What You Need To Know: Original & Altered Surfaces Both Raw & Slabbed

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Originally, my plan was to write exclusively about toning for this week’s thread. This topic was not chosen because it has received so much attention of late, rather it was chosen because this is a numismatic niche market that I have been intimately active in for the past decade. I enjoy wonderfully toned coinage, I am willing to spend very strong money to buy the right coinage and I have made it my responsibility to determine not only what the right pieces are, but also how much they are worth to me. However, it seems that the current focus of the boards may be a tad too myopic, and that the AT vs NT debate might be obscuring issues that are far more insidious and rampant. In the following paragraphs I will go through some common, subtle and many times accepted manipulations you may expect to find on the surface of a coin, be it slabbed or raw. I will also issue a preemptive apology for the length of this post. blush.gif


Do you collect circulated, early copper? How about pre-1933 US gold? Perhaps circulated, classic silver such as Capped Bust, Seated or Barber coinage? Do you like those blast-white twentieth century icons of art represented by Mercury dimes, SLQs or WLHs? What about the large, dripping with just-minted brightness of Morgan dollars? Or is your area of preference those pristine, beautiful early commemoratives? If so, welcome to the world of manipulated coinage. This isn’t about those toned “monsters” that so many folks shout about, this is about coinage that many collectors view as free from manipulation and safe to collect. However, even these areas of the numismatic hobby-industry, which may appear to be free from manipulation, contain a myriad of dangers to be wary.


Much of the early copper out there has been brushed, oiled, burnished, recolored, washed with warm soap and water, has had verdigris or stains removed or has been otherwise conserved. Pre-1933 US gold is notorious for having been dipped and original skinned US gold coinage from the nineteenth century is quite a bit harder to come across than most would realize. Circulated, classic silver coinage is often found as a dull grey without any patination, dirt or gunk in the crevices of the fields and devices as a result of being washed with warm soap and water or having been subjected to baking soda; the devices of these coins often have scattered bright hairlines on them from more abrasive, ill-advised attempts at cleaning that have not yet oxidized or they are simply far too bright white, given their extent of wear, because someone could not resist the chance to dip the piece. Blast-white Mercury dimes, SLQs and WLHs can be found easily and by the gross and many of these are indeed original, while many others are the product of modern dipping; likely do not have a thin protective coating of original patina and may or may not have had their surfaces properly rinsed and neutralized in order to keep their appearance stable. The incredible brightness and minty fresh breath of the scads of Morgan dollars on the market may be due to their fortunate long-term storage in original, Mint-sewn canvas bags or, then again, may have been obtained through the same methods as their younger Mercury dime, SLQ and WLH cousins. Lastly, those gorgeous, early commemoratives were typically issued in holders that caused the coins to quite often oxidize in an uneven or speckled brown pattern, and the pieces that were removed from their holder of issue many times were mis-handled, meaning that a very high percentage of those impossibly brilliant white pieces are the work of an army of industrious dippers and each carries the same post-dipping hazards as written about previously.


But wait, it gets better, because not only are the above coinage products not the exclusive realm of the uneducated or unscrupulous seller, they also represent coins comfortably housed in respected TPG holders such as NGC and PCGS. Certainly, the more drastic the alteration that has been taken on a coin the more likely that a TPG will refuse to slab it and this extends most noticeably to coinage that has had a significant amount of surface metal moved and to recolored copper. However, the pervasive quest for luster, which currently seems to be one of the two most important attributes to PCGS and NGC, has helped fuel the alteration of coinage. Additionally, the historic importance that has been placed on white or colorless coins and this association with a higher grade has resulted in thousands of coins being manipulated well before the advent of the modern TPG. In this way, although TPGs have done a tremendous amount to help the hobby-industry and although they have precluded the slabbing of certain alterations, they are still complicit with the removal of original (or older) surfaces. I will attempt to illustrate what worked-on silver coinage can look like and also to show examples of pieces that are completely, to the extent that I can determine, original. The efforts to illustrate gold and copper will be left for other members or will be written at another time.


