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Learning to recognize friction

Some of you know that ICG has moved into a larger building. After the move, while setting up my library, I came across a small pamphlet that had a profound influence on me decades ago while implementing the “Technical Grading System” we used to identify coins for our internal records at the ANA’s Certification Service in Washington, D.C. The pamphlet, titled ‘AU or “BU”’, was written by Loyd B.Gettys & Edward M. Catich. It is a reprint from a 1956 ‘Numismatist’. Not surprisingly, the AU/BU line is still relevant sixty plus years later although it has moved considerably from back then. Let me paraphrase and quote some of the points they made in the article.

Since coin grading is inconsistent and a matter of opinion from sources with different skill levels, an effort should be made to remove grade classifications by opinion to a more objective standard. They also wrote that “…the prime source of resentment among novices, as well as advanced numismatists, is the attempt by some coin owners to nudge their About Uncirculated coins into the Uncirculated bracket.” Finally, remember at this time the prevailing definition of Uncirculated as published in the Redbook was a coin with NO WEAR. However, I must have missed this part of their article when I formulated the standards for the “Technical System”:

“An uncirculated coin is a newly minted coin that finds its way into the usual trade channels, after having passed from the mints to the Federal Reserve banks and respective member banks. Moreover those coins, originally new but handled down from collector to collector through generations and which, after years of numismatic handling, acquire “cabinet friction” are considered as uncirculated.”

Contact marks added to the eagle’s breast to hide the friction wear.

Contact marks added to the eagle’s breast to hide the friction wear.

Since a great many coins of all ages exist with “no trace of wear or cabinet friction,” in order to be precise, I chose to stick with the prevailing published standard, no trace of wear to grade coins in our system. Additionally, nicks and scratches cannot drop an Uncirculated coin to AU as is commonly done by “net” graders. With precise technical grading, a coin could not be graded AU one time and then be graded MS the next time it was seen weeks or months later. Thus, the technical grade was like a “fingerprint.” A strict grade plus the weight of the coin to thousandths of a gram plus an image of both obverse and reverse was plenty to identify it.

Technical grading was not suitable for the coin market where strike, friction wear, and especially eye appeal are very important. Over time, the concept of a little cabinet friction evolved so that by the time Q. David Bowers wrote ‘Grading Coins by Photographs’, he could write that coins formerly graded AU can now often be found graded in the low mint state range.

When I teach grading seminars, I start the students off with a strict technical standard – no friction. They learn to recognize what an original, fully lustrous mint state surface looks like and the change in color that occurs once it is lost either by stacking rub or friction wear.

As the students become experienced, they will need to decide for themselves just how much friction they will tolerate on an “uncirculated” coin before it becomes their personal AU. It is something we all do. When a dealer seeks my opinion on a coin, I’ll often tell him it is an AU; yet I would sell it as an “MS-something” and sleep like a baby because that’s the commercial grading system. Easy right? Examine a coin, like a Morgan dollar for example, look at the eagle’s breast and the hair over the ear and if it has full luster it is MS if not it’s AU.

At one ANA Summer Seminar several decades ago, a thoughtful student posed a very good question. What if someone took a coin with a little cabinet friction on the breast (AU) and added some hits to the coin using the reeded edge of another dollar to hide the friction? Would the coin now look like new and be graded MS with just a few more detracting marks? Oops! That is exactly what has been done to the coin in Figure 1. Obviously, by the extent of the marks, this particular coin had more than a little cabinet friction to begin with. But many dollars can increase in value thousands of dollars if they go from AU to MS so watch for this alteration.

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

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