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Collecting Coins with "Details" Grades

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Do you own any coins certified by either PCGS or NGC or both? There are collectors who only collect raw coins, coins that are not in slabs. If you’re in this category, then you probably won’t find this column very relevant or interesting. 

However, if you’re a collector who buys coins certified by either of the major services, then you may already own some with details grades. This is particularly the case if you’ve ever submitted coins for certification and grading. 

Back in the early days of coin certification, coins with problems submitted to either of the two major services would be returned to the owner in the dreaded “body bags.” In other words, they wouldn’t be certified and encapsulated, and the owner was just out the amount paid for shipping and certification.

Beginning in 2007, PCGS started encapsulating certain problem coins without assigning them a numerical grade, and NGC began this practice a couple of years later. The reasons for a details grade from PCGS are Filed Rims, Questionable Color, Cleaning (harsh cleaning or polishing), Planchet Flaw, Altered Surfaces (application of substances such as wax, putty, and lacquer), Scratch or Scratches, Environmental Damage (examples include corrosion, excessive toning, and verdigris), and Damage (defined as any metal movement). As you would expect, NGC has a similar list of causes for their details grades.

My interest in the topic of details coins was piqued by a recent thread in CoinTalk. The original poster (OP) wrote, “I would really like to hear from anyone who makes coins that have been slabbed ‘Details’ a part of your collection. Are you happy with your coins? Is it just a price thing? Do you have any buyer’s remorse when a straight-graded coin of the same date and grade becomes available?”

OP then recounted a story about purchasing a high-grade Seated Liberty 50c and discovering that it had tiny pinpricks. He returned the coin for refund, and the dealer called him for an explanation for why he had sent it back. “He spent about 10 minutes telling me I was an idiot and didn’t know the first thing about coins. He finally demanded I take the coin back or he would never deal with me again.” Surely this call ensured that!

OP ended the story by saying, “Looking back today, I should have kept that coin. Just try and find one like it today. Also, today’s market for Details coins seems to be very strong.”

One of the first responders wrote, “Every person has a different opinion of details coins. I’m perfectly content having some details coins if they still have the eye appeal that I desire. . . . Another factor is what you are collecting. [There are] some series most of us just can’t afford to complete with all problem-free coins.”

Similarly, another member had this to say: “I personally try to avoid details coins whenever possible, but sometimes exceptions need to be made. Generally, my preference is [that] a lower-grade problem-free coin is better if cost is an issue.”

This was a common refrain: Buy a details coin if you can’t afford one without problems. But the details coin has to be one that appeals to you.

Other collectors echoed that sentiment. For example, one wrote, “Details coins are an important part of my collecting. I couldn’t afford a lot of the special wonderful historically interest rare pieces I have if it wasn’t for the discount for ‘Details.’” Examples of details coins in his collection of Standing Liberty quarters are a cleaned and corroded 1923-S graded VF30 Details by ICG and a cleaned, corroded, and damaged 1921 that ICG called VF25 Details.

Another collector provided a picture of both sides of his 1932-D quarter that NGC graded cleaned, with AU Details. He purchased it for half of the market cost for a straight-graded piece.

Yet another collector wrote, “I’m a retired blue collar worker who . . . put together a mostly AU or better Indian Head cent set. I was ecstatic to replace my G4 1877 with the coin in my avatar [a high-grade piece with a hole in it]. . . . I probably could afford to replace it at this time, but I won’t because I am quite fond of it. I collect by what makes me happy and not by the opinions of others.” In my opinion, that’s a commendable philosophy.

Of course, there were collectors who wouldn’t want a details coin no matter what. One wrote, “I avoid ‘details’ and problem coins. I would rather have a lower-grade coin than a sharper piece with problems.” He told about being offered a scarce type coin that had XF sharpness but a noticeable scratch on the obverse. “I have a no-problem, straight-grade example . . . in Fine-15. I would rather have that piece than the one with the significant scratch. The scratch would bug me every time I looked at the coin.”

I can well understand this collector’s attitude. From my experience, if a coin has a problem that I first notice after I buy it, no matter how minor it is, I can never “unsee” it. I have to get rid of the coin at my earliest opportunity even if I have to sell it at a loss.

Another in the no-details coins camp noted that he had owned two details coins in the last decade: a Trade dollar and a Bust half dollar. “I sold both of them, as I never liked the appearance of them. My advice is that if a coin it too expensive to buy straight-graded, WAIT! A hasty purchase of a filler details coin is often regretted.”

Another collector I agree with wrote, “I have bought a few details coins over the years. They had minor problems I could live with. . . . I have one rule I won’t break: No matter how rare or how much I need a coin, I won’t buy ugly. An ugly coin will always be ugly. The price can’t help that.”

Then, there are details coins that don’t appear to have any problems. As one collector put it, “Sometimes you can get great value in a details holder. And sometimes I find coins in details holders that seem to have no reason for it. . . . There is no ‘one size fits all’ for details coins. You have to examine the coin and decide what it’s worth to you.”

It appears that collectors are almost never neutral about details coins. There are those who hate them with a passion and others who don’t mind having them in their collections. 

As the saying goes, “Buy the coin, not the holder.” In other words, if a coin looks like it would find a welcome place in your collection, purchase it even if it’s a details coin.