All posts by Jesse Kraft

Death of a Counterfeiter: A Reminder That All Aspects of Numismatics Are Subject to Fraud

Figure 1. Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio.
Figure 1. Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio.

Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio passed away in early July at the age of 78 (fig. 1). With a nickname like “The Coin,” one would think that most numismatists would have heard of him, though that’s likely not the case. As it turns out, Colavecchio might be considered one of the worst nightmares for a numismatist. He was a counterfeiter, and a good one too—the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest counterfeiter.” He had been released from Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina just weeks before he passed away in hospice care, suffering from a variety of medical conditions including dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension. Though sentenced to 15 months in prison for producing counterfeit $100 bills in August 2019, he had only served eight of those months. United States District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. agreed to free him on the time he had served in May, as a last gesture of compassion before his impending death.

This time, he was easy to prosecute. He had been bragging to an informant that he could effortlessly counterfeit $100 bills and was capable of besting even the latest security features. In December 2018, the Secret Service raided his home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and found presses able to produce counterfeit bills that accurately simulated the real deal (including their distinct reaction to ultraviolet light), as well as 2,400 counterfeit $100 bills. Having the damning conversations on recording, he had no choice but to plead guilty. But, this wasn’t the first time he was ever caught.

He earned the nickname “The Coin” from his ability to counterfeit nearly perfect slot-machine tokens for almost every casino in the country. Laboratories couldn’t even find any differences. His most notable arrest came in 1996 when he and his girlfriend were caught in Caesars Atlantic City with 800 pounds of fake tokens (fig. 2.).

Figure 2. Colavecchio and a set of counterfeit dies that he produced for $100 tokens for the Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.
Figure 2. Colavecchio and a set of counterfeit dies that he produced for $100 tokens for the Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.

It was the largest counterfeiting operation that had ever targeted an Atlantic City casino. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Meanwhile, he acted as a consultant for the federal government, having received $18,000 for explaining why his dies long outlasted those manufactured by the United States Mint. He was eventually banned from every casino in the country, but continued to gamble by wearing wigs and dressing as a woman. Authorities considered him an “old-time mobster.” Most of his exploits can be found in his 2015 autobiography, You Thought It Was More: Adventures of the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.

Figure 3. Note the different sized dots that surround the inscription “FOR USE BY PLAYER ONLY” on this genuine $1 gaming token from the Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.11.

While most numismatists identify counterfeiting with coins or paper currency, tokens and anything that had exchange value ran the risk of fraud. Unlike coins, casino tokens contain several types of anti-counterfeiting measures. These include dots that are of different sizes to separate words (fig. 3), a combination of dots and squares (fig. 4), letters that are intentionally filled in (fig. 5), or a set of tied reedings on the edges of tokens (fig. 6).

Figure 4. Note the large round dot and smaller square that surround the inscription “NOT LEGAL TENDER” on the reverse of this genuine $1 gaming token from Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.10.
Figure 4. Note the large round dot and smaller square that surround the inscription “NOT LEGAL TENDER” on the reverse of this genuine $1 gaming token from Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.10.
Figure 5. Note the filled in “O” in the inscription “TEN CENT GAMING TOKEN” on this genuine ten-cent gaming token from Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Courtesy Numista.com.
Figure 5. Note the filled in “O” in the inscription “TEN CENT GAMING TOKEN” on this genuine ten-cent gaming token from Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Courtesy Numista.com.
Figure 6. Note the set of reeding tied together to form one large reeding from the edge of this genuine $1 gaming token from The Claridge Hotel and Casino. Author’s collection.
Figure 6. Note the set of reeding tied together to form one large reeding from the edge of this genuine $1 gaming token from The Claridge Hotel and Casino. Author’s collection.

These would be known to casino employees, but not necessarily publicized in order to thwart counterfeiters. Today, the casinos no longer use metallic tokens, and most slot machines have replaced the use of tokens with printed vouchers that record the winnings which the player can redeem at the pay-out window.

As for Colavecchio, while those he cheated may not mourn his death, those who knew him are full of captivating stories—such as Andy Thibault, who befriended Colavecchio while working with him on his book and said, “I got to appreciate the good points. He was a lot of fun to be with.” A disarming, charming individual—and self-proclaimed “ladies’ man”—Rhode Island State Police Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell has said that “if he used the amount of ingenuity and knowledge he had for good, he could have been a millionaire and changed people’s lives.”

