Chapter 3 Grading is not a four letter word
There is no way we can have a discussion of coin collecting without eventually getting to the subject of grading. The reason a coin’s grade is so important is that the coin’s grade is the key factor in determining the coin’s value but not the only factor. Technically the grade all by itself indicates the amount of wear the coin has experienced after the planchet was struck by the dies and became a coin. Sometime in the 19th century the production of coins became highly mechanized and exacting production standards were implemented and achieved resulting in almost every coin of a given denomination coming out of a major mint being identical to all other coins of that denomination. But in the early 1800’s and going back to the first coins struck at a mint there was no nice and neat uniformity in coins of the same denomination produced at a given mint. There were many reasons for this with the obvious reasons being as follows:
1 - Each pair of dies were either totally or partially hand cut (thus no true uniformity in the dies);
2 – Differences in the pressure used to produce the coin;
3 – Varying planchet dimensions including non-uniform thickness across the same planchet;
4 – The planchet was not parallel to both dies or both dies were not parallel to the planchet;
5 – The hammer and anvil dies would wear out at different rates resulting in a used die (but not totally worn out die) being matched with a new die being combined and the appearance of one side of a coin having more wear than the other. Let us be serious here, you have to admit that the grade XF/VF has to be one of the stupidest concepts ever devised in grading coins. Coins are small and totally randomly handled and could someone please tell me how in the act of commerce a coin could experience more wear to one side of the coin than to the other. Please reach into your pocket and pull out a coin making sure you only touch one side of the coin (and almost always the same side). Have any of you ever seen a real “Pocket Piece”? How many of these had wear to only one side?
So with older coins we have reasons why just minted coins do not look the same. Then there are the post minting factors, Bulk transport/handling marks (bag marks), dropping the coin or dropping things on to the coins, scratches, environmental conditions, business related condition issues (chop marks & counter stamps) and then collector inducted condition issues resulting in surface problems due to stupid attempts to make the coin look better (improper cleaning) and last be not least the one thing that most likely has ruined many a nice coin and that is the staple. Fortunately 2X2 holders are not used that much today but in my day every collector and dealer carried around 2X2 boxes crammed full of coins in 2X2 holders with a staple in all four sides. The problem is these staples were not crimped down flat so that when a 2X2 was pulled out of those boxes the raised staples would scrape across the coins behind it. I have seen many a nice coin ruined by stapples.
So how do we address these other factors that result in condition issues but do not affect the grade? Actually the approach taken by NGC in grading ancient coins is as far as I am concerned the only viable approach for a grading system for coins. This concept first grades the coin and second scores on a scale of 1 through 5 the coins strike, this would address items 1 through 5 above and then scores on a scale of 1 through 5 the coins surface, this would address the remaining issues listed above.
For uncirculated MS & Proof coins NGC decided to combine strike and condition issues into an 11 point grading scale.
MS/PF70 - A coin with no post-production imperfections at 5x magnification.
MS/PF69 - A fully struck coin with nearly imperceptible imperfections.
MS/PF68 - Very sharply struck with only miniscule imperfections.
MS/PF67 - Sharply struck with only a few imperfections.
MS/PF66 - Very well struck with minimal marks and hairlines.
MS/PF65 - Well struck with moderate marks or hairlines.
MS/PF64 - Average or better strike with several obvious marks or hairlines and other miniscule imperfections.
MS/PF63 - Slightly weak or average strike with moderate abrasions and hairlines of varying sizes.
MS/PF62 - Slightly weak or average strike with no trace of wear. More or larger abrasions than an MS/PF 63.
MS/PF61 - Weak or average strike with no trace of wear. More marks and/or multiple large abrasions.
MS/PF60 - Weak or average strike with no trace of wear. Numerous abrasions, hairlines and/or large marks.
If this is what NGC wants who am I to say no but I would prefer a purer system where all truly uncirculated MS & Proof would simply be designated "Uncirculated" and Strike and Surface would individually be scored 1 through 10 using the above standards. Another problem with the remaining grading system presented by NGC is that circulated coins is that it only address wear that the coin receives once the coin enters circulations. As far as NGC is concerned circulated coins have no strike or surface issues, could that really be true????????? Don’t you fine this to be strange particularly for pre 19th century coins from the U.S and older coins from around the world – why should they have no Strike or Surface issues while UNC’s do?????
In a future post I will address an issue every collector's enjoys. And that is “The Hunt” or search for a great find and believe me I have had more than my share which I will talk about later and why I was able to make these finds. But understanding grading from around the world can result in you making some great purchases. Many decades ago when I was building my numismatic library (an absolute must for serious collectors) I purchased an English equivalent to our Red Book published by I believe Seaby. The first thing I read was the section on grading. Now get this, an AU was defined as an UNCIRCULATED coin with poor eye appeal. Then the light bulb went on. How many AU, XF or even VF American coins can I purchase from English dealers or form dealers in countries using the English grading standards??? My most recent purchase was November of last year. I purchased the following coins:
1900 Liberty Head Nickel
1900 Barber Dime
1900 Barber Quarter
1900 Barber ½ Dollar
The above were described as toned XF or better, the nickel, dime and quarter NGC graded MS-63 and the half dollar was graded AU50
1912-S Cent listed as an XF graded AU55
There still out there folks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
But be careful, foreign dealers don’t seem to mention problems and particularly if the coin has been cleaned (you really have to study any photos and send e-mails).