Excerpt from "In The Mind of A Mountie" by T.M. 'Scotty' Gardiner

Chapter 44: The Case of the Doctored Coins

The criminal information notification circular was received in Winnipeg in early November 1959. It reported the Vancouver City Police had recently arrested two men named Pankowe and Romaniuk for the offence of 'doctoring' coins. While several rare coins were involved, two varieties in particular were doctored: Canadian 1921 fifty-cent pieces and Canadian 1936 'dot' pennies. I had never encountered doctored coins before. While holding no true numismatic interest I was curious about this offence. In particular my curiosity centred upon how the doctoring was done, and why the higher level of interest shown in these particular type of coinage. As there was a request for some investigation in Winnipeg, I volunteered and was given the assignment.

The circular's information explained that as a result of an investigation some weeks previously the Vancouver City Police had discovered a home-style laboratory being operated by the two men now held in custody. By a very sophisticated process several coins were being doctored to simulate the highly-prized, very rare and valuable ones. The men's specific interest shown in the 1921 fifty-cent pieces appeared to be caused by value -- in 1959 such a coin when in 'mint' condition was priced about five thousand dollars! The 'dot' 1936 penny was believed to be of even greater value.

It was reported that even to the skilled eye the doctored coins appeared genuine. There were indications several such coins had already been sold. Having learned of the doctoring process the Vancouver City Police had subjected some coins to an examination in the Vancouver City Police laboratory. By chemical process which penetrated the dipped, outer-coat seal which had been expertly applied to the coins, and then by applying an acidic solution, the Vancouver investigators confirmed the second number '1' in the 1921 fifty-cent pieces' date and the 'dot' on the 1936 pennies had been meticulously sweated (soldered) onto the coin. With this fixative metal dissolved, the '1' and the 'dot' could be removed. This left evidence that the last digit of the original number on the fifty-cent pieces had been expertly shaved off and then replaced with the substitute number '1'. With the 1936 pennies a similar process was used but without any need for shaving, only the 'dot' had been added.

Of note was the method used to doctor the 1921 fifty-cent pieces. Unique to the reverse side of the coin were the style of numbers used for the date and the design of the maple leaf wreath. These changed for the years 1922 through 1928. The 1921 numerical style and wreath design were again used for the years 1929, 1931, 1932, 1934 and 1936. To capture the unique design of the 1921 coin it was necessary to use a 'victim' coin from one of those years for the doctoring. It had to be back-dated. To reduce the extent of the process it was believed coins of the 1929 year minting were preferred, with the other years' mintings (i.e. 1931, l932, l934 and l936) supplying the required number '1s'.

The requirement for numismatic sale value was that the coin be in the best possible condition. Having selected the coin to be doctored, say for example one of 1929 minting, the second number '9' was expertly shaved off. Then the number '1' was selected from a 1929 (if it were of poor numismatic value), 1931, 1932, 1934 or 1936 coin. It was shaved off and then affixed to the former position of the second number '9' on the 1929 coin. The 1929 coin, its wreath already identical to the wreath design on the 1921 mintings and now doctored to date as a 1921 minting, was skilfully dip-coated, completely concealing the shaving and affixing processes. Thus was produced a coin with the appearance of a genuine, much-sought-after 1921 Canadian fifty-cent piece.

What prompted the request for investigation in Winnipeg was the Vancouver City Police had determined that immediately preceding their locating the laboratory, seizing its contents and arresting its two operators, a courier had left Vancouver by air for Montreal, transporting with him eight fifty-cent pieces, each dated 1921. Assistance from Montreal City Police had recovered seven of those eight coins. When examined in the Vancouver City Police laboratory all seven coins were proven to have been doctored. The suspicion was that the eighth coin was also a doctored one. From the Montreal City Police investigation it was determined the eighth coin had been couriered to Winnipeg. While that eighth coin was not required as essential evidence, determining any facts about the courier, the purchaser or of the coin itself were of interest to the overall investigation.

