Beautifying Your Financial Picture

Numismatics: 3 Weird Ways Crooks are Doctoring Your Coins

by Darryl Nguyen

As a coin enthusiast, you probably know that altering the surfaces of old coins is frowned upon by coin grading agencies, and you've likely taught yourself how to recognize a coin that has been chemically altered. Chemicals aren't the only way dishonest individuals are trying to make coins look to be in better conditions than they actually are, though. Read on to learn about three weird ways crooks are cleaning up coins, and how to spot them.

Nose Grease

The two creases on each side of your nose (where it meets your face) are among the oiliest parts of your body. If you give these spots a quick squeeze, you can actually harvest a small supply of white, waxy lubricant. What in the world does this have to do with old coins? Nose grease can actually be used to fill in tiny scratches on old coins. Dishonest individuals sometimes use this technique to trick members of the numismatic community into thinking a coin is of a higher grade than it actually is. 

So how do you tell if somebody has been wiping nose grease all over a coin you're eyeing? If the coin has been sitting for some time and the oils have had a chance to react with the metal, you'll likely notice that the surface has a splotchy appearance or a bit of brown discoloration. If you don't see any brown spots or discoloration on a coin you're eyeing, pick it up and give it a smell. Sebum will absorb odor while metal will not; if the coin gives off any type of peculiar scent (cooking oil. perfume, gas or any smell at all) there is a good chance it's had the nose grease treatment.


Ketchup works wonders for cleaning old brass and copper because the natural oils in it chemically react with the patina created when metals oxidizes. Ketchup is such a great metal cleaner, in fact, that heating a coin in it for roughly 10 minutes will remove much of the discoloration that is characteristic of old, oxidized coins.

So what's the problem? Coins are most valuable in their original condition. A shiny coin is great, so long as that shine comes from being properly stored for the duration of the coin's existence. The second something is done to that coin to restore its surface by artificial means, the value of the coin decreases. Coins that have been cleaned (with ketchup or by any other means) usually take on certain color and reflectivity patterns, and experts can detect these patterns. If you buy a super shiny coin that has been cleaned with ketchup and you submit it to a professional coin grading service, that coin is going to receive a lower grade than it would have if it had never been cleaned at all.

How do you know if a coin has been subjected to the ketchup treatment? Consider whether or not the condition of the coin is too good to be true. If you're looking at an ancient coin and that coin is glistening as if it were just minted, then it was probably baked in ketchup, or soaked in similar substance meant to wear away the patina.

Cigarette Smoke

When silver reacts with sulfur, it creates a film. This film naturally occurs on old silver coins, and coin enthusiasts find it appealing because it refracts light and creates beautiful color changes and luster. However, those looking to sell coins for more than they are worth will try to artificially create this film by blowing a boatload of cigarette smoke at coins. While this will leave a film on the coin, it won't add any value to it. 

Coins that have been smoke-treated are often easy to detect because they will feel slightly sticky or tacky. If they've been freshly smoked, they'll also carry the characteristic cigarette odor.

Dishonest individuals who specialize in coin alterations will do all kinds of crazy things to make a coin seem more valuable than it actually is. Know how to spot the above three coin fraud tricks, and always buy your coins from a trusted dealer who offers certificates of authenticity at times of purchase.

If you have any other questions about ancient coins or what other characteristics you should look for, consider contacting a specialist, such as Harlan J. Berk, LTD.