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Look to luster when grading foreign

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Foreign coins can present some unique problems for graders. There is a lack of grading guides, different grading standards, unfamiliar coins and an infinite variety of designs produced by different mints. Fortunately, all of these impediments can be overcome with familiarly, study and practice.

About 18 percent of the coins we receive at Independent Coin Graders on a weekly basis are from countries other than the United States. Their designs, size and compositions are so variable that it would be virtually impossible to produce a useful grading reference such as the ANA Grading Guide for U.S. Coins that I could turn to for grading questions.  I do have a copy of the Standard Grading Guide for Canadian & Colonial Decimal Coins by Charlton and Willey in my library, but I am totally ignorant of any similar guide books for Italian, German, or Japanese coins to name just a few; yet I feel that they must exist.

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I have found that the Krause world catalogs and the Internet provides a very valuable tool to identify foreign coins yet grading information from these sources is slim.  I expect this situation will be corrected before too long.

When I became a professional numismatist long ago there was a distinct difference between the American and European grading standards for non-U.S. coins.  The grading standard used overseas was very strict. At that time, many dealers from this country would take buying trips to Europe or purchase stock from foreign dealers who attended shows in this country.  Usually, their new purchases would jump an entire grade or two when American grading standards were applied. This “gravy train” has virtually ended as foreign dealers raised the price or grade of their coins. Nevertheless, there is a good percentage of foreign coins sent in to the grading service that increase in grade when they are slabbed. 

A quick look at one of Krause’s Standard Catalog of World Coins book will reveal the infinite number of coin designs that graders must deal with. Those not familiar with what design details should be present on a particular coin type from country “X” may have difficulty in deciding how much of the coin’s surface is missing and that is a very important part of the grading equation. Many coins will have a “plain” obverse – perhaps a simple bust in low relief and a very ornate reverse with detailed symbolic designs.  As these coins circulate, one side will appear to be more worn than the other.

I teach students in my grading seminars to use the “Luster Method” to grade foreign coins. It’s a system I refined at the International Numismatic Society’s Authentication Bureau – the first third-party grading service in the United States.  There are some basic requirements; yet you will find that this method works for most coins, especially those you are not familiar with.

The Luster Method assumes that all coins were “original” at one time and displayed some form of mint luster.  Therefore, it is extremely important to know what original mint luster looks like for all types of coinage metals. One cheap exercise you can do to aid your learning process is to spend less than $10 at a coin show looking for uncirculated modern foreign coins in the junk box many dealers have at their tables. Once you learn what original luster looks like, it becomes a simple exercise to determine how much of it remains on a coin you are grading. This applies to United States coins also. I like to use terms such as “Full,” “Virtually All,” “Most,” “Some,” “Hardly Any,” etc., to describe the amount of luster remaining on a coin. A sense of these descriptions forms the framework for my method and will get you into the ballpark with regard to any coin’s grade. For example, if a coin has much of its luster remaining it is usually extremely fine or higher.  Then you consider the amount of design detail present. When there is just a small amount of luster in protected areas of the design where the relief meets the field, it probably grades very fine. Coins in fine on down usually have lost their entire original mint luster. Be aware that many dealers will grade a coin extremely fine if any trace of mint luster is present. Once again, I’ll remind readers that I am writing about original luster, not the luster found on cleaned, buffed, or polished specimens. 

You’ll also need to be alert for the strike weakness especially associated with larger foreign coins. Here you will encounter the same problems we see on many Buffalo nickels. Place a small amount of friction wear on a weakly struck coin and the design will appear to be more worn than it actually is. Nevertheless, the amount of original luster remaining on the coin should provide enough of a clue that the coin is actually weakly struck.


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