The following article is a draft section of our Ike Book and is presented here in hopes it can shed some light on TPG’s and Ike grading. Any feedback would be most appreciated.
SECTION X: GRADING IKES
“The ANA recognizes that there is no single grading standard, and that conspicuous disclosure of the methodologies utilized is important to the understanding of how a coin is graded. Grading is an art, not a science, and the result can and may vary, even among experts.”
For a graphic representation of graded Eisenhower Dollars see our Gradeview section.
Chapter 1, some fundamentals
This chapter is both a review of grading “standards”, and our best effort to give you a feel for grading Ikes which would normally takes years to acquire. Let’s start with a brief review of lighting and the ANA grading standards and move on from there.
The essential tool for grading is a hooded lamp with a frosted incandescent 75 watt bulb at 12 to 18 inches under which you can huddle with a coin. The industry standard is an ordinary black-finish swing-arm lamp (“Architect Desk Lamp”) that has either a weighted base or clamps onto your desk. The clamp version is available at office supply stores for under $15.
The photographs show one of the authors examining an Ike under a hooded lamp. The swing-arm style facilitates optimal orientation. You have seen these at all coin shows and most coin shops.
Your challenge is to develop a consistent relationship between your eye, the coin, and the light so your grading has the advantage of consistent lighting and consistent technique.
Sunlight, by the way, is blocked from professional grading rooms because it adds an uncontrolled variable, flattens colorful toning and exaggerates non-colored toning.
Grading under other forms of lighting will be confusing until you have mastered grading under a hooded 75 watt bulb. For the record, however, small, intense, hooded halogen bulbs used at 12-18 inches tend to emphasize flaws and wash out colors. Ceiling spot lights tend to wash out defects, sometimes remarkably. It is no secret that the photos one sees on eBay that make low-grade Ikes look high-grade are often taken with a brilliant point-source light placed 10 or 15 feet from the coin (FIG:____).
LOUPES AND THEIR USE
Nearsighted collectors are blessed: they take off their glasses and can get close-up to a coin. The young are similarly blessed: with their elastic lenses, they too can get close-up to a coin. The rest of us need some degree of magnification from time to time to get up close to a coin.
A five to ten power loupe will provide all the magnification you will need unless you are looking for doubled dies, re-punched mintmarks and the like (and then a zoom stereo microscope will be necessary). Otherwise high magnification may give you more information than you can use (or ever want to know!).
Many experienced graders use a loupe infrequently, mainly to check particular areas of a coin that look suspicious to the naked eye.
For most people, the loupe is best held in your dominant hand, comfortably braced against your cheek bone or forehead. For a flat field, the coin needs to be at right angles to a line between your pupil, through the loupe and to the coin. This takes some practice, especially as you will need to learn how to “tilt-rotate” (we call it “wobble”) the coin while louping it to pick up small luster breaks, hair lines and subtle indications of metal work.
The most popular loupe is the “Hastings Triplet” which produces a reasonably flat field and freedom from color aberration. Respected brand names are Bausch & Lomb, Zeiss and Eschenbach.
Because loupes are so very easy to lose, especially at coin shows, the authors urge that your first loupes be any of the inexpensive triplet knock-offs available for under $5 on eBay. Once you have lost two or three of these and figured out what you’re doing wrong, then a wonderful Eschenbach might be a worthwhile expense.
YOUR GRADING STATION
It may seem preposterous to talk about a “grading station” but dedicating a small area on your desk for grading helps foster the discipline necessary to learn and practice accurate grading. It should be uncluttered and free of distractions. Experienced graders wash their hands before handling coins but do not wear gloves as one is more likely to drop a coin when wearing a glove. It’s common sense, however, to grade over a soft surface that will catch a dropped coin without damaging it. The ideal is the “cloth” jewelers use: it is a high-nap black synthetic fabric that facilitates picking up a coin by the rim as one can depress thumb and forefinger into the fabric to secure a firm grasp of the coin. Some coin suppliers sell shallow 8” X 12” boxes lined with Jewelers cloth: it can be convenient to have several such for staging bulk coins such as rolls. Cost is $8 to $15.
