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Fakes Produced by the Electroplating Process
published in: "The Journal of the Orders and Medals Society of America", volume 51, number 4, pages 30-32, and received the OMSA Literary Medal 2001.

The collecting and study of orders, decorations, and medals is an interdisciplinary enterprise that requires some knowledge of history, art and numismatics pertaining to fakes is especially important. Some fakes are easy to spot, but others are so deceptive only an expert on the award in question can see through the fraud. Among the most deceptive fakes are those produced by the electroplating process; however, these fakes can often be detected by collectors who have no particular award expertise but do know how they were made. 

Illustrated are the first and second issues of the Nassau Life-Saving Medal. The first issue was awarded on 13 February 1843 by Nassau’s Duke Adolph. This silver medal, which is 30mm in diameter, was designed by Christian Zollmann.  Is It was not meant to be worn. On the obverse is a large profile head of a young Duke Adolph facing the right, and encircling the profile is the inscription ADOLPH HERZOG ZU NASSAU in raised letters. The reverse is plain except for the inscription FUR/RETTUNG/AUS/LEBENSGEFHR (literally, “For Rescue Out of Life-Threatening Danger”) in the bottom. A total of 54 first-issue medals were struck and awarded. 

1st model avers 1st model reverse

In 1865, 30 silver life-saving medals of a new design and also 30mm in diameter we struck. The 1843 reverse was retained, but the obverse now featured the profile of an older looking Duke Adolph facing to the left, and the name of the die sinker, “KORN,” was added at the base of the profile in small raided letters. Moreover, the new design incorporated a suspension device and solid red ribbon so that the medal could be worn. Only 5 of the second issue were awarded, and the remaining 25 medals were melted down in late 1866. 

Thus both issues, and in particular the second issue, are extremely rare and highly prized by collectors of the awards of the German states. Small wonder then that someone took the effort to make the illustrated second issue, which is a fake produced by electroplating. 

2nd model avers 2nd model revers

Before closely examining this fake, it is first necessary to briefly describe the electroplating process. The principle was discovered by Faraday in 1833, and the process was patented in England in 1840. The purpose of electroplating is to transfer and bind the atoms of one metal to the surface of another metal or to the surface of an object coated with a conductive material. Electroplating requires a DC power supply, often a battery, a chemical bath called the “electrolyte,” and an “anode” or positive pole at one end of the bath and a “cathode” or negative pole at the opposite end. When the anode is connected to the positive pole of the power supply and the cathode to the negative pole of the supply, electrons stream from the metal of the anode to the cathode. This stream is part of the electrical current that flows from the positive pole of the power supply to the anode, through the electrolyte to the cathode, and then from the cathode to the negative pole of the power supply, thus completing the circuit. Electricity is merely a stream of electrons through a conductor, which can be either a metal wire or the chemicals in a plating bath. 

The shedding of electrons from the anode simultaneously produces positively charged atoms or “ions” of the metal of the anode.  The ions are attracted or pulled to an excess of electrons gathering at the cathode. These ions bind with free elections at the cathode producing neutral atoms of the metal that attach to the cathode to form the plate. It is important to note that the source of the plating metal need not be the anode. Electroplating is often accomplished by using a no reactive anode, such as platinum, and an electrolyte containing a salt of the plating metal. The chemistry is the same except that the source of the plating metal is the electrolyte instead of the anode. Of course, the chemical reaction is the electroplating process is more complicated that suggested by my simple explanation, and a number of important technical aspects must be considered, such as the duration of the process and the composition of the electrolyte, to achieve the desired consistency and thickness of the plate.  

The first step in producing a fake medal by electroplating is to make an obverse and reverse mold of the original. Early molds were made using a mixture of bee’s wax and graphite, but today nearly prefect molds can be achieved with the silicone rubber compounds that are sued to make dental impressions. After the mold is make, the inside is covered with a conductible material, such as graphite, and then the mold is attached to the cathode in an electrolyte bath that has a copper anode.  When current is applied, a thin copper plate or shell forms on the inside of the mold. Once the obverse and reverse shells are make, the inside of the shells are filled with a soft metal and the two halves are soldered together. Copper is initially used because it is less expensive than sliver, is easy to plate, and has an extremely durable surface. Later silver is electroplated to the assembled copper shells.  Silver plating usually involves the use of a no reactive anode and an electrolyte containing silver dissolved in nitric acid or a cyanide solution. 

Electroplated fakes are typically very difficult but not impossible to detect. The detail can be perfect, and the surfaces are as smooth as the original, unlike cast fakes which typically have porous surfaces.  In addition, a filler can be used inside the shell that gives the fake the same weight as the original. Nonetheless, the process itself provides knowledgeable collectors with certain indicators that can be used to determine whether or not a particular medal has been produced by electroplating. Consistent application of the following four indicators should greatly aid collectors in avoiding the misery brought by the purchase of one of these clever fakes: 

First and foremost, it must be remembered that the fake was not make as one piece but consists instead of two halves that were soldered together. This means that despite the best efforts of the counterfeiter to polish out he solder seam, a portion of the tell-tale seam almost always appears on the edge of the medal. That portion of the seam visible on the edge of the fake second-issue Nassau Life-Saving Medal is shown in the enlargement below.

Secondly, the fake “sounds” different.  Lead is often used to fill the inside of the fake, and sometimes antimony is added to the lead to give the fake the same weight as the original. However, when tapped by a hard object, the fake with its lead filler sounds, “dead” compared to a solid silver piece, which has a clear metallic sound. 

Thirdly, collectors should carefully examine the medal for areas where the silver plate has worn off and the copper plate underneath shows through. Simply put, medals struck in solid silver can’t have signs of copper.

 Finally, one must also carefully look at the medal’s detail. A fake produced by electroplating can have flawless detail, but this in not always the case because the surface of the fake is only as good as the surface of the mold. Very often, there are tiny deficiencies in the mold that appear in the final product. In the next enlargement, several problems are evident in the letters of the die sinker’s name on the obverse of the fake second-issue Nassau Life-Saving Medal.

makers mark

Fakes produced by electroplating are much harder to detect than cast fakes, and counterfeiters have been greatly aided by a lack of knowledge by both dealers and collectors of the electroplating process and its indicators. To make matters worse, electroplated fakes are appearing in the market in increasing numbers. I remember from my days as a young collector in Germany that German World War I aviation badges were almost impossible to find. The originals are still hard to find in Germany, but what is new is that since the late 1980’s electroplated fakes can be seen wherever awards are sold. The tide can only be stemmed though education, and that is the intention on this article.

© A. Schulze Ising, VII/00

© 2005