By F. Michael Fazzari
I keep topics, ideas, and drafts in a folder for possible future columns. I just found a copy of a published column with the promise to write more on the subject next time. I was shocked to discover what I thought was a relatively recent column was actually published in the April 29th issue of 2014! Where did those four years go?
My draft for Part 2 started this way: Eye appeal is the “bowl” that holds all the components for each part of the Mint State grading equation. Unfortunately, it is the ONLY subjective part of this formula, as all the others (marks, friction, luster, and strike) can be measured with a semblance of precision. I’m left with the old cliché – coin grading is subjective. What are some of the reasons for this subjectivity without writing about specific characteristics we find on coins?
1. Smaller coins are harder to grade than larger coins because they are harder to see. Additionally, you must adjust for the huge difference in size. An insignificant mark on a large coin that would virtually disappear – or at the least have little effect on its grade – becomes very significant, as it will have a greater effect on the grade of the smaller piece. Figure 1 shows a major hit in the prime focal area of an Indian Head cent.
2. Is the coin being bought or sold by the person who grades it? Most will agree that the owner of a coin may tend to overlook things on it that a buyer might consider to be a defect. That’s why an independent party, such as a TPGS (third- party grading service) or coin club member, will often judge our coins more fairly and accurately than we can.
3. Despite what you may think or read, there really are no universal grading standards. This has always been the case. While different standards have been published – even one by our national organization – very often they are not universally followed. Although professionals will tend to agree more often than not, without a set, agreed-upon standard that we all use, subjectivity must rule.
4. Furthermore, those standards we appear to follow, both published and used, have changed and continue to evolve. Thus, over time, the tighter standards of the past have become less strict. Besides a general loosening of the old standards, grading is affected by trends in the economic health of the coin market – both up and down. Hopefully, those reading this column already know that many coins considered to be AU in the past are now graded Mint State.
5. The experience and knowledge of the grader. Experience can be measured to some extent, but longevity in numismatics as a collector or successful businessman may not equate to knowledge. This is especially true today, when a good salesman can make a living selling coins that have already been graded and encapsulated by a third party. Knowledge is another thing entirely. It is not essentially linked to the time spent in the hobby or business. For that reason alone, collectors who specialize in a series should quickly surpass their peers and most of the dealers they buy from.
6. Eyesight. I’ve been told that we all see the same things differently – colors, shades, and details. This includes colorblindness, which is a serious deficiency, as a coin’s color offers many clues to its grade and authenticity. Additionally, our eyesight changes as we get older. That’s why magnification is the “great equalizer.”
7. The magnification collectors rely on is extremely varied. We are taught that 4X to 5X is ideal; yet I rarely see anyone using less than 10X to examine a coin outside of a grading room. As a professional authenticator, I wish to see everything possible to see on a coin. Using a stereo microscope set at low power and florescent light is necessary to accomplish this. I have found it much easier and self-serving to back off the magnification to make a final assessment than to use one eye and a low-power hand lens and miss something on one of the coin’s three sides. (Don’t forget the edge.)
8. There are all types of lights that collectors and dealers prefer. There are reasons for this, as the lighting depends on what you wish to see. When searching for bagmarks and hairlines, incandescent light is best. Unfortunately, incandescent light puts a glare on the high points of a coin’s surface that makes it difficult to detect any loss of original mint luster until it has become very obvious. Detection of friction wear is best done using florescent light. Perhaps that is the principal reason its use is discouraged. Although marks, hairlines, and friction are obvious under the microscope, I use both types of light. Florescent light is the ONLY light I recommend for coin authentication.
Until you are comfortable with your skills, including being able to detect altered surfaces and cleaning, it is best to leave the “subjectivity” part of the grading equation up to the folks working at one of the four major grading services and confine your buying to coins graded by one of them.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
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