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In FMA, transmuting gold is against the law. However, I don't get this - How does the state know when people transmute something (e.g. bread into gold)?.

There's nothing to stop someone from transmuting bread into a gold coin, walking into a store and then going on their merry way out as if nothing happened, because there's absolutely no way to know that it was bread to start off with. (Please correct me if I'm wrong. I haven't been watching the anime in a while and have only started re-watching again).

So, how will/how does the state know when someone has transmuted something into gold? How do they deal with this? e.g. imprisonment, fines etc.

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All transmuted objects have a distinct pattern. I bet if you looked closely, even crushed and smoothed pieces of gold could give out their true nature. I suppose, if you melted it though it wouldn't be a problem, but then again maybe the chemical composition would be off, like too high purity. –  Hakase Jul 4 at 6:35
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I think this would be related to the Silver Content in coins mentioned in Spice and Wolf, transmuted gold wont have the same "purity" as real gold because of the other elements in it, valuers would probably notice something is off at first and would get State Alchemists (or even just Alchemists hired by the State) to analyze it, however i don't know of the exact punishments –  Memor-X Jul 4 at 6:39
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to further @user1306322 comment, in Brotherhood Ed noticed when a wall had been transmuted to conceal an entrance while whenever we see large stuff transmuted there's like a plated pattern on them (Walls, Leeto's Fist) –  Memor-X Jul 4 at 6:41
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Also, your Bread to Gold example is a poor one, like Ed's Gold Coal that Youki received from him as an "unrelated gift", turning bread to gold will probably just be gold looking bread, it'll probably be much, much softer and an easy give away when handled, given Alchemy is give and take an object similar in density to gold would be better –  Memor-X Jul 4 at 6:45
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Chances are alchemy allows to separate any composites into distinct materials, and so "dissolving" a real golden coin and a fake one would probably show the differences. Then again, what stands in the way of an experienced coin forger alchemist to create a fake coin with the same impurities as the real coins have? –  Hakase Jul 4 at 7:00

2 Answers 2

Short Answer
Becoming rich isn't exactly subtle, and Locard's exchange principle suggests that there's always some way to get to the truth in matters like this.

Long answer
Let's be clear about something: This isn't Harry Potter, the state doesn't know when a transmutation is performed.* Mustang was sent to find Edward because they had heard about his abilities by word of mouth.

There is no surefire way to know whether or not an alchemist has created gold. While it is possible for them to do so, you'd find that any mechanism they had for catching said alchemists would be similar to the real-world practice of insider trading or counterfeiting.

In counterfeiting, there are telltale signs of illegal bills. In alchemy, transmutation marks are often left by alchemists as the science is not really a perfect one. As @looper mentioned, you could melt the gold, but then you'd still need equipment to put it back into bars or some tradable form. Alchemists aren't blacksmiths.

That said, there's exceptions. Consider Major Armstrong, whose alchemy is one of the most refined around, such that he leaves no transmutation marks on his average transmutation. Say he manufactures a few gold bars and sells them to pay for some under-the-table deals he made. The state would have no way of catching him—there is nothing that sets his gold apart from real gold, and they probably wouldn't even know about the deal to begin with.

However, say he starts doing it regularly. He upgrades his car, his house (even though he already has a mansion, go figure), wears a brand new watch, and so on. This is likely the point when the state would start to question where he acquired such funds (especially knowing his salary). In this case, he could be "audited" (assuming such a practice exists in-universe) and he'd likely be caught.

*Now, there is a point I have not addressed:

Because, in Brotherhood, Father regulates all alchemical exchanges in Amestris, it's possible he'd have some way to look in on this. However, I highly doubt that, even though he essentially owns the state military and thusly all of Amestris, he'd care whatsoever about gold entering the country's economy illegally.

This answer probably got a bit more "real" than you expected, but I think that's just the truth. It's the same with their "creating humans" rule; they'd have no way to know you did it until you did something to make it clear.

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+1. The state has no infallible way of knowing if an alchemist is creating gold, but by outlawing the practice, they discourage people from attempting it. In the FMA world, criminal investigations work the old-fashioned way. –  Torisuda Jul 13 at 16:48

In the 2003 anime, it seems impossible to transmutate something to gold (without the philosophers stone of course), because Ed coats gold on the coal instead of transmuting the coal directly.

If the alchemist is good enough, it's impossible to find out whether the gold was transmuted from something else. If he tries to make "perfect" gold, he will be noticed because there's no pure gold, so he just needs to think about the correct composition.
In the case that there are any marks on the gold, he can simply melt it (although I believe that a skilled alchemist can avoid that because not all transmutations in the anime show such marks).

The only way to notice is when the alchemist tries to circulate the gold. If the market is flooded by cheap gold, you will notice it. Also, there is no "alarm" when someone transmutes gold, or otherwise Ed would have serious problems :D.

As to how the alchemist are punished: All I know is that they will be tried in Central City (Source: It was mentioned that Shou Tucker will be sent there for transmuting humans). Or they will be ignored if it was too minor or is helpful (look at the Elric-Brothers: It's known that they tried to revive their mother but they are still state-alchemists).

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