Commencing my inquiries, I learned the reason for the high numismatic values placed upon genuine 1921 Canadian fifty-cent pieces -- it was their rarity. In the years immediately prior to the 1921 minting, distribution took place later and later each year. This pushed back the release date for the 1921 coins well into the fall of 1921 by which time the first 1922 coins had been minted and were ready for release. The release of the 1922 coins therefore went ahead and the uncirculated 1921 coins were simply melted down. It is understood that less than one hundred (sometimes the figure was put as low as seventy-five) of the genuine 1921 coins were salvaged from the melting pot and released, this giving rise to the high price collectors are prepared to pay for them.

With the 1936 'dot' pennies, the circumstances were different. A 'dot' designates a coin minted with the engraving of the head of the previous reigning monarch but released before the engraving and minting of coins with a new monarch's head are complete. The 1936 'dot' pennies bear the head of King George V. While a few coins were so minted, the engraving and minting with the King George VI head were completed sooner than expected. Those pennies minted with the King George V head and 'dot' identification mark were therefore not required. Before being released, they were melted down. Numismatic journals indicate that as few as four genuine 1936 'dot' pennies exist, they being the proof samples that were spared from the melting down process. This creates their incalculable numismatic value.

Equipped with this information I planned my investigation. First I met with the Winnipeg City Police Detectives and arranged that any information they may gather from any inquiries made by them would be sent immediately to me. I then embarked upon my own work, planning to conduct inquiries with the five major coin businesses then operating in Winnipeg.

At the first business I learned there had been written requests for Canadian fifty-cent coins from the John Romaniuk Coin Shop in Vancouver. A quantity had been sold to ¬Romaniuk but then several were returned with the comment 'they were not in good enough condition.' No information was known about any recent appearance, sale or purchase of a 1921 Canadian fifty-cent coin in Winnipeg.

At the second shop again there was correspondence about Canadian fifty-cent coins but this time it was from Mr. Pankowe using a Vancouver address. In an order for several coins there was a specific request for 1929 Canadian fifty-cent pieces and some had been sold to him. I noted the significance of the specific request for 1929 Canadian fifty-cent coins. Furthermore, the proprietor of this particular store did know of information circulating in Winnipeg that about two months previously, a 1921 Canadian fifty-cent coin was offered for sale in an advertisement by the Peg Coin Shop on Selkirk Avenue. It was said that one party had examined the coin, considered it had been cleaned but would be graded as 'fine to very fine' because it had a minute 'nick' on its rim. The advertisement claimed the coin would 'realize more than eighteen hundred dollars' and offers were invited. A local offer of $1,600.00 was reported to have been rejected. This proprietor learned through his own numismatic contacts in the Vancouver area that the coin in Winnipeg 'could be a fake' so he took no further interest in it.

My next inquiry was at the Peg Coin Shop. The proprietor was fully cooperative. On September 1st, an unknown party entered the store and offered to sell one Canadian fifty-cent coin. The agreed-to price was $700.00. One week later the coin was resold for $1,700.00 to a local coin collector, a Mr. Bill Fowler whose address and occupation were recorded.

The rarity of the coin caused the Peg Coin Shop proprietor to have a legal bill of sale completed when he purchased it -- the first time he had ever done so! Furthermore, this proprietor had no reasonable explanation for the view that suspicion should have surrounded the seller's relatively-low asking price for such a coin had it been authentic.

A Winnipeg rooming-house address had been given by the seller of the coin and the shop proprietor remembered the seller's vague physical description. Inquiries at the address given achieved no success: neither the name or the physical description were known to the landlord. That phase of the investigation came to an end.

