What You Need to Know - basic coin examination and grading tips....

18 posts in this topic

I first posted this in 2003, on the CU forum, if not here too, but hopefully it still applies and can be of aid to some of those who currently post here.




I have no doubt that much or all of this has been discussed previously and in some cases, in greater detail and in a more interesting fashion. But, I have received a lot of questions about pointers for examining and grading coins, so I'll try to address them in this format.


These are merely my opinions and they may differ from those of others.


I was originally planning on including several pointers in one post. However, I quickly realized that to do so would necessitate a post that would be so long as to guarantee that I would put numerous forum members into a deep and prolonged sleep. So, I have decided to break it up into 2 or three different segments. If this first one does not get me banned from the boards there will be a Part ll and so on. Ok, here we go......




Different people prefer different types of lighting. I prefer using a small, high intensity "Tensor" lamp. I can sometimes see things (hairlines, etc.) on coins under this type of light that I can't see under a regular lamp with a 75 or 100 watt bulb. Some prefer halogen lamps and others prefer 75 or 100 watt lamps, like you might see at coin shows or auction lot viewings.


There is no right or wrong in this area. I would suggest experimenting with a few different types of light sources to get a feel for what you can see with each and what you are most comfortable with. Lighting can be a problem if it is not intense enough but conversely, if too intense, it can drown out colors that you might otherwise see and prevent you from getting a good look at a coin. Warning - do not look at coins in bright sunlight or under laser beams!


One thing I would stress - it is very important that whatever type of lighting you use, that it be consistent. If you go to a show and buy coins under different lighting conditions than you are used to, you might receive a very unpleasant surprise when you get home and examine your coins!


I would also caution you about lighting at coin auction viewings and shows - if the overhead lights are too bright they can drown out the light source that you are using and you might not be getting a good look at the coins. Be aware of the type of lighting, any time you are examining coins. You would be amazed how at different the same coin can look under different lighting conditions. Think about some of the coin images you see and how two different images of the same coin can look so different and you will get the picture.




BEFORE you put a glass to a coin, I would urge you to look at the coin for a few seconds without magnification - get a feel for what it looks like - look at the big picture.


Many very expensive coins get graded and bought and sold without the use of magnification. I rarely use a magnifying glass. The exceptions for myself, are for very small coins like Three Cent Silvers and gold Dollars, as well as the cases where I see something like a spot or flaw that I wish to examine more closely. When I do use magnification, it is most often a 5X and occasionally a 10X. I think it is important that when you use a glass, that in most cases, you be able to look at a good portion of the coin and not simply one tiny area in isolation. If you look at just one area you can get a distorted view.


If you use strong enough magnification, I am convinced that just about any classic coin can look bad! And, while you might be proud of yourself for finding 17 flaws on an MS66 coin, you might be doing yourself a big disservice by passing on it, flaws and all.


Whatever magnification you use should allow you to get a good look at the coin but not to lose sight (pun intended) of what the whole coin looks like. And remember, if you have decent eye sight and have been trained to examine a coin properly (more on that later) you wont need a glass in many cases. I PROMISE YOU - SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT HE OR SHE IS DOING CAN SEE THINGS WITH THE NAKED EYE THAT YOU WONT EVEN SEE WITH A GLASS.


I am not against magnifiers but feel that they are sometimes overused and misused. Think about the whole/big picture and learn to overlook the little flaws (unless the coin is supposed to be an MS or PR 70) - oftentimes, they simply don't matter that much on a practical basis.


Please do not take what I have stated above to mean that I think it is ok to buy over graded coins or that imperfections and flaws don't matter with respect to grade. That is not the case at all. However, I see many non-experts engage in "micro-grading" where they focus so much on little, mostly inconsequential imperfections, that they lose perspective and can't see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.






Now it's time to discuss examining/viewing coins properly.


First, make sure you don't have your pet dog, cat (or snake) anywhere near where you will be studying your treasures. The same goes for babies and significant others - this is serious business and you need to be able to concentrate!


Lighting has already been discussed but I did neglect to mention that blinds or shades should be drawn so that your light source is not interfered with by any outside light.


If you have coins that are uncertified and completely out of any type of holder, I'd recommend that you have something soft and yielding (a towel, a felt tray, etc.) underneath where you will be holding the coins, in case you drop one (or two). The best/sharpest coin graders are not necessarily the most sure-handed!


I do recommend that you remove uncertified coins from their 2x2's, etc., to get a proper look - even the thinnest layer of plastic can mask flaws and prevent you from getting the view that you should.


Be conscious of how easy it is to put fingerprints on your beauties. I have seen a lot of people start off by holding coins at their edges, but gradually lose concentration and allow their long and or fat fingers to move from the edge to the surface of the coin.


To get the best possible look at a coin it is imperative that you tilt and gradually rotate it so that the light bounces off of it from as many angles as possible. A coin can look completely different, if looked at head-on, vs. from an angle. Light reflects differently and colors and luster can look different, as well. You might see hairlines, cleaning, wipes or other problems from one angle that you wont see from another angle. Look at a coin from all angles, top to bottom, right side up, sideways and upside down, etc. This is a simple concept but you'd be surprised at the number of people who don't do it right.


I know some graders who start off looking at the reverses of coins first just to get a different perspective. I know others who begin, looking at coins sideways instead of up and down, for the same reason. I don't usually do those things but it's probably a good idea to try it once in a while, just for a change in your routine.


When you take your first look at a coin, do so without a glass/magnifier. Eyeball it for a few seconds on each side to get a general first impression - to see how it hits you. Don't worry, initially, about looking for flaws and problems - get a feel for the big picture and the eye-appeal or lack thereof.


