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What do you do with ugly coins?

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Each day at the grading service, I see many coins with impaired eye appeal.  Proofs are hazed over, spotted, splotchy, discolored and fingerprinted while the copper coins are dirty, often with green residue.

Usually this is PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Many are so bad that when the coins are removed from their holders for grading, they leave a green outline from their rim on the flip. Why do collectors let this happen? What do they expect for a grade when they send coins like this to be slabbed? They are the present-day caretakers of these objects and grading has become all about eye appeal.  

One consideration I must take into account is that collectors and dealers may differ somewhat on what looks attractive – it’s a matter of taste. Take Proof Ike dollars for example. On one hand, I don’t mind having a coin with a thin, bluish, uniform haze around the rim while others prefer a brilliant example. I advise students to leave coins such as this alone as they will appeal to collectors who cherish the haze and also to those collectors who can’t wait to dip the coin when they get it home.

ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins: American Numismatic Association
ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins: American Numismatic Association

Beginners, advanced collectors, and delaers will all find the text understandable and invaluable for grading coins.
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On the other hand, some coins are just plain ugly and you know it. These are the coins that frustrate me because I see what they can be once they are properly conserved. The micrographs show two small parts of a very unattractive Statue of Liberty half dollar that can be easily restored to a beautiful specimen with a little work. A mirror surfaced silver proof with irregular patches of gray stains is not a pretty sight.  Most of these proofs have very few detracting marks and hairlines to begin with so eye appeal is a major factor in the grading equation. By current American Numismatic Association Grading Standards, even coins graded MS/PR-64 must be pleasing to the eye.

At every grading service I worked at between 1972 and 1998, I regularly called customers to request their permission to remove PVC, spots, foreign matter and unsightly discoloration from specific coins. It would allow us to increase their eye appeal and hence their grade. I never had anyone refuse my offer. This service became extremely important at the INS Authentication Bureau (the first coin grading firm in the U.S.) as we wanted to send out the best product to our customers. I can remember one client was so pleased that he called to ask if he could send in some copper cents “for cleaning only.”      

All this happened decades ago but little has changed. Just last week I spoke with one of our submitters about the condition of one of his coins. It’s necessary to contact the collector before any work is done because correct conservation can change the appearance (thus grade) of a coin dramatically. He insisted that his coin was “original” and had never been cleaned but the surface of his coin said otherwise.
One giveaway was the opaque residue that had collected around the coin’s relief – outlining it as the cleaning agent evaporated. It gave the coin an unnatural and unattractive appearance. After a few minutes, he confessed to have used a particular chemical on his coins to improve their appearance. 

Unfortunately, many other coins in his order had residue stains that had appearedaover time because the job was not done right the first time. I gave him some advice on correct conservation methods and offered to improve the condition of other coins in his order.

If you do not know what you are doing, or do not have the experience formed by experimenting with inexpensive coins, it’s best not to try to improve the eye appeal of your coins at home. A better option is to use one of the conservation services. As of this writing, I know of only two grading services that will conserve your coins before they are slabbed. Numismatic Conservation Service is affiliated with Numismatic Guaranty Corp. I believe they charge a fee for conservation based on the value of your coin.  At present, Independent Coin Graders (ICG) offers this service free of charge. Customers are contacted about specific coins in their order that will benefit from conservation. 

Eye appeal is considered the most important part of the grading equation because other factors such as marks and luster are taken together to arrive at a coin’s eye appeal and determine its grade.


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