EXPERIENCE IS ALL IMPORTANT
Although the authors are trying to shorten your learning curve, there is still no substitute for experience. There is no harm and much to gain by examining coins at shops and shows and comparing your grade with the sellers. Understand that selling a coin adds a grade to the opinion and buying subtracts a grade, that’s just human nature, but most sellers will share why they assigned a given grade.
If you are just starting out, it is a good idea to pick one series and stick to it until you know the series reasonably well and can grade it reasonably well. Working with multiple series can be confusing as somewhat different grading standards apply.
Chapter 2, some grading fundamentals
A SUMMARY OF GRADING FUNDAMENTALS
Around 1977, the ANA pioneered systematic coin grading with an approach we now call “TECHNICAL GRADING”. Employed in the first formal coin grade certification service begun by the ANA in 1979, technical grading focused on coin preservation. Eye appeal did not play a designated roll. A given coin was assumed to be perfect as struck so there is no specified penalty for weak strike, die problems, planchets defects and the like. Technical grading was independent of any perceived market value. Both sides of a coin were graded separately.
“MARKET GRADING” was originally a pure grading system set up to reflect market value of Large Cents. It lost traction in the 1970’s and early 1980’s as the ANA’s Technical Grading system became dominant. By the mid-1980’s, however, there was a shift away from technical grading and back toward market grading.
Market grading permits the assigned grade to reflect market value: features that effect the eye appeal of a coin are evaluated, not just the coin’s state pf preservation. Grade bumps for especially attractive coins with defects that would normally be grade limiting are permitted. Market grading also allows for somewhat tighter grading of any specific coin where its value would jump significantly at the next higher grade.
GRADING PRESENTLY IS A MIX OF TECHNICAL AND MARKET.
The following five traditional subjective grading factors are the heart of grading. Just realize that an experienced grader processes the appearance of a coin quite rapidly and still arrives at a grade with remarkable consistency. It is the synthesis of judging all factors of a coins appearance that marks the skilled grader.
In fact the authors know of no coin pros who grade by giving separate numeric values to four or five subjective factors in order to arrive at a numeric total from which a grade is arithmetically derived. This exercise has utility only when learning the specifics of grading (but here the exercise can be valuable).
Here is a brief summary of each of the five traditional grading factors as applied to uncirculated coins.
(FOOTNOTE - In fact, the professional graders at the better Third Party Graders (PCGS, NGC, ANACS, ICG) typically spend six or seven seconds grading a coin. Some of the present day leaders of the coin industry have the knack of being able to judge a coin’s grade even faster, literally at a glance. This is a skill akin to reading a page of print at a glance: the key is to capture in one’s mind’s eye an image of a coin at a glance. Although this ability is a gift for a rare few, we all can improve our ability to see more of a coin’s surface at a single glance. )
(FOOTNOTE - The authors highly recommend the ANA Correspondence Course by J. P. Martin, “Grading Mint State U.S. Coins” for a detailed account of grading principles. Even if you plan to acquire only certified coins, you will need to know grading to pick out the better specimens at any given grade and to judge quality/pricing among the four leading certification companies (“TPGs”). This educational program is superb.
(FOOTNOTE - The authors have chosen PCGS as our focus for discussion because PCGS has published their approach to grading, which we also recommend highly, and released a video which takes the viewer into their grading room. Also, in our very humble opinion, PCGS is the strictest of “big four” TPGs (see chapter _____) and sets the standard for IKE grading (though there is no reason Ike grading standards won’t change over time as grading experience accumulates).
1. CONTACT MARKS:
How Many Contact Marks? Lots of hits, dings, scrapes, scuffs, abrasions, and scratches (all of which we can also call“hits”) drop an Ike into the bottom of the MS60 to MS70 Uncirculated portion of the grading scale (see Table ____ for a summary of that 0 to 70 scale).