It was on November 26th, 1959 when I met with Winnipeg City Police Detective Sandy Bond and we went to interview Mr. Fowler. Mr. Fowler was fully cooperative. He readily explained his interest in coin collecting and that he was influenced into buying the coin when the proprietor of the Peg Coin Shop led him to believe it was genuine because it was registered with the government. [No such registering takes place and it was subsequently confirmed this particular coin was never registered anywhere.] To assist with my investigation, Mr. Fowler temporarily closed his small grocery store business and led Sandy and me across the street to his bank where he withdrew the fifty-cent coin from his safety deposit box.

Now standing in that bank I faced a dilemma. No offence had been committed by Mr. Fowler. There was a possible offence on the part of the Peg Coin Shop first for the misrepresentation which influenced Mr. Fowler to purchase the coin and second, if it could be proven the coin was sold knowing it was a doctored coin. Likewise, there may have been an offence by the courier but his identity was unknown. Normally under such circumstances the item central to the investigation would be seized and held as evidence until all uncertainties were clarified. Here again, however, I faced a real difficulty to identify this one coin.

For identification of seized articles the preferable method which is universally accepted by the Courts is for the seizing investigator to place his/her initials and the date of seizure on the item. But this was still a questionable coin -- suspicious but still questionable. What happens, I thought, if on the outside chance this coin is a genuine one? The thought came quickly to me: if this coin is genuine and worth something up to five thousand dollars in its apparent fine-to-very-fine condition, scratching my TMG initials and the date of seizure on it would quickly reduce the value of the coin to a mere fifty cents! And that would give Mr. Fowler a valid claim for the coin's full numismatic value. To apply a secondary but still acceptable method, placing the coin in a plastic bag and then sealing and initialling the bag, produced its own difficulties because of the potential challenge that the coin had been replaced. And finally, Mr. Fowler had been decidedly open, cooperative and forthright.

"Mr. Fowler," I said. "We have reason to believe this is a doctored coin..." and I related all reasons for that belief. "All the other suspect coins including the seven that accompanied the one you purchased have been examined at the Vancouver City Police laboratory and all have proven to be fakes. I would like to have this coin examined in the same way."

"That's fine, Constable," Mr. Fowler replied, "but if I turn the coin over to you and it is tested in a police examination and found to be genuine, will you pay me the full numismatic value of the coin?"

I saw a smile cross over Sandy Bond's face.

"You have a good point there, Mr. Fowler," I said, stalling for time to assess my ¬position.

Looking into the customer area of the bank, I noticed the clock was at 4:30 p.m. and that a bank employee stood at the main door with the door key in hand. Seizing the opportunity to keep the coin in safekeeping -- even from the cooperative Mr. Fowler himself -- I said, "Mr. Fowler, I see the bank is closing. Will you return your coin to your safety deposit box? I will get instructions from Crown Counsel about possible compensation for you if the coin should be damaged and it is found to be genuine. Can we meet at your store first thing tomorrow morning?"

"That suits me," came Mr. Fowler's reply.

Sandy and I watched as he placed the coin back into the security of the safety deposit box. Mr. Fowler, Sandy and I left the bank as the bank doors were locked behind us. Mr. Fowler walked across to his store as Sandy and I drove off in our respective cars, safe with the knowledge the coin was secure within the locked branch of the Bank of Montreal.

I drove directly to meet with the senior Crown Counsel, Gordon Pilkey. Strangely, information about this unique fifty-cent piece had received some publicity. As I explained the facts I had, and specifically the aspects of identifying this coin if it were seized and compensation for it if its numismatic value was damaged during any police examination, Mr. Pilkey remarked, "Scotty, the Deputy Attorney General has an interest in coins and he has already spoken to me briefly about this fifty-cent piece. Let us go to see him right now before he leaves for the day."

Only on rare occasions was an investigator privileged to have direct discussion with Mr. Orville Kaye, the Deputy Attorney General, a very highly respected legal authority. Mr. Kaye listened intently to me.

