by Mike Thorne
At the end of my last column, I introduced an issue that could be summarized in the following question: If I purchase only coins certified by the major certification services, why would I need to learn how to grade coins for myself? If the grades assigned by the services are both valid (what they're supposed to be) and reliable (the same coins receive the same grades time after time), why can't I just depend on the certification services to get it right?
For one thing, there are many coins that will never be sent to a certification service. Given how much it costs to have a coin certified, it's not cost effective to certify anything worth less than $100 or so. If you're relatively new to collecting, the under $100 figure probably accounts for almost everything in your collection.
To give you an example, let's suppose you begin by collecting Lincoln cents like I did. If you look at the Lincoln cent prices in this magazine, you'll see that, except for the big keys (1909-S VDB, 1914-D) and major varieties (e.g., 1922 no D, 1955 doubled die obverse), they're all valued under $100 in most grades. In other words, the chances are good that you'll be interested in purchasing most of the dates "raw," or uncertified.
This same situation holds true for many of the coins you'll want to acquire as a relatively novice collector. Think about Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Washington quarters, Walking Liberty half dollars, and so on. Of course, if you're into gold coins, then you'll need to buy mostly certified coins, as they'll all be worth more than $100.
Even with certified coins, you can't automatically assume that the coins are accurately graded. Also, even if they are accurately graded, some coins will be nicer than others. For this reason, collectors are frequently admonished to buy the coin, not the holder. I've seen many coins in PCGS and NGC holders that are no doubt accurately graded but are so ugly (in my opinion) that I wouldn't want to own them. If you purchase a coin like this, you'll find that it'll be hard to get rid of if you try to sell it. No matter what the grade is on the holder, if it's ugly, there won't be any buyers for it.
Along the same lines, I would strongly urge you to resist the purchase of a “hole filler." By this, I mean a coin that's either a really low grade when you could afford something better or a coin with major problems, such as scratches, cuts, horrible color, a hole, and so on. Take it from me, you'll never be satisfied with the coin and sooner or later, probably sooner, you'll spend money to replace the filler. When you've bought a replacement, you're likely to find that the hole filler is unsellable.
As an example of a time when I bought something and should have known better, I was working on filling an album of Barber quarters. Eventually, I had holes for only the 1896-S and 1901-S. In a coin periodical, I saw an 1896-S advertised for $50, with the caveat that it was damaged. Naturally, I couldn't pass it up. This was long before the days when you could see a picture of the coin on your cell phone or computer. When the coin arrived, I realized that the "damaged" description was the seller's polite way of saying the coin had perhaps lain in a parking lot for months during which several cement trucks had passed over it!
In terms of its detail, the coin would have received a grade of at least XF and possibly AU. Unfortunately, it was wrecked and even worse, it had been harshly cleaned. Like cleaning was going to make it look better? I sold it along with the rest of my Barber quarters and pretended that I had recovered my money on it. By the way, I never did fill the 1901-S hole.
Having said I think you should learn to grade for yourself, how do you go about this? I'm assuming you've purchased a dedicated grading guide or two and have read the introduction thoroughly. What's next? What's next is that you need to look at large numbers of coins in different series and in different grades. One good place to do this is at your neighborhood friendly dealer's shop. If you're there when he or she's not busy, chances are good that you can get some free lessons in what to look for.
If this kind of situation is impossible for you (e.g., there are no friendly dealers and coin shops in your area), then another possibility is to attend a large show. There, you'll be exposed to literally thousands of coins in slabs that you can examine to get an idea of the characteristics that distinguish one grade from another.
It's also possible that one or more of the show dealers, assuming that they're not doing a large amount of business, will be willing to give you some instruction on what to look for. Bottom line: To learn how to grade, you need to keep your eyes and ears open, read as much as you can in your grading guides about the nuances in grading different series, and be willing to look at innumerable coins, graded or ungraded. In other words, knowledge and experience (and lots of it) are the keys.
Back to your numismatic library. After you've obtained basic guides to coin values and grading, it may be time to look into specializing. That is, you may find that you like some coin series and designs better than others. If so, you'll want to buy one or more books dedicated to your series of choice. Fortunately, in the last several years Whitman Publishing has developed a lengthy series of books devoted to individual or related coin series. There are Whitman Guide Books that cover half cents and large cents, Flying Eagle and Indian cents, Lincoln cents, Buffalo nickels, and so on. Many of these are the work of Q. David Bowers, a stellar name among professional numismatists.
As I indicated earlier, coin books will do you little good if they just sit on the shelf gathering dust. Read, attend shows, join a local coin club, and you'll be well on your way to a lifetime of collecting pleasure.