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

Today marks the 155th anniversary in the United States since the slaves of the South were officially emancipated. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War had ended and read the following statement:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

Even before this historic moment, the notion of breaking the chains of bondage had already graced itself on numismatic objects. In 1834, for example, engraver J. Davis of England created a silver medal that portrayed both a man while enslaved on the obverse with the famous inscription “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” This medal came nearly thirty years after the British had ended the slave trade, and nearly thirty years before the United States did the same. The abolitionist movement was still strong in England and this medal helped spread the message. As such, the exergue states “A VOICE FROM GREAT BRITAIN TO AMERICA” with the date of 1834. The reverse of the medal depicts a formerly-enslaved man as he broke free from bondage with the words “THIS IS THE LORDS DOING; IT IS MARVELLOUS IN OUR EYES,” a reference from the book of Psalm (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Silver, 44mm, 24.79 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 1987.122.24.

This same motif was used in the United States to help garner support for its own abolitionist movement. By 1837 and 1838, tokens that portrayed both enslaved men and women attempted to open the eyes of those were supportive or indifferent about the plights of slavery. These tokens are a part of a larger compendium of tokens from this period now known as Hard Times Tokens, most of which had nothing to do with slavery but with the economic plights caused by the Panic of 1837. Nonetheless, abolitionist causes were heard here as well, with one token portraying an enslaved woman and the inscription “AM I NOT A WOMAN & A SISTER?” (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Bronze, 28 mm, 10.44 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 0000.999.39313.

In the South, however, where this insidious institution continued to thrive and led to the American Civil War, slaves were portrayed differently. Few tokens portrayed slaves here, but they were featured on several types of paper currencies. More often than not, slaves on paper currency were not represented in chains and, most of the time, look happy. This was a deliberate attempt to placate anyone who contended with narrative that slaves were unhappy or treated poorly. On this 1861 one-dollar note from Georgia, for instance, enslaved individuals are seen picking and packing cotton with a smile on the face of one individual (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Paper, dated July 20, 1861. American Numismatic Society, ANS 0000.999.13514.

Even long after emancipation, slavery has been depicted both negatively and, for lack of a better word, passively. On this medal in the Brookgreen Gardens series issued by the Medallic Art Company, for instance, slaves are seen passively, yet diligently, working in what the artist chose to depict as mere “Plantation Life” (fig. 4). By depicting only women and children in front of individual dwellings with lush trees and animals grazing, the perils that too many people faced under slavery is diminished to “life,” a state that many would have objected to.

Figure 4: Bronze, 75 mm, 183.28 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 2001.15.1.

On a different note, a commemorative medallion issued by the National Commemorative Society and struck by the Franklin Mint in 1969 honored John B. Russwurm, who founded Freedom’s Journal in 1827 (fig. 5). Published in New York City, this was the first newspaper in the United States that was owned and operated by an African-American. The reverse of this piece depicts a former slave who recently broke free from his shackles reading the newspaper, along with the phrase “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.”

Figure 5: Silver, 38 mm, 26.26 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 1970.39.1.

While righteousness may have exalteth the United States on this day 155 years ago, the nation still has a long way to reconcile its slaveholding past. These numismatic tokens and medal serve as reminders to this, especially the fact that certain pieces issued more than a century after the end of slavery continued to present slaves as passive beings willing and content in their economic roles that they were forced to take. As is known, slaves aren’t slaves willingly, and this holiday signifies the emancipation of an entire group of people from their enforced bondage. On this Juneteenth, perhaps more than ever, the American Numismatic Society celebrates the end of the horrid institution of slavery in the United States.

Ground Control to . . . Abe Lincoln?!

Figure 1. The Curiosity rover with a magnified inset of the calibration panel with the 1909 VDB Lincoln cent. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
Figure 1. The Curiosity rover with a magnified inset of the calibration panel with the 1909 VDB Lincoln cent. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

In the most recent issue of the ANS Magazine, I wrote an article on the existence of bacterial life on the surface of coins and paper currency. The discovery of these microbial lifeforms in the second half of the nineteenth century truly helped to advance the understanding of Germ Theory. This was especially true amongst the masses, many of whom may not have otherwise had access to the experiments performed at the time if it weren’t reported in newspapers. They began to fear their money due to its circulatory nature and potential to get them sick.

