University City

Heads-up and tales from coin authenticator

A pair of men with a stack of old coins sat across a long table facing Randy Campbell, his jeweler's magnifying glass to his eye, his lamp's white-hot bulb flicked on.

The men leaned forward in their chairs. They fidgeted with their hands. They talked sports and politics, anything to ease the suspense of what Campbell might tell them.

Among the 152 tables at the Charlotte Coin Club's 42nd Annual Coin Show at Metrolina Tradeshow Expo, Campbell's never stood empty.

A senior grader for ICG, a third-party coin authenticating company, Campbell is one of the few who can spot a fake quickly. All he needs are his eyes, a magnifying lens and a bright light.

"I'd love to take your money," he told them, "but I do have a conscience." Like the air rushing out of a balloon, the men sagged back in their chairs.

It turned out the value of the coin in the hot seat wasn't worth the $9 cost to certify it, something Campbell's company would do.

Instead of the rare coin the men hoped it would be, Campbell put its value around 50 cents.

"Had it been a scarce double-die, it could have been worth several hundred dollars," he said.

In the 51 years Campbell has studied coins, he has never seen so many fakes.

"At a show like this I'll see thousands and thousands of coins," he said. "Unfortunately, several hundred, on average, will be counterfeit."

The counterfeiters have become more advanced, he said, and the collectors are still falling for a lot of the same old tricks.

"We had two gentlemen come here today who had stacks of coins. Every one was a counterfeit they bought at a flea market," he said. "One guy I'm sure was out several thousand dollars."

If he could pass along just one piece of advice, it would be to stay away from flea-market coin dealers.

"Most collectors who are really smart buy from someone they already know," he said.

"They don't buy from strangers."

Campbell's interest in coins started when he moved from Canada to the United States.

"When I came to America, I was 7 years old," he said. "I studied everything I could about the coinage of my new country."

Today, he travels with his wife - coincidentally, her name is Penny - to coin shows all over the United States. Last year, they set up a table at 30 different events.

Although Campbell doesn't always tell coin collectors what they want to hear, the chairs on the other side of his table never are empty.

A fake collector

"I came straight to this table first," said Bill Malinowski, a retired FBI agent from Columbia. With a grin, he slid two coins across the table to Campbell.

"Watch his expertise on these two right here," he whispered to the man who had taken the chair beside him.

Malinowski started collecting coins as a paperboy in the 1960s. Unlike most collectors, he seeks out counterfeits and otherwise altered coins for his collection.

"These two are bad coins," said Campbell, after judging them under his light.

"I know. I bought them as such," said Malinowski. "I love the fakes. To me they're unique on their own."