I cannot over-emphasize the fact, that in many cases, the first, split second look of a coin is extremely important. It will either grab your attention or not. If it doesn't, it might not be so special and it might not impress the next viewer, either. If it is special looking and grabs your attention right away, it very well might have the same effect on the next person. Many buying decisions regarding many valuable coins are made in a matter of seconds, based on that all-important first impression.


Look at the focal points - the main design elements (the cheek on a Morgan dollar, Ms. Liberty on a Walking Liberty Half dollar, the Indian on Indian gold coinage, etc.) If you have questions about the most important areas for grading for a given type of coin, please feel free to ask.


Next, look at the other areas, toward the borders. As you are doing this, you should be slowly and gradually rotating the coin and tilting it back and forth (as mentioned previously) at the same time - try to get the light to reflect off of the surface from as many angles as possible.


Now, for those of you who are dying to do so, it is ok to pick up your magnifiers - go for it, but don't forget about how the coin first struck you, when you looked with your naked eye.

Edited by MarkFeld
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Thank you Mark for this informative primer on the most basic yet important element in examining the coin, the first impression and overall appearance from as many different angles as possible.


The other day I was looking at an 1853 Rays and Arrows Half that looked flawless under initial10x magnification and first glance under the overhead store lights. My excitement rose until I put down the lens and took a good look at the coin with the naked eye. I saw a scratch that I had not noticed under the lens. When I reexamined it with the lens it was larger than life and made the coin unacceptable to me. foreheadslap.gif, many would say, but it was an important reminder to me and affirms exactly what you are saying about lighting, looking with the naked eye and magnification.


Thanks again for you well thought out and communicated insights. I look forward to further articles from you. thumbsup2.gif

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Could you be more specific concerning the “Tensor Lamp”.

Is the lens a magnifier?

What type of bulb?

Thanks, and good post.

In order to be able to give you specifics, I did a brief internet search for the type of Tensor lamp I used, and couldn't even locate one. It appears that they are even scarcer now than when I last bought one, years ago. The model I used was a very small, high intensity lamp that I could carry to coin shows. I now use a portable halogen lamp, as well as incandescent lights. The halogen lamp allows me to see hairlines and other flaws much better, but also tends to drown out color somewhat. The most important thing about lighting is to be as consistent as possible, regardless of what type you prefer.


Maybe you can offer to add this (or some other topical advice) to the What You Need to Know Forum; I think it would be a nice addition there.
I don't know the specifics and procedures for that, but you and others are free to do what you want with the information. If there is any financial compensation to be had, I want the first 3 cents and you get the rest. 893crossfingers-thumb.gifsmile.gif
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Hi Guys and Gals----- As I agree that this and another of Mark's posts belong in the WYNTK posts, I sent a PM to Mark and asked that he edit his post so that it can become a WYNTK thread and then be archived as such. He has agreed to do so and all of us will now have his words easily available to us. Thanks, Mark. Bob [supertooth]

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I have lost so much of my coin grading talent since I got LASIK surgery a year and a half ago. I used to have immaculent near vision and would very, very seldom ever use a loop. Now, I have lost that advantage and, while it is nice to not to wear glasses, I still miss the advantage that I once had.


A loop will never replace the ability to be able to view the surface of a coin in its entirity with the naked eye. With the change, I have had to adapt. I will still preview the coin with the naked eye to get the overall feel for the coin. I will then use a 3X, 6X and 9X Zeiss loop to look at the coin's surface more closely. Lighting is key here. Rotate the coin in the lighting so that the luster will show. Continue rotating to view the entire surface.


This method still does not equate to my previous eyesight but it comes close.

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I now use a portable halogen lamp, as well as incandescent lights. The halogen lamp allows me to see hairlines and other flaws much better, but also tends to drown out color somewhat. The most important thing about lighting is to be as consistent as possible, regardless of what type you prefer.


Do you encounter and nasty surprizes switching between the halogen and the incandescent lighting?

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I certainly do not qualify as a person that looks at hundreds of coins per week or month. However, I have been looking at coins over a long time span. I agree with Mark that halogen is good for surface examination looking for hairlines and defects. It also is not the right centigrade temperature light to check coin surface color and toning. I have never used a Tensor lamp and can not comment on it.


I do differ with Mark about examining coins in sunlight, but only indirect sunlight. I do not like direct, natural sunlight but do use indirect sunlight which IMHO reveals toning and surface texture very well. I believe that indirect sunlight is effective because of it's high centigrade temperature and balanced color spectrum. I do not use it as the final arbiter but in combination with a 50 watt, UV filtered, halogen desk lamp. The problem is, that I can not carry a UV filtered halogen light source lamp to shows.


I always have problems with the low color temperature and spectral limitations of the incandescent and flourescent lights found at most shows. Their low intensity and color interfere with proper coin examination.


Good article, Mark.

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I have been watching the slabbing of the 20th anniversary ASE sets. I guess I don't understand the difference between a MS-70 grade and a PF-70 grade. Wouldn't a PF grade be greater frustrated.gif than an MS grade and shouldn't all the coins be a PF grade seeing they come completley encapsulated? Can any one advise me?

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I have been watching the slabbing of the 20th anniversary ASE sets. I guess I don't understand the difference between a MS-70 grade and a PF-70 grade. Wouldn't a PF grade be greater frustrated.gif than an MS grade and shouldn't all the coins be a PF grade seeing they come completley encapsulated? Can any one advise me?


I just put this together, I hope it helps you!



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That post was very helpful for me. I have found myself spending the least amount of time looking at the coin without magnification and going as far as 45x and an LED loupe in judging and I see now that this has been a big mistake.


Best of luck on your move to Dallas btw and your new job.



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