On Mars, however, humans hope to find microbial lifeforms. Formed in 1993, the Mars Exploration Program is NASA’s attempt to find it. This long-term initiative has sent orbiters, landers, and rovers to the planet, with four different missions still in operation: 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory, and MAVEN (as well as four completed missions, two failed missions, and one mission planned for the future). The principal component of the Mars Science Laboratory is the Curiosity rover—a car-sized, 1-ton vehicle used to explore the climate, geology, and possibilities of life in the Gale crater of Mars, whether now or in the past. Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 26, 2011, it took 254 days to reach the Red Planet’s surface.

Just like with the advancement of Germ Theory in the nineteenth century, there is a coin helping to lead the way towards finding life on Mars. The primary method of analysis for Curiosity is through cameras, of which there are six different types for a total of 17. One of the 17 cameras is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which is located on the robotic arm of Curiosity. This camera, while it has long-distance focusing capabilities, is primarily used to take microscopic images of rock and soil with the hopes to find microbial evidence. It can produce images in true-color at a resolution of 1600 × 1200 pixels (now considered quite low) with the ability to focus to 14.5 micrometers per pixel.

Figure 2. The Martian 1909 VDB cent in action, as included by NASA in this photo released to the public. Without that coin in the image, most individuals would have no frame of reference as to the size of what was shown. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
Figure 2. The Martian 1909 VDB cent in action, as included by NASA in this photo released to the public. Without that coin in the image, most individuals would have no frame of reference as to the size of what was shown. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

On MAHLI, a 1909 VDB Lincoln cent is a part of its spatial calibration—a process necessary for both long-distance and up-close images (fig. 1). This provides a photographer, or MAHLI in this case, with a frame of reference to an object of known size. The Lincoln cent on board MAHLI is not essential to its calibration, which uses a more-precise ruler for the actual measurement through a series of black-and-white lines known as a scale bar. The 1909 VDB cent serves two key purposes, however. First, according to Ken Edgett (MAHLI Principal Investigator), it is a nod towards less-precise and “on the go” methods of spatial calibration used by early geologists on Earth, who often placed random coins into close-up photographs. Second, it serves as a calibration tool for the general public (fig. 2). While the scale bar gives scientists more-precise calibration details, this tool is still quite foreign to most people. The Lincoln cent, however, is one of the most ubiquitous objects on Earth. With hundreds of billions of these pennies having been produced, most individuals can instantly recognize them, know their general size, and can quickly grasp the size of another object placed next to one.

But, why a 1909 VDB cent? These coins are not necessarily rare, but there are many Lincoln cents from other dates that could have been easily acquired. According to Edgett, who considers himself an “amateur” collector, this coin was intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, as Curiosity was originally slated to launch in 2009. This, however, was delayed, and since the window to launch to Mars comes roughly once every 23 months, the mission had to wait until 2011. “When the launch was delayed,” Edgett said, I made a decision to stick with the historic 1909 cent rather than try to find a 1911 cent. Honestly, I think 1911 would have been more difficult to explain.” I concur. While I was initially unaware exactly why Edgett opted for the 1909 VDB cent, that date just made sense, whereas a 1911-dated cent would have required some investigation to correlate it with the date of the launch. Furthermore, a 2009- or 2011-dated coin could not have worked because of the zinc inner core that became standard for Lincoln cents midway through 1982. Zinc is known to sublimate in a vacuum environment (especially at higher temperatures) and cause short circuits. Regardless of the date chosen, and knowing that money from Earth is covered in bacteria, NASA made sure to sterilize this specimen before takeoff to ensure not to introduce Earthly microorganisms to Mars.

 

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Figure 3. The one-cent piece before it left Earth (top), coated in a thin layer of dust after 14 months on Mars (middle), and with a thick layer of dust after six years. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
Figure 3. The one-cent piece before it left Earth (top), coated in a thin layer of dust after 14 months on Mars (middle), and with a thick layer of dust after six years. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

The specimen that is currently (and probably forever will be) on the surface of Mars was one of four that Edgett purchased specifically for NASA. Two other 1909 VDB cents were used in testing the calibration panels at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and the fourth was kept for possible use in future missions. Initially intended to be a two-year mission, the Mars Science Laboratory has been extended indefinitely, and Curiosity has been roaming Mars for eight-and-a-half years with the coin bearing the likeness of Abraham Lincoln keeping its images sharp (fig. 3).