Ikes are big heavy coins that were shipped in 1,000 coin bags weighing 52 pounds. You can imagine that very few escaped with only a few minor contact marks! Some Uncirculated Ikes have literally hundreds of countable hits (FIG. ___) but can still receive a grade of MS60 or even 61 if luster is present.
In your mind’s eye, keep an image of a truly ugly uncirculated Ike with the greatest possible number of large and small contact marks and no luster: that is your MS60 and you will come back to it often to anchor your grading frame of reference. (At the other end, of course, is the near-perfection of MS68.)
The Ike that has no obvious hits visible at normal viewing distance is a candidate for MS64 and above depending on the other grading factors and how many small hits jump out on closer inspection. MS65: minimal distracting hits. MS66: no distracting hits and only a few minor hits. MS67: only one or two small and non-distracting hits can be seen in important areas. MS68: no visible contact marks on close naked-eye inspection. MS69: none visible with 5X loupe inspection. MS70: a perfect coin under 5X.
In practice, looking at a particular Ike, one might think, “Better than a 62, certainly not a 65, either 63 or 64 but, gee, really nice luster and strike, make it MS64.”
Contact marks are the dominant factor in Ike grading since they plague the series.
One particular contact mark requires some experience to judge: the thin scratch or “hair line”. (FOOTNOTE - While “hairlines” traditionally refers to the very shallow, thin and mostly parallel lines on a proof, the telltale footprints of improper cleaning, the authors also use “hairline” to indicate the long, thin, shallow scratch(es) on most Ikes that condemn a given Ike to a lower grade.) Many times a hairline can be seen only at a specific angle of view and can easily be missed without rotating (“wobbling”) the Ike under a grading lamp. Rest assured, however, that PCGS does not miss many hairlines! (FIG.____) . Hairlines occur frequently on Ikes because they are both heavy and hard-surfaced so they tend to slide on one another instead of digging in to each other as the silver Morgan dollars tended to do.
Location? The eye is typically drawn to the date, the central device and the field where the central device is “looking”. These are the focal areas – hits in these areas have greater impact on the eventual grade. A big hit on Ike’s cheek, a slash across the date, a heavy reed mark in the field in front of Ikes face would have a greater negative impact on grading than if located elsewhere.
Severity? One biggish hit is roughly equivalent to three or four smaller hits. Roughly. All grading is subjective and common sense rules.
Strike is important because a strong strike sets up the design details that convey a strong image: a weak strike washes out a coin’s details and limits its grade unless weak strikes are the norm for that particular series/year/mint.
A weakly struck Ike will not receive a grade above MS65 at PCGS regardless of how clean or lustrous it might be. The detail of Ike’s hair is the key to judging strike on the obverse. Look at any 1971-D Ikes you may have. Often only half, or less, of the hair details are present. On the reverse, the feather and head details of the Eagle are important.
A middling but still not strong strike would be a negative influence on an Ike that otherwise would be an MS66 or 67 candidate. A strong strike is required for 67.
All else being equal, luster is the KEY factor for eye appeal. Luster gives a coin life. Strong luster dances and swirls as an Ike is wobbled under a grading light. Great luster can be apparent with a glance at a stationary Ike and even captured with a single photograph. Great luster seems to emanate from within the coin and can even create the impression of a moving surface when a lustrous coin is wobbled.
What produces luster? Microscopic die-flow lines on the die that begin to form early in a die’s life. The flow lines grow progressively coarser as the die ages so peak luster occurs relatively early in a die’s life.
Die flow lines result from the die pushing planchet metal with each strike from the periphery of the planchet toward the high-relief central device - the flow lines are radial and most prominent in the fields. As a die enters adolescence, the die-flow lines enlarge and luster begins to fall off. In older dies, the flow lines may be large enough to be seen as distinct radial corrugations or interference patterns develop yield a cobble-stone appearance.
Many Ike dies were polished at the get-go. Since dies are incuse (all the devices are sunk into the die), polishing a die means polishing its fields. Brand new polished dies create brilliant, reflective Ikes (“Proof-like”) but there is little luster. Luster begins to develop well before all the polish has worn off so some of the pretty Ikes have both luster and a bright finish.
