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Old AU coins make Mint State today

Imagine learning to drive on the right side of the road and then moving away from the city and high into the mountains with no paved roads or cars. Then, coming down 40 years later to find that everyone is driving on the left. Ideas, standards and terms have changed like this in numismatics. Often it is for a good reason, like a better understanding of the subject; yet our Rip Van Winkle is still in for a shock!

The fact that words mean something can be confirmed in any dictionary. Despite this, and for whatever the reason, everyone may not get the message and they choose to change the meaning of words to fit their understanding. Recently, there has been a discussion on Internet forums about “Perfection” and how it relates to the MS/PR-70 grade. I’ll also add the phrase “trace of wear” to this discussion.

The word “trace” can be defined as “a barely discernible quantity.” The key here is “discernible” – something we can see. Thus, we have introduced a subjective variable as not all eyes are equal. Once upon a time, as soon as a coin showed “a trace of wear” it was no longer considered to be Mint State.

This standard seemed to work very well for collectors and numismatists who were not on the commercial side of the coin business. Loss of luster on the high parts of a coin’s relief is very easy to see if the surface is original and untoned and you know what to look for.


Figure 1: Loss of detail on the eagle’s leg is not entirely due to strike weakness.

Problem was, collectors wanted to buy Mint State examples for their collections due to the prevailing advice at the time: “Always purchase coins in the best condition you can afford.” Unfortunately, for some series of coins that is a truly rare condition of preservation. What was a seller to do to meet the demand? Easy, over a period of time, that notion of “trace of wear” was recalibrated allowing coins with a much more noticeable loss of luster (some closer to the AU-55 of the 1970s) to be graded Mint State. Today, more and more numismatists accept “cabinet friction” on coins they consider to still be in Mint State condition. Thus, coins that were formerly graded About Uncirculated due to a trace of wear are now graded in the low Mint State range. This is more commonly evident on vintage pieces, gold coins and rarities.

I teach my students to recognize signs of friction on a coin so they can make an informed personal decision about the quality of any “trace” they see. The slabbed coin in Figure 1, with a “trace of wear,” is acceptable to most dealers as a Mint State example in today’s market. Note: The loss of detail on the eagle’s leg of this $10 Indian is not entirely due to strike weakness.

A similar evolution is taking place with the word “perfect.” Recently, there has been some discussion on the Internet forums of what constitutes a perfect coin. One member made a point that I don’t think anyone can deny. His contention was that no coin is perfect. He notes that under increasing magnification you can eventually find flaws on any coin. While I’ll agree with this statement, that’s where I believe he went too far. Most of us, as well as the grading services, have preferred limits of magnification we use to examine coins. 5X to 7X seems to be the norm for many of us.

The discussion started to deteriorate for me as one collector believed it was ridiculous to think that “literal perfection” was required to garner a grade of MS/PR-70. Well, grading is subjective so if he is satisfied with a less than perfect coin grading 70, who can argue? All of us, including the major grading services, have our own standard of perfection. That takes this column back to the beginning. Are we going to dumb down the definition of “perfection” to suit our personal needs? Perfect means having all the desired qualities with no flaws or shortcomings. If we ignore that definition, then for every coin we examine the questions of what type of imperfection, how many, how noticeable, which side, mint made or not must be considered. That takes the coin out of my idea of perfection, which (while I admit is silly) is determined at whatever power of magnification I wish to crank my stereo microscope up to.

One poster who seems to agree with me passed on an interesting observation made after examining many thousands of coins using a stereo microscope. I’ll quote him here: “If I cannot see a defect of any kind on a coin [using a stereo microscope?] at 7X to 10X, I will rarely be able to find one on the coin at 80X either.”

I tried this recently and it seems to be true. Therefore, there is no point for me to post an image of the surface of a perfect silver Eagle coin at an extreme power of magnification as it would look like a smooth gray square in the center of this column.

This same poster ended with what I believe and agree to be an excellent summation of the concept of “perfection” with regard to the MS/PR-70 grade. Again, I’ll quote him/her here: “All [coins graded] 70s are not equal. There are many thousands of perfect coins graded 70 with absolutely no defects when examined at powers of magnification well above the standards set by any of the TPGS’s [third-party grading services]. That being said and provable to anyone who looks at numerous slabs, each of us and each TPGS (barring mistakes) gets to decide what a coin graded 70 should look like.”

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

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