 

Judging the Gloucester 400 Medallion Competition

Figure 1. The winning design for the Gloucester 400 medal design competition: "Out at Sea" by Beth Swan. This will be struck in bronze and become the official Gloucester 400 medal.
Figure 1. The winning design for the Gloucester 400 medal design competition: “Out at Sea” by Beth Swan. This will be struck in bronze and become the official Gloucester 400 medal.

On Wednesday, February 12, 2020, I ventured to Gloucester, Massachusetts to participate as a judge in the Gloucester 400 project—a year-long celebration of city-wide event and festivities commemorating Gloucester’s founding in 1623. As a part of the celebrations, the Gloucester Celebrations Corporation held a two-phase competition to design a commemorative medal. Phase I of the competition allowed anyone over the age of 18 to submit an original sketch of the design that met multiple guidelines, including the inscription “Gloucester” and “400,” the dates “1623–2023,” and design elements appropriate for high-relief striking. Initial entries were due by August 31, 2019, from which three semi-finalists were picked on October 1. Semi-finalists included Alexis Chipperini, Beth Swan, and Shannon Wilkins, each of whom won a $3,000 prize.

Phase II had the three semi-finalists submit a plaster model of their design by December 1, 2019. To complete the process, medals-expert, Alexander Krapf, and I met at Cape Ann Savings Bank to judge the final phase of the competition (Fig. 2). After about 30 minutes of deliberation, Krapf and I decided on a winner: Beth Swan, a graphic/web media artist from Gloucester. Both of us decided that her design, entitled “Out at Sea,” best encapsulated the different aspects of Gloucester, met all of the guidelines outlined by the Gloucester Celebrations Corporation, and formed a completed and well-rounded design (Fig. 1). The obverse depicts the Gloucester skyline as seen from the harbor, a stylized codfish in the exergue below, and the inscriptions GLOUCESTER 400 and 1623–2023 above. The reverse shows the iconic Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, known as the “Man at the Wheel,” against a rising sun and three stylized ships.

Figure 2. Alexander Krapf and Jesse Kraft just after picking the winner for the Gloucester 400 medal design contest.
Figure 2. Alexander Krapf and Jesse Kraft just after picking the winner for the Gloucester 400 medal design contest.

At a Gloucester City Council meeting on February 25, the Gloucester Celebrations Corporation announced Swan as the winner, for which she won a $10,000 prize. Robert Gillis and Bruce Tobey gave background information about the competition before Ruth Pino had the honor to open the sealed envelope, which both Krapf and I signed the seal flap to ensure nobody opened it before the official unveiling. At this time, it was further announced that all three of the semi-finalist designs would be cast into the medallic form. The other two designs included “Call of the Storm,” by Alexis Chipperini, and “Gloucester: America’s Oldest Seaport,” by Shannon Wilkins (Fig. 3).

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Figure 3. The two semi-finalists from the Gloucester 400 design contest. Top: "Call of the Storm" by Alexis Chipperini. Bottom: "Gloucester: America's Oldest Seaport" by Shannon Wilkins. These will also be struck into medallic form.
Figure 3. The two semi-finalists from the Gloucester 400 design contest. Top: “Call of the Storm” by Alexis Chipperini. Bottom: “Gloucester: America’s Oldest Seaport” by Shannon Wilkins. These will also be struck into medallic form.

After the judging, I was given the opportunity to spend the evening at the Manship Artists Residency + Studios (MARS), known as Starfield, the former home and studio of sculptor Paul Manship, as well as artists John and Margaret Manship—located in Cape Ann just a few miles from where the judging took place (Fig. 4). This site once served as an important art colony for some of the greatest mid-century sculptors. This turned into a surreal experience for me. After a short tour of the residence, I was (quite literally) left alone in the house and was simply told to lock the door on the way out. Unfortunately, after a day of travelling and judging, there was only about an hour to explore the house before falling asleep to travel back to New York City early the next morning. I, however, look forward to when he can travel back to Gloucester and Cape Ann to better see the city and have a longer stay at MARS and highly recommends both to whomever has the opportunity to make the journey.

Figure 4. Aerial view of Manship Artists Residency + Studios (MARS).
Figure 4. Aerial view of Manship Artists Residency + Studios (MARS).

I would like to thank Robert Gillis and Ruth Pino for organizing the night of judging and Gloucester 400, as well as for hosting both Krapf and me; Bruce Tobey for further organization of the Gloucester 400 celebrations; Rebecca Reynolds, President of MARS, for graciously offering the Manship residence as accommodations after the event; and Alexander Krapf for also participating in judging the design competition.