When I was finished he spoke, "Don't mark the coin, Scotty. Sealing it in a plastic bag is the only way to identify it if it must be seized. But where is the public interest in prosecuting anyone in Manitoba when really all that has happened is that Mr. Fowler has paid $1,700 for what appears to be a fifty-cent piece? I hesitate to speak on the point of compensation but I have a suggestion. The strongest microscope in Manitoba is in the science department at the University. Arrange for Mr. Fowler and his coin to go with you to the University, put the coin under that high-powered microscope and see if you can find evidence of doctoring. If there is evidence, Mr. Fowler may be convinced and we can determine what should be done then."

Gordon and I agreed. Arrangements were completed to meet at the University early the following morning.

Mr. Fowler, his coin and I arrived at the University's science department first thing next morning. We were met by the senior professor whom Mr. Kaye had named. I explained the Deputy Attorney General's suggestion, emphasizing for importance the name of Mr. Kaye and the phrase 'most powerful microscope in Manitoba.' At that the professor laughed.

"Did Orville Kaye tell you that?" he chuckled, indicating a personal friendship existed between the two. "Now Orville should know better. The most powerful microscope in Manitoba is not here, it is in Dr. Don Penner's pathology laboratory at the Winnipeg General Hospital. If it is the most powerful microscope you want, drive over and see Don Penner."

Having emphasized the need for and value of the 'most powerful' microscope, I was obliged to thank the professor and take my leave. With Mr. Fowler and his fifty-cent coin in tow, I drove to the General Hospital hoping to meet with the renowned Provincial Pathologist.

Good fortune was with me. As we approached the glass door leading to Dr. Penner's laboratory, I could see him in his customary position, cloaked in his white laboratory smock and peering intently into a microscope obviously examining some specimen of great interest to him. My entry followed the usual pattern: my light knock on the door which drew his attention, his arm wave beckoning me into his office, my salutation, "I didn't want to interrupt--" and his standard interjected reply, "--Scotty, you already have!"

I introduced Mr. Fowler and explained the reason for calling upon him. Now up to this time I had known Dr. Penner as the highly-respected Provincial Pathologist. I knew of his intense interest in the human anatomy but I had absolutely no knowledge about his private life or his hobbies. How quickly this changed. The moment my explanation reached the point of wishing to examine under the most powerful microscope in Manitoba a fifty-cent coin that was suspected of having been doctored, Dr. Penner swung open the doors to another of his worlds.

"Splendid, Scotty, splendid. That's a great idea," he said in a gleeful tone.

Excitedly swinging around on his swivel chair he swept the top of his examination desk clean of the array of specimens, dishes, capsules and paraphernalia used in his pathology examinations. Repositioning his microscope on his desk and quoting its magnification capabilities at a pace so quickly that I could not follow the technical terms, I could only conclude they certainly sounded impressive. (My notebook entry converted the technical terms to a 500x magnification capability.)

"This is exciting, Scotty. Now first we must do a test. I have a strong interest in old coins but I never thought to view them under magnification. Look, I have a bagful of old coins here that came from my father's estate," pointing to the floor beneath his examination desk.

With the microscope and lighting carefully positioned the Doctor prepared the test. Taking a dime from his pocket he gently positioned it under the microscope with the date facing upwards. Peering into the microscope he patiently adjusted the focus. Suddenly he stopped, a faint but approving smile came across his face. "Ah... there... Scotty, take a look at that -- it will give you an idea of this instrument's magnification capabilities."

I replaced the Doctor in his chair. Slowly but with determination I lowered my eyes into the eye-pieces of the microscope. What I saw was something akin to a mountain-top ridge, pinnacles here and there, craters in between, the roughest surface imaginable.

"What do you think, Scotty?" came Dr. Penner's question.

"Dr. Penner, I don't know what I think because I don't know what I'm looking at!"

Dr. Penner continued, "I have the microscope focused on the number one in the dime's date. Now use this control and move the focus over and you will see when it comes to the perpendicular edge of the date's number one."