A very important factor in luster is the brilliance of the struck planchet. If the planchet is dull to start with, the struck coin will tend toward dull and luster will be muted. A brilliant planchet will create a brilliant coin, even when struck with an older die when luster is fading (Figure___).
Curiously, fresh die abrasion lines (see Chapter___) can enhance an Ike’s luster, probably because these lines are thin, sharp and positive (like the devices, are on your side of the field, also called “in relief”).
Great luster can bump the grade of a given Ike. The authors have seen Business Strike Silver Ikes with hits that would normally limit the grade to 67 receive a 68 because of great luster. But weak, poor and even non-existent luster is so common on the 1971 and 1972 Ikes that it does not down-grade MS 62 through 65 Ikes.
Paradoxically, some brilliant proof-like Ikes seem to receive lower grades in comparison to low-luster Ikes with comparable hits. The greater visibility of hits against a proof-like surface is the likely explanation.
Since luster is a surface phenomenon, even tiny areas of friction/rub can create breaks in luster. Such breaks are often the first and only indications of circulation. TPG graders may give a slight break to large coins (Ikes, and especially the larger gold pieces) because friction between heavy coins in bags can create small areas of luster impairment on the highest surfaces(Fig. ___).
But a coin with sufficient luster to give away a small break in luster will probably be down-graded to “About Uncirculated”. In comparison, dull, lusterless Ikes hide their “luster breaks” really well and circulated examples frequently find their way into MS62, even MS63 holders.
4. TONING and COLOR:
Beautiful, colorful toning transforms an ordinary coin into a thing of beauty, even the Eisenhower Dollar! Toning that occurs “naturally” or “incidentally” can be monochromatic, variegated or rainbow-like. It can cover the surface(s) of an Ike or the periphery (“target” toning) or splash across one segment, typically in a crescent.
Natural toning at its best is fully translucent and does not impede a coin’s luster. It can, however, hide the smallest hits and luster breaks. PCGS at times seems to down-grade Ikes with healthy strong colorful toning as if to say, “We can’t be sure there aren’t tiny hits and even luster breaks under the color so we’re not taking any chances”. NGC, on the other hand, at times seems to reward colorful Ikes with a grade bump.
Artificial toning is “intentional” toning (some coin buffs prefer “incidental” and “intentional” to “natural” and “artificial” (Chapter____)). Unless expertly carried out, artificial toning appears thick, resembling painted-on colors rather than colors that seem to radiate from within the coin. Artificial toning’s thickness hides many a coin sin, buyer beware. It is for good reason that PCGS and the other “big four TPGs” will not grade an Ike that has the appearance of artificial toning, even when they will be rejecting many naturally toned Ikes in the process. See Chapter ___ for more information on Toned Ikes.
5. EYE APPEAL:
This grading factor really sums up the other factors, but it has some additional utility when a given coin seems between grades but somehow just looks better than the lower grade, or, visa versa.
THE FINAL GRADE
Grading is subjective and market grading is more subjective than technical grading.
The final grade is more subjective than any of the individual factors. An individual who values luster above all else may unconsciously bump lustrous Ikes a grade. Someone who abhors hits may unconsciously downgrade an otherwise attractive Ike that has some hits. As you will read at some length later in this chapter (we hope), we unconsciously focus on what we want to see, what we expect to see.
Also, remember that as market values change, market grading can also change. An example is the growing tolerance of TPGs for “market acceptable” toning that is beautiful as long as it does not look artificial. See chapter (__) for a lengthy discussion of toned Ikes. In brief, it is clear that there is a growing tolerance for beautifully colored Ikes that can pass as “Naturally Toned” even when there is suspicion or even knowledge of possible intentional toning.
Grading is so subjective that the consistency of the big four TPGs is quite remarkable.
Chapter 3, crack-outs and re-submissions
In Chapter ____ we mention that the big four TPGs differ from one another by as much as two MS grades because of different in-house grading standards. What is remarkable is the grading consistency of each individual TPG.
