? Fraudulent and counterfeit gold and silver have plagued our economy for hundreds if not thousands of years, and therefore – as stressed above – is far from being a modern threat. As a result, the stock answer we, and past generations of bullion dealers have given when asked how one can have confidence in their purchase and minimize risk is very straight-forward: always buy from reputable sources! If not the manufacturers themselves (where possible), then established bullion/coin dealers of good reputation, or the Chartered Banks.

And therein lays both my main point as well as the fundamental issue with this incident and resulting news coverage. It is not the $1,600 potentially lost by the duped consumer, nor the fantasy of our national Mint possibly manufacturing counterfeit gold bars, and not even the possible petty internal theft of a teller gone rogue. What threatens to come out of this is a seismic shock-wave to public confidence, and it is in the interest of neutralizing this that all stops have to be pulled out to resolve this “Royal Bank incident”. For this I am quite appreciative of the CBC’s extensive coverage, were it only able to focus on the true core-issues at hand here. Believe it or not, I was asked point-blank on live CBC television during that Sussex Drive interview if my advice was for people to stop buying gold. I am a micro-player in the precious-metals market who of course presented the common-sense response to that question, but just imagine: had I instead, for whatever reason, chosen to use that 30-second soap-box to launch a calm tirade on the profound risks involved in purchasing physical gold, the possible and immediate impact on at least our local bullion industry might well have been more than immaterial.

Thus is the power of public perception and confidence, and in turn, the critical importance of the integrity of the retail precious-metals business.

Counterfeit Commemorative Coins

In closing, I want to briefly return to the parallel scourge of counterfeit commemorative coins being massed-produced in China. Being offered as “replicas” at a fraction of corresponding Royal Canadian Mint issue prices, there are literally hundreds of different coins entering our market, often within just weeks of official RCM launches in Canada. While I suspect it is just a brave face during this overwhelming assault on both the Mint’s propriety designs and the potential “after-market” pocket-books of collectors, I take significant issue with their communication director’s position that they are not especially concerned with these items being sold as “replicas”, rather than as purported originals. This not only makes absolutely no sense to me from a business-perspective (after all, a dollar spent on this fraudulent crap is a dollar not spent with either the Mint or their distributors, such as ourselves), but the Mint is also dead wrong if they believe no concrete harm comes to our collecting community as a result of these replicas.

Never was this more evident to me than a couple weeks back, when a young collector came to the shop with a three-piece set of the earliest Superman coins in silver and gold. We had pre-negotiated over the telephone to purchase them for $1,200, however when presented to me, I had to break the news that they were clearly counterfeit, and effectively worthless. I have no sense that the seller was trying to defraud me – the Chinese producers had chosen to make the gold coin the same diameter as the silver (or about 3 times normal size!). However the quality was good, and the collector clearly lacked the skills to tell fine silver/gold from precious-metal plated. The kid remained composed and didn’t share with me the context of how he acquired the coins, but my gut told me he had been duped. He had done his basic research, and was probably conned into spending $200 or $300 on the set thinking he had scored, only to become one of the scorned who might possibly never spend another dollar on numismatic coins.

And indeed, it is not only the unenlightened who always gets defrauded by these replicas. I remember one bizarre incident a couple years back where I thought we had discovered a unique variety of one of the coloured base-metal “bird” twenty-five cent coins. It was a current issue, and our example had a distinct raised ring around the outside rim on the bird side of the piece, which was not present on the actual issued piece as depicted on the leading website of a good dealer colleague. This continued to stump us until we made a surprising discovery – the piece depicted on the website was actually a Chinese-made counterfeit, and hence the piece I had in hand was the normal issued piece! With no malice or intent to deceive involved, our colleagues – with their busy dealership and numerous staff – had simply had the piece enter their inventory at one point, and then make its way through the several steps involved in getting it scanned and posted, without being detected. The quality was that good, and the possibility of perpetuating accidental fraud thus that easy.

Our entire industry and fraternal hobby is united in our position concerning Canadian coin “replicas”, in that they are bad news all the way. In addition to being outright assaults on the proprietary design copyrights of the Royal Canadian Mint, the opportunities for fraud and deceit as outlined above far outweigh any possible argument for permitting such items to be sold. Additionally, every single “replica” of a legal-tender Canadian coin that is not clearly marked “copy” remains illegal to both possess and trade; as overworked as they are on this front, both Canadian Border Services and the RCMP therefore have both a right and a mandate to seize these coins when encountered.

I invite all our readers, customers and colleagues to help us maintain a legitimate and safe collecting environment by outright rejecting these counterfeit coins. And, finally, on the subject of precious-metal investing, all that glitters is certainly not gold (or silver, for that matter), and the rules are simple:

Know what you are buying, and buy from a trusted source!

End of rant – happy collecting!

Sean Isaacs

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