Likely the most common surface manipulation presently practiced is dipping. The services and the market generally turn a blind eye to dipping, and indeed there are many instances where dipping a coin does no overt damage to it and can significantly improve the eye appeal, such as the removal of haze from modern proof coinage. Dipping, however, extends far beyond modern proof coinage and into a great number of blast white Morgan dollars, Mercury dimes, SLQs, WLHs and classic commemoratives. A coin that is properly dipped, rinsed and neutralized will have a clearer, more silvery-white surface than a similar coin that has not been altered. Many times, especially with post-Barber coinage, this will be the only telltale indication that the coin has been processed and is not original. Microscopic evidence of the damage from overdipping can be seen in The Swiatek Numismatic Report where the author utilized a scanning electron microscope to show that the flow lines were drastically diminished or removed from a coin post-dip. The coin in this published study was a 1964 JFK and the release of the study caused quite a controversy in the hobby-industry because it was the first time someone scientifically proved that dipping altered a coin’s surface.


The image of the 1939 WQ that follows is indicative of what an original white coin of this era might look like. This is what I call phlegmy toning but might more euphemistically be called a coin with an original bloom or aura. The coin is undergraded as an MS66 and generally appears white, but has a delicate and definite patina of semi-translucent light blue, green and orange. One may especially notice that the color of this coin is not uniform and that the deeper auburn clings near the rim, which was exposed to the paper roll or album, and that this color fades as we look to the center of the coin. The WQ issue of 1939 is the first truly abundant issue of this series in high grade and this coin likely spent significant time in an original roll where it received this type of patination. Similarly, I own an original, mint state WQ roll from 1932 and all the coins in the roll have a similar bloom, though they have somewhat deeper colors than imaged here.




Barber coinage and earlier, with the exception of some Morgan dollars, generally should not appear to be blast white unless it has been previously dipped at least once. Occasionally, there will be a coin of this era with a white or off-white surface and this coin may be completely original. Typically, these coins have a sandy or powdery surface patina and can be quite handsome. Below is an 1872 half dime of mine that is essentially devoid of color yet has a thick, original patina on it reminiscent of a thin layer of talc. This is quite unusual and in my opinion very desirable. Fortunately, in this instance the coin is not struck well on the reverse wreath, for had it been it would likely have been dipped in an effort to procure the MS66 grade. Currently, it and its subdued luster sit happily in an MS65 holder.




More garish attempts at dipping extend into the circulated grades and these coins, while readily certified by TPGs, have a much more obvious look to them that lacks originality. The 1802 DBH imaged below was sold by Heritage at auction in 2004 housed in an NGC EF45 holder and was the subject of a thread I started in 2005 on the NGC boards.




Apparently, an owner of the coin subsequent to the auction decided that the coin would have a better chance at grading AU50 after a dip and so the coin was stripped of whatever original surface was left on it, which resulted in a bright white monstrosity shown below. The coin did not upgrade and currently sits in an NGC EF45 holder, where it was listed in the inventory of a major early type dealer who made no mention of the fact that the surfaces were completely unoriginal. The difference in market value for an EF45 vs an AU50 is something on the order of $8k vs $23K, so it might not be surprising to see wanton destruction of such surfaces. While the stagnation of the grade may be viewed as a small triumph, I view it as a major defeat since a very scarce example of a high grade 1802 DBH has been altered and much of its history destroyed. This is a fate that has been met by many a Capped Bust, Seated and Barber type coin in circulated grades and one that oftentimes diminishes how desirable the coin might be.




The odd exception to this rule seems to most often show up in the Capped Bust series where previously dipped or cleaned coins sell for very strong money if they have unnaturally bright white centers surrounded by rings of blue and gold secondary toning. In fact, many of the coins in the famed Benson collection had been previously dipped or cleaned before being allowed to acquire secondary toning and then being certified by PCGS and NGC where they subsequently sold for very aggressive prices at auction. Apparently, the general market has embraced this obviously altered look for the CBH series, much as it has embraced the bright white look for Morgan dollars or early commemoratives. Original mid-grade and higher examples should often look like the 1817/3 CBH below, which is happily in my collection and is an EF45. This coin shows the epitome of crust.