David Hall, the founder and still major domo of PCGS, tells us that five to ten percent of coins in PCGS holders will receive a higher grade if re-submitted to PCGS. But this means that 19 out of 20 to 9 out of 10 resubmitted coins would get the same grade. The same is probably true of the other three leading TPGs. This degree of consistency is truly remarkable.
Here are four categories of coins that perhaps are more likely to receive higher grades upon regrade:
- a specific series that is notoriously difficult to grade (some classic series have years with such poor strikes that the coins would normally all be limited to FINE or EXTRA FINE so the distinctions between MS grades becomes quite vague, to say the least);
- any coin that lays smack between two grades (“tweener”);
- any eccentric coin that is superb in one or two grading factors but
deficient in another factor; and,
- any coin that just missed the next higher grade.
A “tweener” is just a darn nuisance! The owner/seller will tend to see the higher grade and the buyer/grader the lower. If the two different graders at PCGS that must agree for grade to be assigned disagree, a third would have to be called in to break the tie, but who is to say the third grader is right? When a single grade point can make the difference between $3,000 and $18,000, this is not a trivial matter and explains why such coins may make dozens of return trips to PCGS as the owner plays a statistical game that sooner or later that higher grade will be given.
The eccentric coin with, say, ravishing, knee-buckling luster, with a larger hit in a prime focal area, well, who’s to say what the “correct” grade is? Different graders are more likely to arrive at different grades, hence the likelihood that such a coin will be resubmitted many times until it too “finds” its highest grade.
Maybe a given Ike seems a solid MS66 except for that one long hairline across field and part of the bust that drops the final grade to MS64. Maybe the next grader won’t tilt the coin to catch the light just right and he’ll miss the hairline? Hope springs eternal, after all (although this one is a long shot) so such a coin may also see several trips to a TPG in hopes of getting that higher grade.
RE-SUBMITTING FOR HIGHER GRADES
The Crack-out “Game”
Most experienced coin pros resubmit coins they believe deserve a higher grade, or, coins which statistically could receive a higher grade within the cost-effective number of resubmissions it would likely take to get that higher grade.
The crack-out artists are convinced that they stand a better chance of getting that grade bump if the holder’s grade is not part of the submission so they crack the coin out of its holder and re-submit it raw.
PCGS, however, argues that all re-submitted PCGS holdered coins are graded raw since regrade submission holders are cracked and the coin is in fact graded raw. Furthermore, PCGS notes that an important advantage to submitting a PCGS holdered coin for a “regrade” is protection from down-grading. The crack-out specialists counter that the holder’s grade, upon regrade submission, counts as one of two grades that have to agree, the other being the grader’s, so there is still some bias against re-grades getting bumped even though a third grader is brought in to break a tie in either case .
The informed consensus seems to be that there is a slight advantage to re-submitting raw if one is confident that, a) the coin will not be down-graded, and b) the surfaces of the coin do not in any way suggest artificial toning or a past “harsh cleaning”, both of which may keep the coin out of a holder at any grade. (Footnote - If PCGS deems a regrade submission unfit for holdering at the same grade, they will offer the submitter a buy-back price that reflects current market values: had this same coin cracked out and submitted raw for grading, the submitter would be out of luck.)
AN EXAMPLE OF A RE-GRADING EXPERIENCE
Here is a recent re-grading experience. One of the authors submitted 100 Ikes for bulk grading to get the modest price break PCGS offers larger submissions.
Fourteen Ikes the author thought deserved MS64 came back in MS63 holders. These fourteen were re-submitted. Twelve of the fourteen received a one grade bump.
Had the author pulled fourteen holders from the 100 at random, it is 50-50 that one or two would have received a higher grade (one or two could also have been down-graded were it not for the PCGS protection against downgrade).
SEPARATING AU IKES FROM MS IKES
The separation of AU from MS is not only challenging to all TPG’s but creates situations when a given coin can jump (or fall) three, even four of five grade points!
