In a letter to the editor published in the May 15 issue, a reader requested that I explain the relationship between a coin?s strike and market grading.
Specifically, he wished to know: ?How much does the strength of the strike [on a coin] affect that grade [market grade], and how is the determination made to call [a coin with] weak strike Almost Uncirculated??
While a direct answer is simple enough, ?An Uncirculated coin?s strike may affect its market grade, but a weak strike cannot make an Uncirculated coin into an AU,? let me use this opportunity to expand and clarify some points made in previous columns dealing with the Uncirculated grade, AU grade and weakly struck coins.
First, let?s look at the word ?Uncirculated.? It is used to describe a coin that is in ?Mint State,? the state of condition it was in when it was freshly made at the Mint no matter how long ago that event occurred. An Uncirculated coin is one that shows no signs of wear. As you examine a coin to grade, do not be concerned with its antiquity or provenance. As long as it still has the appearance one might expect to find on that coin when it was freshly made, it will meet the criteria for the Uncirculated grade.
One of the top professional graders in the country explained this concept by having me examine a bright copper Lincoln cent that he pulled from his pocket. I could see it would easily grade Uncirculated if he were to send in to a third-party grading service.
Lately, I have found that it?s becoming harder to teach the ?line? or border between AU coins and Uncs. It was easier when I was learning to grade ? Uncirculated coins showed no trace of wear. If we examined a coin that had any trace of wear (seen as friction on the high points of its design), we graded it AU. Case closed, no matter what the cause.
As grading evolved, numismatists became more attuned to the things that could cause a slight rub on the high points of a coin?s design such as ?cabinet friction,? ?stacking rub? and ?roll rub.? These are terms used to describe the very slight rub that Uncirculated coins may acquire from storage in a coin cabinet, being stacked for counting, or being jammed together in a roll with other coins. Today?s graders can be less critical of these small amounts of abrasion and still consider a coin for the Uncirculated grades if other factors such as eye appeal are outstanding.
One ?key? that graders use to help determine when a coin has actually become worn from circulation is the condition of its field. This works well because as coins are handled, spent, palmed and carried in pockets and purses, friction causes a loss of luster in the fields as well as their relief.
Once the determination has been made that there is no actual wear on a coin, other factors are considered to judge its quality of preservation among other coins in Mint State condition. As most of you know, these factors include the number and location of detracting marks, the quality of the coin?s surface and luster, the coin?s strike and its eye appeal. Since a coin?s eye appeal is dependent on the other factors combined, we can say it is the most important, all-inclusive factor used to determine the ?market grade? of a coin. Thus, once a coin is considered to be Mint State, its eye appeal determines its MS grade. Note that for simplicity, we are leaving a coin?s rarity and desirability out of this discussion.
As for strike quality, long ago it did not carry the importance that it has today. A coin?s strike ? the amount of die detail brought out as it was made ? had nothing to do with the determination that it never circulated and was in Mint State condition. Therefore, as it still remains today, a weakly struck coin will still be graded Uncirculated. However, once a determination is made that a coin is circulated, the quality of its strike is less important.
There can be several reasons why a coin can have the appearance of being weakly struck and missing details of its intended design. The results of these, as I see it, work to make grading more difficult.
For example, when a very weakly struck coin becomes worn, it may appear to be more circulated than it actually is when judging the amount of its design remaining. Some collectors have difficulty determining whether the detail missing from a coin?s high parts is due to wear from circulation or was never on the coin at all due to strike weakness.
The illustrated micrograph of the $5 Indian gold coin shows the headdress area just right of center on the coin?s obverse. Note the weakness of the design on the lower feathers. This coin is strictly Uncirculated with full blazing luster and absolutely no friction wear. Observe how the mint luster and color are virtually uniform across the entire surface, including the area of strike weakness. By learning what mint luster looks like, you?ll be able to recognize when it is missing on a circulated coin.
As the market realized that a strongly struck coin was more desirable than a weakly struck example, strike became one of the criteria used to grade coins in the Uncirculated range. Several decades ago, a coin could not rate the MS-65 designation unless it was fully struck. Over time, as the grading system evolved and expanded to MS-70, exceptional coins with some weakness can grade above MS-65.
As a general rule of thumb, coins that are MS-68 and above will be sharply struck, and coins between MS-65 and MS-67 will have a normal strike for the date and mint. MS-64 coins may have an average strike while coins graded MS-63 down may be below average. Nevertheless, it?s important to remember that an Uncirculated coin?s strike is only one part of the grading equation. Eye appeal, luster and the number and severity of contact marks are more important. Thus, even a fully struck coin with razor sharp detail may only grade MS-60 because of low eye appeal due to numerous bagmarks.
Another grading innovation of importance to collectors was the adoption of special designations given to many types of coins to signify that they have above-average strikes. These designations include Full Bell Lines (Franklin half dollars), Full Horn (Buffalo nickels), Full Head (Standing Liberty quarters) and Full Bands (Mercury dimes).
Grading is a complex art. Study coins that have been graded by the major grading services, and make use of the American Numismatic Association grading courses to help make sense of it all.
F. Michael Fazzari is senior numismatic conservator for Numismatic Conservation Services. Previously, he worked at a number of grading services, and he is currently a coin authentication consultant to Numismatic Guaranty Corp. of America.