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‘Doctoring’ a challenge to define

Recently, I read that the Professional Numismatists Guild has formed a committee to draft a definition of “coin doctoring.” A definition needs to be concise – short and sweet, just like in a dictionary. Apparently, this may not be as easy as it would seem. There are too many variables so a previous attempt at this task became too wordy. Technically, anything you do to a coin may be considered “doctoring” by a numismatic purist, so let’s briefly examine some of the variables that must be considered in a reasonable and fair definition of the practice.

Then, at the end of his column, I’ll suggest my own definition.

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I first became aware of “coin doctoring” sometime in 1973. At the time I was working at the American Numismatic Association Certification Service in Washington, D.C. There I learned that some bright, particularly attractive coins had been altered using a spinning wire brush to increase their luster. This treatment differed from buffing or polishing as we determined that metal was actually pushed up, forming minute ridges on one side of the coin’s relief. This form of alteration called “whizzing” was commonly seen at the time, but the term “coin doctor” had not yet been “coined.” The next major alteration that we encountered was called “thumbing.” With the aid of our stereomicroscope and fluorescent lighting, we noticed that most of the marks on the cheek of some Morgan dollars had been “dulled-out” with a grayish haze. We found we could duplicate the same appearance with the oils on our finger. In many cases this effect could easily be removed but in other cases it was more permanent. We learned that the more permanent haze on many coins was achieved by dissolving products such as Bondo (putty) in a carrier such as acetone that evaporated leaving a film on the coin’s surface. (See Figure 1.) Next the fakers resorted to electroplating prooflike coins to give them a cameo appearance. Today, even lasers have been used to alter coins.

Would the person who first came up with the words “coin doctor” to describe a person who fraudulently altered coins please reveal themselves? Were the 1970s and early 1980s the infancy of “coin doctoring” (to my knowledge a term not used at the time), or do we need to look further back into the past?

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To what category do alterations such as “clipping or sweating” belong? How should we treat repairs, rim filing and tooling – all done even centuries ago. Must we consider that at one time it was more or less “acceptable” to improve the appearance of large copper cents and ancient Roman coins by adding design detail and smoothing out rough corroded areas of their field?

As my running history moves into more modern times, how should we consider cleaning a coin? Is running a dirt encrusted metal detector find under running water a bad thing? What about soaking a copper ancient in olive oil?

One relatively “new” distinction that is becoming more or less accepted is the difference between conservation and cleaning. I can remember back in 1973 we were having a hard time authenticating a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent with black crud around the mintmark. We called the owner and received his permission to remove the caked-on dirt around the mintmark, which we did. Then, we certified the coin as genuine. He was ecstatic with the results and shortly after contacted us to ask if he could send some of his coins in to the service for cleaning only, which, of course, we did not offer. At that time, the ANA did not wish to become involved with this type of service – perhaps due to legal considerations. Nevertheless, we did add a statement to our submission form saying that the owner agreed to have his coin cleaned if we deemed it necessary for authentication purposes. That saved us many phone calls.

One immediate outcome to this experience was a better understanding of cleaning. I’ll claim full credit for one distinction we make today with regard to cleaning because from then on I taught students that cleaning coins was OK as long as it was done properly. “Proper cleaning” implied that the coin’s appearance was improved, its surfaces were conserved (a word we did not use at the time), and the fact that the coin had been cleaned was undetectable. With this understanding, more collectors looked favorably on conservation such as removing copper spots from gold coins and impurities or residues from silver. This change in attitude made it possible, nearly 30 years later, to establish NCS, a professional conservation service that I helped to form.

When is a cleaned coin conserved? When is a conserved coin doctored? How far do we wish to go and how tight should our definition of “doctoring” be? Surely, a crudely done spot removal by an ignorant non-collector is not doctoring. Nor should we consider a properly dipped unattractive coin that now has the appearance of full originality doctoring either. All I know for sure is that I can determine that a coin has been doctored only when I detect it. Then, I believe that intent must be considered; but how do you prove intent?

Finally, there is the color and toning found on our coins. When is toning, a definite physical condition of a coin’s surface, considered “doctoring?” Are we dealing with a time frame or the method used to produce the surface color? Have you ever left a silver coin in the sunlight or in a space heated by gas? Is anything we do to improve a coin’s eye appeal considered a bad thing?

In view of these things, and from past experience, my definition of coin doctoring has evolved to this: Coin doctoring is the willful application of any substance to, or the removal of any material (except contaminants) from, the original surface of a coin with malicious intent to defraud. Let me know what you think.

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