Jeff Garrett: A Case for Coin Conservation

Posted on 9/19/2019

Proper coin conservation is effectively anti-coin doctoring.

Several of my very good friends in Lexington, Kentucky, are involved in the restaurant industry. One fellow was CEO of Long John Silver’s and later Church’s Chicken. Another owns and operates two very successful, upscale eateries. Occasionally, we discuss topics of health and menu selections in their restaurants and others around the country.

Both have told me on separate occasions that they are constantly pressured to offer healthy selections on the menu. The public virtually demands it. Many state and local governments also require calorie totals on menus. The irony is that most of these healthy alternatives do not sell. One of my friends tells me that despite offering great salads and other healthy options, his bestseller is the bacon cheeseburger!

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with coin collecting. Just ask any collector if they want a “cleaned” coin. They will most assuredly say no—they want original material. The truth, however, is similar to the situation described above.

Let’s say I offer two Morgan Silver Dollars for sale of the exact same date, mintmark and grade, and the only difference is that one is bright white and the other is lightly toned. The bright white example will sell five times faster than the lightly toned coin.

Everyone wants original, bright white, uncleaned coins that are, in many cases, almost 150 years old. Some rare coins survive in this state of preservation, but not many. Dealers usually need to have a coin conserved to remove unattractive toning and give the public what they want: a bright white coin.

Drawn to the light

The market validates the above observation, as attractive “frosty white” coins usually bring much more at auction. This is especially true for Morgan Silver Dollars. The exception is for coins that are deemed as having “beautiful, natural” toning. Coins with attractive, natural toning can sometimes bring prices that boggle the mind, and natural-toned Morgan Silver Dollars are one of the hottest segments of today’s market.

The subject of re-toning, to achieve the desirable effect described above, has been an ongoing issue of contention in the hobby for decades. Over the years, I have seen everything from the most amateur of attempts to what can be considered a masterpiece of deception. “Coin doctoring,” as it’s commonly called, involves adding a foreign substance to coins, which is sometimes referred to as “putty” on a coin. This can have long-term consequences when the coin eventually turns a different color.

Fighting the battle against re-toned coins

Third-party grading companies like Numismatic Guaranty Corporation® (NGC®) have been fighting the battle against re-toned coins for decades. Indeed, it is one of the most important services they provide. As it should be—the list of methods for enhancing coins is long and unpleasant, and nobody wants to own a coin that has been artificially enhanced. This is why rare coin certification is so important. NGC makes every effort to ensure that coins that have been artificially enhanced are not eligible for numeric grading.

Many years ago, the subject of conservation of rare coins was an unspoken secret in the rare coin industry. Everyone wanted bright white coins and gave little thought to how they got that way. NGC brought the subject to the forefront when they began to offer professional conservation with Numismatic Conservation Services™ (NCS®), an affiliate of NGC. NCS performs professional coin conservation using a variety of proprietary techniques to remove harmful surface contaminants, stabilize and protect a coin’s surfaces and improve eye appeal. NCS does not add anything to a coin’s surface or do anything that may be considered coin doctoring.

1888-S Morgan Silver Dollar
Before conservation to address yellowish glue residue likely originating from transparent tape
Click images to enlarge.

1888-S Morgan Silver Dollar
After NCS conservation
Click images to enlarge.

An ongoing process

While significant progress has been made, coin conservation education is an ongoing process. NGC continues to work hard to protect the integrity of their services and the hobby by educating the public about this complicated subject, from offering detailed information on its website to conducting seminars on grading and conservation. Yet, letters to the editor and message boards are sometimes filled with tirades on coin conservation that are confusing and disturbing to the average collector. Most of these rants are ill-informed and lack a firm grasp of the facts.

So, let’s examine the facts. Coin conservation and coin doctoring are completely different. Coin conservation is the stabilization and removal of potentially harmful residue on the surface of a coin, while coin doctoring has been defined as adding a foreign substance to the surface of a coin to enhance its appearance. The most common example of this is the re-toning of silver coinage. Understanding this, proper coin conservation is effectively “anti-coin doctoring.”

Regardless of the protections provided by coin grading companies, collectors should make efforts to educate themselves about the appearance of the coins they have chosen to collect, consult with experts on the series and examine as many coins as possible. Reviewing lots in a major auction gives collectors an amazing opportunity to see coins side by side. The educational opportunity is further enhanced by a study of the prices realized.

1901-S Morgan Dollar
Before conservation to address minor PVC residue development and an overall dull mauve toning
Click images to enlarge.

1901-S Morgan Dollar
After NCS conservation
Click images to enlarge.

Wax on, wax off

The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History was faced with a coin conservation learning curve several years ago when its rare coin exhibit of over 40 years was taken down for storage and remounting. Surprisingly (or not), the museum standard of four decades ago was to attach coins in an exhibit by placing a substantial wad of wax to the reverse and sticking the coins on the wall. This was done to even the most extreme rarities in the collection, including the 1849 and 1933 Double Eagles.

When the issue was discovered, Smithsonian curators and conservators had little or no knowledge regarding the restoration of rare coins, so the museum reached out to NCS for expertise. The Smithsonian’s own experts studied the methods of conservation utilized by NCS for many months before giving approval, for it is not every day that a coin worth $10,000,000 is conserved.

The wax and other contaminants were removed by NCS from the 1849 and 1933 Double Eagles, and since then, other great rarities in the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) have had wax removed as well. Recently, the staff of the NNC has obtained internal grants to have the remainder of the coins in the collection conserved by removing the wax. It’s an ongoing project given the huge number of coins involved.

There’s more than meets the eye appeal

Although coin conservation is sometimes misunderstood, if utilized properly, it can greatly enhance the value of a rare coin. Also, because the modern market for coins is extremely focused on “eye appeal,” the issue of conservation has become even more relevant today. Collectors demand coins that look nice, and unattractive coins continue to bring less and less when offered at unreserved auction.

All this said, collectors’ tastes vary, and it will be a personal decision as to what coins you wish to collect. However, the next time you consider that blazing white gem, think about how the coin came to be that way. Then, go have a bacon cheeseburger!

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