In this column, I’ll attempt to simplify how hairlines and scratches on coins might be treated today and in the future. I have found that by breaking down a complex subject into smaller bits it is easier to understand.
Let me illustrate this using the old technical grading system that was devised to only describe a coin’s condition of preservation – nothing else. Unfortunately, an unacceptable amount of subjectivity enters the grading equation when factors such as eye appeal, strike, or the effect that post-minting damage has on a coin’s grade. Further complexity is introduced when a coin’s rarity and value are considered as it is graded. By removing all these variables, we were able to describe a coin’s state of preservation very precisely. Additional simplification occurred as we judged the condition of each side separately. Technical grading has become obsolete; yet according to the Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection professionals may use a technical approach to grade certain coins.
I have found that at least one grading guide, the Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins, attempts to quantify the amount of hairlines allowed on uncirculated coins in the MS-60 to MS-66 grade. For example, no hairlines can be visible on an MS-66 without magnification and a noticeable patch may be on a coin grading MS-62. In most cases, this criterion seems to have become “market acceptable”; however, we can find gem looking coins (MS-65) with continuous light hairlines over their entire surface (an ANA MS-61) graded higher. Again, it’s a matter of market acceptability, perceived value and eye-appeal. Except in very rare cases, I don’t believe that multiple professional graders missed the extent of the impairment.
I haven’t found any written standards when we consider coins with scratches. We all should know what a scratch looks like; yet they are like snowflakes – no two are identical in every respect. In order to describe one here and determine its effect on a coin’s grade, we’ll need to simplify the equation and get more technical. Scratches can be equated to bag marks in the way they are broken down. We must consider the number of scratches, their location, their severity (length, width and depth) and whether they are fresh or old.
The most delicate scratches on a coin are called hairlines. Perhaps an easy way to understand a hairline is to view some modern proofs under strong incandescent light. Hairlines can be of any length but they hardly cut into a coin’s surface and may disappear completely if the coin is tipped and rotated at the same time.
When does a hairline become a scratch? I believe it happens as soon as the mark becomes slightly wider or deeper – perhaps the thickness of the finest blonde human hair you could ever imagine.
Figure 1 shows a mark on the cheek of a Kennedy half dollar that may be considered at the borderline between a hairline and a scratch. There are a few parallel hairlines Scratches vary in length and depth yet they remain thin.
I classify the short, wide and deep marks on the back of the Bison in Figure 2 to be gouges. You’ll need to set your own set of rules regarding scratches until some standards are set. You can get a feel for scratch nomenclature and appearance with a simple experiment. Take a pin and gently brush it across the surface of a new Lincoln cent. Do the same using very slight pressure. Increase the pressure to make some more marks having a different appearance.
Notice how easy it is to differentiate the severity of each scratch. If you trace Lincoln’s head with your pin, you’ll see the scratch is less apparent and may be missed upon examination.
Sooner or later, one common light scratch you will encounter on a coin is called a “staple scratch.” It really does not matter what actually caused the scratch – staple or not – but a small single, random scratch falls into this category due to its appearance (Figure 3). A more significant scratch under the banner on the reverse of the Capped Bust half dollar in Figure 4 is less noticeable because it blends closely with the design and has toned down over time.
Personally, I don’t wish to have any coins with scratches in my collection. As a professional grader, I don’t wish to “straight grade” any of these coins either. Nevertheless, at this time, I can demonstrate that some coins with scratches, even in uncirculated condition, may receive straight grades at grading services. Grading is a subjective art; thus the standards are not fixed. A coin’s market value (commercial grade) is often determined by its appearance and rarity. Professional graders must take into account how noticeable these defects are to the naked eye. Graders are usually more tolerant of scratches on lower grade coins – again based on their age and appearance. Perhaps one day in the future, the ANA will convene a grading round table of experts at a convention or Summer Seminar to classify the effect scratches have on a coin’s grade and when we can expect to find straight grades on coins with scratches. If they ever do (Hint, Hint), I hope they will include me in the discussion.