Don't let bias about China fraud get in the way of a good buy

Peter Kammerer says while a coin collector must beware of fakes, it pays to look past one's prejudice, not least about China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 5:35am

Here's a tale of online auctions that's more about prejudice than buying stuff. As previously related, I've taken to collecting coins through the site eBay. It's a tricky business, as all things of value are faked and small discs are especially prone. Where internet sales are concerned, it's particularly challenging as what's on offer is often shown in an unprofessional photo and there is no face-to-face contact with the seller to get a sense of whether they can be trusted.

I have been warned by veteran collectors not to buy anything of value through such sites as the risk of being cheated is high. Convenience and selection says otherwise, though: With a keyboard and screen, a world of coins dating back to the dawn of currency can be browsed and, if the price is right, bought. So it was, then, several months ago that I chanced upon an especially visually appealing item, a large, silver, dragon-infested coin from Korea. A little detective work found it to be rare and worth at least US$1,500.

I'm sure I wasn't the only one to have noticed it; the coin is highly sought by collectors. Yet there it was, minutes before bidding ended, without anyone showing interest, still at the opening price of US$129. The reason: the seller was in mainland China. As with everything else, China is famed for making fake coins. Mainland sellers also have a reputation for bogus accounts, not honouring purchases and sending different items to those bought.

Yet I still felt a sense of trust. My reasoning went: Korea is next to China; younger generations find what older ones leave behind and don't realise its value; and why shouldn't mainland Chinese have the same online selling and buying rights as everyone else? Besides, there are fraudsters in every society.

I was the only one to bid. Winners are supposed to be pumped up and proud, but I felt strangely deflated; I fully expected to be cheated. Yet within days, the coin arrived. It proved to be the exact size and weight of the genuine article. Dealers I have taken it to believe it to be real; one even offered US$800. The final proof, though, lies in US-based grading companies, which take a scientific approach to verification that isn't possible with the naked eye.

Many online auction sites have taken a tough stand on fraudulent sellers to maintain reputations and are on the lookout for items that appear dodgy. The coin community plainly remains sceptical, though; as my example proves, even when there are major bragging rights to be had, China is seen only as being full of cheats and frauds. I don't suggest that collectors now head en masse to the internet to snap up those unsold rarities from China. World Intellectual Property Day last Friday was a reminder that the nation still has a great deal to do before its international obligations can be met.

But it is also wrong to single out China and believe that online sales from elsewhere are less fraught with risk; collectibles are about acquiring and there is no set price as to their value. The desire to possess can sometimes get in the way of common sense and there are people everywhere ready to exploit that. We shouldn't judge a book by its cover, although it is also wise to research properly before picking it up lest we waste time and money.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post