As you probably know, the highest “circulated” grades are called “Almost Uncirculated” (AU). In the current 0 to 70 grading scale, the AU grades are 50, 53, 55 and 58. The problem is many AU58 Ikes look a heck of lot better than the typically chewed-up MS60 and 61’s: heck, some AU58 Ikes can look decidedly better than MS62 and 63’s.
Thus AU to MS and MS to AU grade jumps can be functional discontinuities in the grading scale which can result in major grade changes. If a barely circulated attractive Ike is deemed uncirculated on re-submission, it can easily jump from AU58 to MS63.
Remember that the typical AU58 Ike may have just a hint of luster break on the highest point(s) of the coin and that such luster breaks can occur just from bag friction - we’re not talking absolutes here…..
There are other factors that may lead a grader to rule one way of the other, such as the number of small rim nicks and any sign of field rubs and better luster in the protected areas among letters and the date, but some Ikes can fit into either AU or MS status.
Chapter 4, some further Ike grading specifics and some comments
Grading standards are worth learning well as they are the essential tool for protecting your money and accumulating coins you can be proud to own, trade or sell. You will come back to grading standards again and again.
Ike collectors, however, have it easy in one sense: we work almost exclusively between MS62 and MS68. Only the 1972 TYPE 2 and FEV have appreciable value in circulated condition and only a rare Silver Ike reaches MS69.
In fact, most of the PCGS certified non-silver Ikes lay between MS63 and 66. But, oh, what a word of difference this grade spread encompasses.
Here is some Ike grading fine-tuning:
PLANCHET CHATTER - Many Ikes were struck on planchets with a lot of “chatter” (multiple small defects). Appearing as a sea of tens or hundreds of tiny hits, planchets chatter is usually concentrated in the peripheral fields (planchet chatter tends to flattened out where die pressure is greatest, generally in the central fields so chatter is most apparent in the peripheral fields including on and inside numbers and letters).
The TPGs seem to give a small grading break to Ikes with modest planchet chatter, a reflection that it is such a common problem. If chatter is dense enough to impair eye appeal, however, grading will be effected.
PLANCHET STRIATIONS - Parallel, fine, in-relief lines that appear with varying intensity on Denver Ikes and occasionally on Philly Ikes, usually on both sides and then congruent, these lines can be quite distracting and yet do not appear to influence an Ikes PCGS grade. Is an interesting echo of Technical Grading! See Chapter (__) for an in-depth discussion.
STRIKE QUALITY - Ikes are the largest modern coin and that plus the hardness of the nickel-clad planchets required heavy striking force which challenged the die metals in 1971 and part of 1972 (by late 1972 at Philadelphia (reverse dies) and from 1973 on, more resilient die metals were used that allowed full strikes in higher relief).
Especially in 1971, to simplify a complex matter, the mint used the minimum strike force necessary to impart an image, both to protect the dies from cracking and to extend their useful life. Among 1971-D Ikes, the weakest struck Ike, for example, there are thousands of examples with few hits but shallow strikes, the hallmark of which is poorly defined hair. There are more MS65 1971-Ds than any other clad Ike except the 1976-D Type 2, for example, many of which could be MS66 candidates but for weak hair details.
The issue for 1971 Ikes is complex because the Philadelphia die shop did everything it could with the available W-1 die-tool steel and the Mints did all they could to balance die-life against strike quality. The new die steel was already being tested in early 1972 so everybody did the best they could knowing most strike issues would be resolved with the new die steel.
BRILLIANCE - 1971 and 1972 CuNi-clad Ikes range across the low end of luster and brilliance except for the 1971-D Ike, which is unique in the Series with about 10% showing brilliant proof-like qualities regardless of die age! We believe these Ikes were struck on proof planchets originally intended for a 1971-S CuNi-clad proof (see Chapter ___). Since defective CuNi-clad proof planchets in ’73, ’74, ’76, ’77 and ’78 were shipped to Denver for use in their circulation production, a very occasional proof-like Denver Ike can be found in those years. 1971 proof planchets left over in the Denver planchet bins probably accounts for the occasional proof-like 1972-D Ike.
Curiously (as mentioned earlier), in our experience PCGS tends to down-grade brilliant proof-like Ikes, possibly because the shiny surface reveals every hit and scratch.
