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Are standards slipping or being fine tuned?

Today, Mint State Seventy (MS-70) denotes a perfect coin – or does it?  That was not always the case. There was no MS-70 when I started collecting coins.  Or perhaps I should write that I cannot recall ever seeing, hearing, or reading about an actual coin reaching this grade.  In fact, the only coins that were graded using numbers were large cents.

As it is today, the numbers represented adjectival grades.  An uncirculated large cent could be MS-60, MS-65, or MS-70 with much of its grade based on color.  Numeric grades of -62, -63, -64, -66, -67, -68, and -69 did not exist; but that’s a subject for another time as these grades eventually were added to the uncirculated range.

I cannot remember exactly when the numismatic community decided to actually use the MS-70 grade for coins. Up until then, MS-70 was just a number at the top end of the grading scale because it was believed that no coin could be perfect, without mark or blemish. Someone could always find some imperfection on a coin, especially those considered to be old or “vintage.”

When I was an active collector, the cutoff date between vintage and modern coins was 1964; but who knows where it is now since we have entire generations of new collectors who never saw silver coins in circulation.

Back then, the most perfect coins were to be found in proof sets. These were special coins struck with great care for collectors. Many of these coins would rate a grade of MS-70, but it just wasn’t used. 
Now, let’s fast forward to the mid-1980s.  In addition to proof sets, the Mint started producing modern bulk gold and silver American Eagles. These coins were struck in proof or brilliant uncirculated and great care was used in their production.

It became extremely rare to find one of these coins that didn’t grade over MS-67 right from an unopened tube. The major flaw for the silver coins (particularly for some dates) was spotting due to some process at the Mint that has since been virtually corrected.

As I think back, I recall that the grading standard used for these coins was almost comical. Since the MS-70 grade was not used at all, MS-69 became “code” for a perfect coin (which couldn’t exist) so that made MS-68 the highest grade a flawless silver Eagle could achieve.

I know of one grading service that printed generic MS-67 labels and routinely encased every unspotted silver Eagle at that grade no matter what they looked like. At the time it was no big deal.  These coins were simply silver bullion and they all came nice from the Mint – as I said, MS-67 or higher. 

I’ll admit that it was hard to justify grading a “perfect” silver Eagle MS-67 or MS-68 at the time, but, that is just what was done.  Remember, many knowledgeable numismatists and industry leaders insisted that a perfect coin could not exist.  At the time, MS-69 denoted a perfect coin because no one wanted to use the MS-70 grade.

I had to explain this anomaly to my grading seminar students when they would examine a coin under magnification having a full strike, full blazing luster or mirror surfaces, no marks, spots or hairlines and would ask me why the coin was not graded MS-70.  Gradually, as collectors began saving these bullion coins by date, pressure was put on the grading services to use the highest grades.

Slowly the grade of MS-69 became commonplace; yet all was not well. If a collector had two similar coins graded MS-69 and one had no imperfections he could see while the other had micro problems, why were they both graded the same?  The MS-70 barrier had to be broken.  As for our older numismatic coins, there was a great hoopla when one or the other major grading services assigned an MS-69 grade to a Barber quarter or Morgan dollar. 

I cannot recall which grading service took the first plunge but eventually all the other grading service hold-outs were forced to adopt the MS-70 grade or lose market share of the grading fee pie.
The plus for collectors was that there was a definite difference between an MS-70 Eagle and one that graded lower. At first, the MS-70 grade was used sparingly as it should have been. That’s because if you examine most coins closely you will be able to find a defect or two.  Nevertheless, there are perfect coins out there especially as proofs, modern commemoratives and Eagles.

What graders, dealers and collectors must safeguard is this idea of perfection.  Sooner or later the MS-70 standard will slip in the commercial market. Dealers will say grading is evolving as pressure from collectors to possess a perfect MS-70 coin may force some graders to overlook a defect or two yet still assign the coin a perfect grade of MS-70. If we let this happen, what will we call a truly perfect coin? MS-70 with a “star?”

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