By Frank S. Robinson
Jim Klein (“Viewpoint,” June 17) is retiring from coins at 77 and offers advice to those still collecting. What comes through loudest is a phobia about cleaned coins, which he basically calls worthless. “Dealers will pay only ‘melt value’ ... regardless of their age, date, or mintmark.”
That sounds a bit extreme (and as though Mr. Klein has been burned). There are always gripes about low-balling dealers, and crying “cleaned! cleaned!” while making a hex sign is one gambit. Trying to get something cheap is a basic human trait. Yet you can’t profit from a coin without buying it, and the best way to actually buy is to offer fair prices. A dealer offering melt value for a cleaned Bust dollar would be a fool. (Word gets around.)
But Klein’s essay does demonstrate that the hobby has been infected with an irrationally exaggerated phobia about cleaned coins. It’s been propelled by slab services seemingly giving them an accursed pariah status. We forget what numismatics – coin collecting – is actually about.
Klein seems to imply it’s about money and profit. Well, those are important. But coin collecting is a hobby, and coins have value only insofar as collectors take pleasure in them. Knowing a coin is valuable does impart pleasure. But that value only exists due to some other quality that makes owning a coin pleasurable: historicity, aesthetic quality, rarity, its place in the scheme of a collection. Those are what make coins valuable. Coins aren’t (tautologically) valuable because they are valuable.
Thus, the logic of valuation correlated to condition. A coin in better condition is more prized because it is more aesthetically pleasing, better manifests the original design and art, and (usually) is more rare and difficult to acquire.
“Originality” is part of condition. It may be rare for a coin to survive untouched, that entails a certain integrity, and is often more aesthetically pleasing than in the case of a cleaned coin. But not always! Indeed, the very purpose of cleaning is – duh – to improve a coin’s appearance. True, that intention can go awry, degrading a coin’s appearance, at least in the eyes of most collectors. But that’s compounded by a prejudice against any kind of cleaning whatsoever, the very word “cleaned” having been turned into a shibboleth that goes beyond the rational.
The fundamental logic of valuing coins according to aesthetic appeal should mean just that – i.e., according to how they look. If a cleaned EF looks worse (due to artificiality?) than an original toned EF, then fine. But if a nicely cleaned EF looks better than an ugly toned one, it should be worth ... well, if not more, at least almost as much. Not made the arbitrary victim of a label that has become virtually as prejudicial as a racist epithet.
We actually see the foregoing logic in the term “curated,” which some deride as an effort to sanitize cleaning. But it merely reflects the reality that “cleaning” is a spectrum, some is better and some is worse. It runs contrary to the black-and-white attitude that “cleaning is bad.”
Originality goes only so far as a value criterion. There is no opprobrium about cleaning an art work to improve its appearance. The art market has a better grip on the basic concept that it’s all about aesthetics and doesn’t get hung up on a fetishistic obsession over “cleaning.”
The ancient coin field, in contrast to the U.S. market, is also more rationally attuned to valuation according to how coins actually look. Since practically all ancient coins have been cleaned, it’s something of a moot point and not the deal-breaker it is for U.S. coins. Of course originality often still adds value. But the eye appeal, not some epithet, is the main thing. Ancient bronze coins have often been mechanically smoothed to ameliorate rough surfaces (a complete no-no for a U.S. coin); and between two specimens of comparable appearance, one that’s original is worth more than a smoothed one. Yet nicely smoothed coins nevertheless bring very good prices indeed – certainly more than ones with original but problematic surfaces! Again, it’s what the eye sees that matters most.
But even in the U.S. market, it’s not as black and white as Klein’s essay suggests. A decently cleaned Bust dollar is not, in fact, worth hugely less than an original one of equal grade. That’s because many collectors still prefer – guess what? – detail to originality, and have not been brainwashed otherwise.
They’re not insane or foolish. In fact, contrary to Klein’s pounded message, cleaned coins could actually prove the better investment, if bought at discounted prices due to unfashionability, a prejudice not grounded in rationality, nor handed down from Mount Sinai. Fashions change.
This “Viewpoint” was written by Frank Robinson, a hobbyist from New York state.
Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More Collecting Resources
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.
• The Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money is the only annual guide that provides complete coverage of U.S. currency with today’s market prices.