This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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I’ve been teaching and writing about coin authentication and grading since 1973. Despite this, a statement by astronaut James Lovell: “Houston, we have a problem” comes to mind. Our problem can be expressed as numismatic ignorance on the part of active coin collectors and dealers.
Let me clarify the correct usage of “ignorance” before readers consider me a pompous old man with access to pen, paper and a computer (I still write my columns by hand). Ignorance is defined as being uninformed – lacking knowledge about a particular subject. Therefore, on one hand, I’m personally ignorant of brain surgery, the capabilities of the old Los Angeles Class nuclear submarines and card tricks.
On the other, I believe that I am an adequately informed numismatist with respect to authentication and grading who can either prove something by direct observation or knows where to look for answers – you get the idea. I’ll also be the first to admit that I learn many new things about the U.S. and foreign coins I examine each week – but that’s a good thing.
Outside of a teaching situation, it can be frustrating to deal with uninformed collectors, especially those calling themselves coin dealers. It is not hard to learn what genuine, original coins should look like. Four major grading/authentication services have their product all over the place to examine. Unless you live hundreds of miles from state or local coin shows there is ample opportunity to examine slabbed coins. Those of you out of the mainstream can gain invaluable knowledge during one week of classes at the American Numismatic Association’s Summer Seminar. The important thing is that you take that first step to educate yourself.
Recently I sat across the table from a “dealer” who was unhappy with the grades he received on a group of dollars. He kept rocking one slab back and forth in an attempt to figure out why “his MS-65” coin was graded MS-62. After a few seconds of this, I suggested that he look at the coin using the table light (two feet away) and perhaps he might want to try viewing it with a hand lens.
After examining the coin in some fashion, he replied that it had blazing mint luster and no bagmarks so it must be a higher grade. I asked him what criteria he used to grade uncirculated coins. With some coaching, I got him to say luster and marks ,but I had to supply “strike” and then combine everything under “eye appeal.”
When I asked how long he had been a professional coin dealer, he replied “20 years” and that a coin with blazing luster and no marks should grade higher than MS-62. When he handed the slab to me, I agreed that the coin had virtually no marks and blazing luster. Next, I asked him how he would describe the quality of luster on a whizzed coin. We both agreed that the word “blazing” could be used. At that moment, I think the light bulb went on in his head.
I explained that luster is the reflection of light from a surface. Looking around the room, there was luster everywhere – on the wood tabletop, the metal lamp base, my forehead and the plastic slab. The quality of the luster was different in each case. The blazing luster on his coin differed from blazing original mint luster because the surfaces were completely hairlined, possibly from a light cleaning. According to the ANA Grading Standards, a coin with continuous hairlines throughout can only grade MS-62 or lower (Note that the commercial grading standards used by many are less strict in this regard). To a trained eye, the luster on his coin looked unnatural from a foot away.
Other coins can be many times more deceptive. Have you ever encountered a blazing gem coin, possibly an MS-66 or MS-67, in an MS-63 or MS-64 holder? When this is the case, look for a patch of hairlines, especially on the obverse.
The micrograph, taken at 10X using fluorescent light, shows a patch of hairlines on the cheek of a Washington quarter. Patches of hairlines are common on uncirculated Franklin and Walking Liberty halves, Washington quarters and Roosevelt and Mercury dimes. Hairlines such as this are often missed on “raw” coins unless the coin is rotated and tipped in one specific direction to get the hairlines perpendicular to the light source.
If you don’t know the correct way to examine a coin, specifically what to look for when grading an uncirculated coin, let’s just say that ignorance is not financial bliss.