The edge of the number '1' of the date on a dime! That was indeed one powerful ¬microscope.

Following Dr. Penner's directives I moved the focus left and right until I found the edges of the tiny number. There was no question that the magnification was there, but it was so strong the surface of the dime appeared to have 'points' or 'pinnacles' as sharp as the point of a seamstress' sewing needle.

Our experiment with the dime completed, Mr. Fowler then placed his fifty-cent coin under the microscope lens. Dr. Penner did the focusing and I asked if he would do the first examination, our thought being that we may see a flaw somewhere in the coin's coating to suggest or confirm doctoring had been done. Applying the same mental concentration he did with all his pathological examinations, Dr. Penner went over and over that fifty-cent coin. Eventually he looked up.

"Scotty, it's your turn. I cannot see anything to indicate any doctoring has been done."

For the second time I lowered myself into the Doctor's examining chair and peered into the microscope. Now if the surface of the dime looked rough, the surface of that fifty-cent piece looked ten times rougher. Craters appeared everywhere from which I drew a mental comparison with newspaper photographs I had seen of the surface of the moon. Under that magnification the points and pinnacles appeared to be so sharp I felt that if I touched them they would act like a pin-prick and draw blood. Over and over I searched both sides of that coin seeking signs that the '1' had been fraudulently affixed, or that the dip coat surfacing may not have solidified evenly, possibly leaving a hair-line ridge. Eventually I too had to admit I could not find any flaw -- this being the same results experienced by the Vancouver City Police laboratory staff until an acidic liquid was applied. Taking his turn at the examination table, Mr. Fowler came to the same no-flaw-visible conclusion. He repeated his position that he would submit his coin to any type of testing where there was a guarantee no damage would be done to its numismatic value.

Wiser but no further ahead in the quest to gain evidence, Mr. Fowler with his coin and I left Dr. Penner to examine under his microscope some of his inherited old coins from the bag below his desk. Again Mr. Fowler replaced his coin in the safety deposit box and again I went back to Crown Counsel Gordon Pilkey. As before we went directly before the Deputy Attorney General. Breaking into periodic smiles as I related the account of my visits to the professor at the University and to Dr. Penner's microscope, Mr. Kaye shook his head as I finished my explanations.

"Gordon," he started, "this investigation can stop. As it appears now, Mr. Fowler has a fifty-cent piece for which he paid $1,700. Scotty, here is what you will do. Go to Mr. Fowler and explain clearly that we suspect he possesses a doctored coin. If he sells the coin as a genuine one and the new owner allows it to be examined and it proves to be a doctored one, Mr. Fowler may be charged with fraud."

To give the Deputy Attorney General's instruction I drove directly to see Mr. Fowler in his little grocery store. In clear terms I relayed Mr. Kaye's directive, ensuring he understood that it came from the Deputy Attorney General and not simply from myself. I made a suitable entry in my notebook.

Mr. Fowler smiled. "That's fine, Scotty," he said. "I'll just keep my coin and who knows, all this may one day be forgotten. Thank you, it's been nice knowing you."

I never heard of Mr. Fowler or his coin again, but if ever I see or learn of a headline or news release that reports the sale around Winnipeg of a 1921 Canadian fifty-cent piece in fine-to-very-fine condition with a nick on its edge, more than Dr. Penner's powerful microscope will come to mind.

Note: in 2007 the numismatic value of a 1921 Canadian fifty-cent piece was placed at a low of $40,000 or, if in very-fine-to-mint condition, up to $300,000. The numismatic value of the 1936 'dot' penny remains incalculable. One has recently surfaced, though it is in poor condition. The authenticating body for numismatic coins will not authenticate this coin -- its status, genuine or fake, remains unknown.

 

Copyright 2010, T.M. Gardiner

Read an excerpt: Chapter 51: Murder - Trunk - Beausejour.

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