Chapter 5, human factors in grading and “dynamic grading”
There are other critical factors to grading a coin, human factors:
1) The Physiology and Psychology of perception, or “the eye of the beholder”
2) Static grading verses Dynamic grading, or “oh, that hurts!”
3) Purposeful bias for financial gain, or “how much can I rip this sucker?”
1) PHYSIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF PERCEPTION:
Our eyeballs are more or less hard-wired to the back of our brain at the occipital cortex. What we actually “see”, however, is more a function of how our brain handles the electrical signals from our eyeballs than the signal itself: this is not theory, it is hard science. For example, our eyeballs are in constant motion, yet the brain fabricates a steady image. Also, there is a retinal “blind spot” the size of a quarter at 18 inches almost in the center of the visual fields of both eyes that our brain fills in continuously: the brain creates this “fill-in” so perfectly you can only “see” it by staring for a long time in an artificial landscape such as staring into a microscope when tired.
There is ample proof that the brain also strongly favors “seeing” what it has seen before and what it expects to “see”. Lastly, and most important, the brain has a compulsion to “see” what it wants to see.
If you can accept the reality of these visual biases, much of the “human” aspect of coin grading becomes clear. When we look at a coin we tend to “see” what we have seen before, what we expect to “see” and what we want to” see”. Becoming a skilled grader requires accumulating knowledge and overcoming these built-in visual biases.
Grading is a tremendous challenge because accumulating knowledge also tends to create biases along the way: it takes working through these biases over time to get everything sorted out.
Dear reader, this is a fact: it takes years for most collectors to impose an objective visual discipline to examining a coin let alone grade it. As one learns each new facet of grading, one tends to focus on that facet at the expense of other facets. It takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of working things through to get the feel of grading, to “see” a given coin as it actually is.
Thus we come to perhaps the most important grading concept, “Active Seeing”.
READING MEDICAL X-RAYS AS AN EXAMPLE OF “ACTIVE SEEING”.
Let’s look at a non-numismatic example of “active seeing”. Medical students are confronted with X-Rays early in their first year gross anatomy class because of the obvious merits of looking through the body via X-Rays at the same time one is cutting through the body. One of the authors, a retired physician, relates an experience with a chest X-Ray early in his first year gross anatomy class.
“It was on an illuminated X-Ray view board, a black and white siren calling to us from across the room.
“In our group of 15, each of us was given about a minute to carefully examine the X-ray. We were studying the anatomy of the chest and it was thrilling to examine this “see-through” image. We were all drawn to the beautiful transparent image of the heart and lungs at the center of the film.
“After we all had had our chance to examine the X-ray, the instructor asked if any of us had noticed anything unusual. None of us had. He then pointed to a suddenly and painfully obvious small but distinct “hole” in a shoulder bone at the far left upper corner of the X-Ray. This highly significant finding suggested that this patient had cancer. Every one of us had missed it.
“The lesson for us was this: always look actively at the entire X-Ray. The radiologist told us that his ‘discipline’ was to look at the corners first before being drawn in toward the center, that the four corners are otherwise easily overlooked.”
As most of you know the “certified” reader of medical X-Rays is a “Radiologist”: the residency required for Board Certification in this specialty consumes 5 years beyond medical school. Much of these 5 years is a continuing process of learning how to really “see” an X-Ray. It is not far-fetched to compare the task of learning to “see” and rapidly grade a coin with learning to “see” and read an X-Ray accurately.
Professional truck drivers know “active looking” well. You and I, for example, can miss all kinds of road signs as we drive in a half trance. Truck drivers can’t afford to miss a single sign. Road restrictions, bridge heights, many early warnings are conveyed on small signs that automobile drivers don’t even see. Without constantly looking actively for these small signs, truck drivers would also miss them. BIG oops!
Now let’s look at the mechanics of applying active looking to coins.
