USA Coin Album: The Coin Whisperer

Posted on 3/10/2020

Truly understanding coins is an acquired skill.

We've all heard tales of a horse whisperer, someone who can bond with horses and train them in a non-violent and compassionate manner. The idea is to form a somewhat anthropomorphic relationship while still understanding that the subject is not human but rather has its own set of characteristic behaviors that can be sympathetically redirected to reach the desired goal. Along the same lines, there are self-proclaimed dog whisperers, cat whisperers and so forth.

But is it possible for one to be a coin whisperer? Well, coins are inanimate objects, so modifying their behavior is not an option. But a person can become more intuitive about a coin's physical characteristics than would the casual collector. I consider myself to be a coin whisperer, though I perform this work silently, as the coin certainly is not listening to me. Instead, I've focused on understanding what a coin has been through since the moment of its striking and tailor my actions toward it accordingly. Of course, I don't recommend the laying of healing hands upon it, as that might leave fingerprints!

To illustrate my point, the many coins that have been dipped (chemically cleaned) in the past but have since retoned nicely offer a good opportunity for coin whispering. Perhaps a third of the pre-1930 USA coins I see with pretty colors fall into this category of second-generation toning. This effect may have occurred due to years spent in an envelope or album, but as long as the toning is market-acceptable and eye appealing, there is no reason the coin won't receive a numeric certified grade. As a coin whisperer, however, I know this second generation toning when I see it. Such coloration is never quite the same, as it lacks the coin's "original skin," which is a fine haze that is lost forever after dipping.

During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, it was nearly impossible for a dealer to sell United States silver coins with toning, as the prevailing wisdom among collectors was that "bright is right." This led to nearly all vintage silver coins being dipped in mild acid solutions by dealers until they were entirely untoned. It was the age of "rip 'em, dip 'em and ship 'em."

When the 1980s brought back an appreciation of toning, it became just as common for collectors and dealers to accelerate toning through various means. While somewhat frowned upon today, some of these pieces were restored skillfully enough to become market-acceptable and get slabbed with numeric grades. Most, however, were toned excessively, and the results looked quite unnatural (see photos). These are the ones that get put into "Details" graded holders along with non-numeric grades and a statement as to the reason for same. As a coin whisperer, I know them when I see them, and I feel their pain.

Such skills come in quite handy in my work at NGC and also in my own collecting activity. While I can't deal in coins as a condition of my employment, I am permitted to acquire them for my own collection. Presently, my focus is on United States type coins, as I co-instruct a course on this subject annually at the ANA's Summer Seminar in Colorado Springs.

While students may expect uniformly high-grade coins for a class conducted by an NGC employee, I always make a point to sprinkle the 100+ specimens with some Details-graded coins that lack numeric grades but are extremely eye-appealing and present good values when priced accordingly. Also included are pieces grading just AU 50 through MS 63, as I like to emphasize, too, that high numeric grades should not be the only goal when selecting ideal pieces.

This is where being a coin whisperer comes in quite handy, as there are some examples bearing modest grades that are extremely desirable by virtue of having been fully struck from fresh dies. These reveal all the details their designers intended. In contrast, many other coins have earned high numeric grades from dazzling luster that occurred as a result of die erosion with concurrent loss of fine detail. While pretty, their beauty may be superficial to the discriminating buyer who wants a type coin possessing all the features of the original models.

In my 25+ years with NGC, I've developed very good grading skills, though this is not my role at the company. Instead, I focus on the specialized work of authentication, variety attribution, provenance search, writing and research. All of us here see many coins that have been abused in some way or other, and that's when my coin whisperer skills are activated. I grade them in my own mind just to keep up my skills and to compare against the numbers entered by NGC's grading team. But I also wonder when and by whom these poor coins were scratched, dented, polished or stained. There are also some that simply suffered a few tiny hairline wipe marks which just barely prevented them from receiving numeric grades. Before grading services adopted Details grading, these subtly abused pieces typically were given Net numeric grades. For example, I own an absolutely beautiful 1915-D half dollar that was Net graded MS 60 years ago because of a tiny and nearly imperceptible wipe mark in the field. Grieving over this injustice, I put my ear to the slab and hear that Barber Half crying out in pain. Such is the life of a coin whisperer. Are you one?

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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