Some procedures defy easy categorization. Take, for example, the case of an 1831 CB quarter auctioned by Heritage in 2001 and again in 2003. At the time the coin had appeared in the previous Heritage auction, less than 18-months earlier, it was completely white. Not only was the coin devoid of toning, it also looked as though there was no skin on the piece, in contrast to the completely white 1872 half dime shown earlier. The CB quarter had obviously been dipped even though it was housed in a PCGS MS64 holder. PCGS also misattributed the coin when it was bright white, with a label that stated it was the Small Letters variety when in fact it was clearly the Large Letters variety. Upon resurfacing again with Heritage the coin was in a newer PCGS MS64 holder, with the correct attribution and sporting medium depth auburn toning on both sides and had, at first glance, a decidedly more original and attractive appearance. The question now becomes one of how did that coin gain that appearance in the intervening 18-months? If the coin were AT it was a very mild job and one that showed more care and skill than is typical. Alternatively, if the coin were dipped again and then not properly rinsed or neutralized then the relatively attractive auburn toning then-currently on the coin would be expected to turn rather quickly to a combination of grey and brown with negative eye appeal. Lastly, what of the possibility that the coin had been allowed to sit in a Whitman or Dansco album to tone for a period of time? There are two issues with that scenario and the first is that not many people push a $6k coin into a cardboard album while the second is that if the surfaces of that coin were that reactive as to tone so quickly in that environment then the coin was a ticking time bomb. The only conclusions that can be drawn are that the coin was definitely not original, that something had been done to it relatively recently and that it had not stayed a pristine white coin throughout its existence without major outside help. The top images below are of the coin from the 2001 Heritage sale and the bottom images are from the 2003 Heritage sale. Both sets of images are from Heritage.





The last thought about this 1831 CB quarter concerns the fact that after I started a thread about this coin prior to the 2003 auction Heritage apparently agreed with my suggestion that the coin was AT even though it resided in a PCGS holder because they took the extraordinary step of tagging the coin as possibly AT in their online auction description before the sale. I was truly surprised that anyone at Heritage paid attention to what I wrote. Below is a larger reverse image from the 2003 Heritage sale.




Gold is also commonly dipped. Gold’s inherent retention of luster makes it an ideal candidate to dip in an attempt to fool the eye that the coin is of a higher grade than its wear pattern might indicate. Circulated, nineteenth century gold that is oxidized will often be covered in a delicate patina that gives the coin a darker orange, slightly amber or even mildly green hue. This is an indication of the natural toning process of the alloyed copper within the coin and should be a welcome sight to gold collectors. Often, however, what those who collect gold are confronted with is a coin that has a terrific blast or flash off of gold or yellow surfaces that show little evidence of their age. The fortunate gold that survives with its original skin intact will not produce the same blinding flash if rotated through the light but will give off a mossy iridescence that reveals the color of the oxidized copper. Similarly, original mint state examples will also produce a smaller blast of light when rotated, but they will still flash.


Finally, examples of early copper are difficult to obtain not only because they have been altered but also because copper corrodes fairly easily. The process of corrosion is easily seen in verdigris that spots many copper pieces. Indeed, the conservation of old copper is one way of limiting damage to the coin and might be responsible for saving many examples that are found today. In this way, some alterations to the surface of copper coins are quite beneficial to the continued existence of the coin. In the absence of corrosion or verdigris there is still the tendency to find copper that has been stripped of its original skin.


In conclusion, taking the time to know what a coin should and should not look like is a very important aspect of any acquisition. The combination of common sense, experience and homework can reveal where they may be a problem that is either obviously evident or that will crop up in the future. In most instances the coins we are buying will be available again, which makes patience a viable strategy. However, in those instances where we are chasing prohibitively scarce coins or die marriages we may be forced to buy an otherwise obviously altered specimen. This is not always disastrous, as the recent Heritage sale of the Reiver collection will prove. In my opinion, coins that are original while retaining a pleasing overall look are the easiest coins to sell and some of the most difficult to buy. Education is your best defense.

Edited by ngcmod
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Thanks for the great post, TomB

I have a question about your half dime, though.

You said it's original with thick skin and to me, the coin looks original indeed.

But can you really say it's never been dipped?

I'm asking this because I once read a thread by a PCGS board member (Iwog?) stating that the luster on a coin won't be impaired if dipped properly and I have no clue if he's right or wrong.

If a coin had light toning and was once dipped lightly to get rid of the toning and then got retoned in the last decads, would it lose "original skin" and look totally different from your half dime?

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Thanks for the positive words, folks. smile.gif


Toyo, of course I cannot state with absolute certainty that the 1872 half dime was never abused in any manner. That is simply impossible to do given the coin is nearly 100 years older than I am. However, I can tell you that the coin has a wonderful, thick intact skin that is indicative of having never been abused. In fact, I cannot recall more than a handful of contemporary coins that have skin comparable to this half dime.