2. “DYNAMIC GRADING” (“WOBBLE”)
“Dynamic Grading” is the author’s term for actively grading a coin. The term combines active looking with rotating the coin and is based on these two concepts:
- if we do not “actively” and systematically look at all three surfaces of a coin, we will miss important details;
- if we do not include “rotating” the coin at a tilt during our systematic looking, we will miss important details.
We call the tilted-rotational movement used to fully examine a coin “wobble”.
Wobbling is the tilted rotational movement that a toy gyroscope exhibits as it winds down before it topples over and dies. A partial analogy is movement of a hubcap that is seated at an angle to the wheel. This is not a natural movement for your hand but it is easy to learn with practice. This rotational movement of a coin is the only way to spot all surface defects that each catch light at just one angle and is the only way to judge a coin’s luster and to find small luster breaks. This motion is required to demonstrate “cart-wheeling” and to “see” the often minute hairlines that are a disaster on proof coins and which downgrade or “body bag” Business Strike coins.
“Static Grading” is passive grading, done with little or no wobble. One just looks at the coin. We all start with static grading and some of us never advance, to our detriment. Furthermore, we all have a natural tendency when admiring our own coins to hold them steady (in the best light, so to speak…).
Here’s the deal: to grade a coin accurately, one needs to actively and systematically look for defects with the coin in tilted rotary motion (wobble). But this can be a painful experience when looking at one’s own coins! By using wobble we are forced to see what we may not want to see at all. Actively looking at our coins with wobble is the best way to force our brain to “see” them in all their imperfection. It is the only way to learn accurate grading.
By the way, when wobbling a coin to check for the subtle luster breaks that indicate circulated condition, it helps to briefly move the coin almost edge-on to the light source while continuing the wobbling movement.
Note that ALL coin photographs are “static”. Lighting can easily be adjusted to minimize the worst hairlines or luster break. Perhaps someday better coins will be displayed wobbling in Hi-Def video!
3. PURPOSEFULLY BIASED GRADING
In the early 1980’s at the height of a soaring coin market that was attracting droves of new “investors”, many unscrupulous dealers were up-grading coins to a remarkable degree. Rare AU coins were now Gem BU!! “Investors” were snapping them up because they didn’t know enough about grading. When the market collapsed, these investors were lucky to see ten cents on the dollar.
The growing acceptance of Third Party Grading in the later 1980’s has dampened the tendency of a hot coin market to generate fraudulently exuberant grading but not entirely.
We can understand the excitement of a rapidly rising coin market creating somewhat more enthusiastic grading (likewise, the pain of a collapsing market tends to create harsher grading). What we want to focus on here is over enthusiastic to fraudulent over-grading at coin shows and on eBay.
The motive is obvious. Many holdered coins gain tremendously in value at a bump of even one higher grade. In Ike land, the 1976 TYPE 1 in PCGS MS65 is $275 and at MS66 is $3,850. The unscrupulous seller can even create his own plastic holders (“slabs”) and print his own labels that proclaim, for example, that an MS64 1976 TYPE 1 is “MS66”. If he is lucky enough to sell even one to an unsuspecting buyer at a show or on eBay for the BARGAIN!!! price of $999, he’s turned a substantial profit.
There are a number of “third tier” TPGs that seem to specialize in inflated grading. Here’s one way to compare these TPG’s to PCGS graded Ikes: out of the roughly 30,000 PCGS certified CuNi-clad Ikes, only roughly 100 have received the grade of MS67 and there is not one MS68. Yet MS 68, 69 and even 70 is commonly seen on third tier slabs in their many appearances on eBay auctions and at coin shows. There is nothing illegal about such activity. Some of these TPGs argue that all grading is relative and their standards are simply different. Unfortunately, such over-graded holders are often advertised with PCGS Price Guide values. Buyer, beware.
Fortunately ebay has recently stopped sellers from mentioning the grades on holders other than the big four and most such generously graded slabs sell for $10-20. But there are always unfortunate instances when a novice collector spends big bucks on a low value coin. This is a good reason for novice collectors to stick with Top Tier TPGs. Once you know grading reasonably well, with patience you can cherry the worthy coin regardless of its plastic tag.