Skip to main content

Time to Simplify Standards for Morgan Dollar Reflectivity

1882-CC Morgan dollar. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com.)

1882-CC Morgan dollar. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com.)

It’s in human nature to complicate things. Professional numismatists and numismatic entities are no exception. I have been involved with coins for a long time as I progressed from a hoarder of everything to a professional grader and sometime teacher. I’ve seen/been involved in a lot during that time as standards were changed as grading evolved. The thoughts I express here are verifiable facts dealing with the amount of reflectivity we find on a coin’s surface – the PL/DMPL [Proof-Like/Deep Mirror Proof-Like] designations. I’m writing this Viewpoint out of years of frustration hoping those numismatists above my pay grade may give what I write some needed attention.

Morgan dollars are common coins. Many of these coins came from the Mint with a surface anyone would regard as having a mirror-like reflectivity rather than the usual frosty one. These coins are called Proof-Like because they have the appearance of the special coins manufactured as proofs. Since their numbers are smaller, over time, they have become very popular and their value has increased over other Mint State examples. Back in the 1960s, when I became more interested in coins, you could buy a common date PL Morgan dollar (the DMPL terminology did not exist) for just $2 to $3 over the price of a BU coin. As a 20-something collector, I saw many of those transactions. With time, knowledge and market trends that is no longer the case. Researchers have even determined the relative rarity ranking in PL for each date and mint.

The mirror-like reflectivity of these coins occurs in degrees. As the PL designation was evolving to what we have today, the dollars that did not quite rate the PL designation but were not frosty either were called Semi-PL. Gradually the simple PL designation was further divided into DMPL and Ultra-DMPL. The Semi-PL degree of reflectivity was dropped, possibly because they were no longer trading anywhere near the PL price. One grading Service, ICG, has started using the Semi-PL designation again for these coins.

Obviously, as soon as we introduce stages or degrees to some characteristic we find on a coin, the level of subjectivity increases. Unfortunately, I’m left a frustrated “black & white” guy. I like to keep things simple for fellow collectors. Unfortunately, that is not the case. That’s because there is the necessity of having several third-party grading services (TPGS) to help protect consumers from grading errors. So from what anyone can observe (including TPGS “insiders”), it appears they may have slightly different standards for the amount of a coin’s reflectivity and their way of determining the depth of a coin’s “mirror.” Apparently, there are even cases where the amount of “chatter” in the coin’s field will affect the PL/DMPL determination regardless of the reflectivity.

While there are paper measuring devices and other “so-called standards” of measurement in reference books, I’ve only seen one used once in a seminar demonstration. Some of the time a grader will hold a coin under his desk lamp or in the dark space under the desk between his knees to see if they can see the sharp image of their fingernail. Other times a grader will cover the coin with the top half of a plastic slab to see how it will look in the holder. Often the small printing on the flip’s ID label will be held up to the coin to see just how far away the numbers can be read. Now, one of the ugly problems that causes much of my frustration is that the unaided eyesight of each of us is not the same! I’m lucky to still be nearsighted. Not as much as when I was a rookie authenticator, but it is still easy for me to see the reflected numbers on the surface of PL and DMPL coins. However, I’ve observed that many older numismatists cannot just look at a coin without some kind of magnification. How they can reliably determine a coin’s actual depth of mirror with one hand on the coin and the other measuring the reflectivity is a complete mystery to me. If confronted, I get the “I know it when I see it” answer. That is not an answer. I know it when I see it, too!

I have some suggestions. Let’s please get a group of distinguished, knowledgeable, experienced numismatists together to hammer out some standards for reflectivity. Perhaps this can be done during the ANA Summer Seminar. Let’s include some very sharp YNs with “young” eyes who are not yet completely stuck in the status quo and who will not be bullied into changing what they see. Furthermore, let’s get rid of another confusing problem caused by linking a coin’s value to its grade rather than its actual condition of preservation by using identical standards of reflectivity for coins of all dates and mints! Let’s stop the “game” where coins with the identical depth of PL or DMPL mirror are graded differently because of their rarity. Time will tell if my suggestions reach any eyes that care.

F. Michael Fazzari is a professional grader for ICG. He is the longtime writer of the “Facts About Fakes” and “Making the Grade” columns for Numismatic News.

To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, email submissions to numismatics@aimmedia.com.