The statement that the luster on a coin, as seen by the naked eye, will not be impaired if dipped and neutralized properly is indeed correct and this is seen most easily on modern coinage such as proof JFK halves. These coins dip beautifully when treated properly. Of course, even in these cases some flow lines have been removed or damaged and this would effect the overall luster if the damage were severe.


My opinion is that if a coin were dipped lightly to remove light toning and then allowed to retone over decades that it would not necessarily build up the same crustiness that the half dime in the thread possesses. This is for multiple reasons and the first is that folks did not historically take the care with their dipping that they do today. Amateur dips were harsh and professional dips were designed to boost revenue via apparent increased eye appeal. The chemicals used were likely less pure, the technique was no doubt more sloppy and the rinse was unquestionably of lower quality water purity. This adds up to a coin that would retone or spot quicker than we see today. Assume that the 1872 half dime were dipped in 1892 or 1902, then we might assume that in 20-30 years it would need another dip. This cycle would definitely harm the surfaces. More importantly, this coin has tremendous, mossy luster beneath the powdery patina and this luster would have been damaged in the initial dip.


So, I could most likely prove the age of the patina, and that the coin is original, through some expensive chemical analysis of the upper layer of skin, but this is not convenient. In the absence of that scientific work I can comfortably conclude that my experience tells me this coin was never boinked. grin.gif

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Great Post!


By the way, Scott Travers reprinted the pictures from Swiatek that showed the after-effects of dipping in his "Coin Collector's Survival Manual."


I have the 3rd edition, but I'd hope that he still has the same information in the newly issued 5th edition.

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Thanks again for educational post.

Although I don't have many seated half dimes whitch makes me feel original and yet not deeply toned, your 1872 looks similar to my 1865 half dime in 64.

It has light grey toning on both sides, but the luster peaking through the toning is very strong whitch adds a lot of eye appeal to this coin. I wish I could see yours in person someday. smile.gif

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Great post as usual Tom.You mean those Bust halves with the bright white centers and the vibrant blue around the periph aren't original? Man, everybody loves them too. Except us of course. wink.gif

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Tom----You have done what CTcollector and I had wished for when we had our original idea for these posts. It is refreshing to see the truth in print. But folks---Tom speaks the truth. So, it is up to all of us to learn---to reeducate ourselves in the hooby that we all love. And to encourage others to stop destroying the remainder of our "original skinned" coins for the sake of profit. At least the information is getting out there to the chosen few of us here on the boards. Great info will continue here in the coming weeks. Stay tuned. I have been slowly getting to the names that I have on my list. If you haven't been contacted, you will be. Next week jtryka will speak on Saints. The following week Grumps will do his thing about Ebay---what to do and what not to do. If anyone wishes to add their name to do a post on this "What You Need To Know"---just PM me and let me know. Bob [supertooth]

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This thread represents the highest and best use of the fourm that NGC has provided (not that I don't enjoy other discussions as well). Tom's thread is the first that I've bookmarked, and I expect that others will follow. Thanks to Bob and CT for organizing this effort.

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This post is in my "Top 5 All Time" that I've read anywhere! I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with all of us here. Thanks, Lee

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In Bob's words:

"So, it is up to all of us to learn---to reeducate ourselves in the hooby that we all love. And to encourage others to stop destroying the remainder of our "original skinned" coins for the sake of profit. At least the information is getting out there to the chosen few of us here on the boards".


My thoughts exactly 893applaud-thumb.gif


Thanks to all for sharing your knowledge with us.

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Great post, Tom. Superb information. I also think it would be informative to talk some about when and how a coin should be conserved. flowerred.gif



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That is the most lucid and usefull post I've read in months. I partucularly like the original white silver coin with the talc-like coloration. I'm so sick of the AT/NT whining especially on the other boards, when many collectors may not even know for sure what a top original white coin looks like. BTW, to get around if the coin's surface is totally original, the famous Keno brothers use the phrase "very old surface, possibly original" on antique objects. Presumably there was no whizzing or buffing at the time, absent the invention of commercial electricty.

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If we put up a wiki for you guys, do you think we'd generate enough first rate content like this to develop a real knowledge base?

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