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Get a Handle on Grading's Evolution
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
November 15, 2012

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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In my Oct. 30 column, I wrote about some of the issues that came up during a seminar I gave in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. I was reminded how much simpler it was to teach coin grading 30 years ago.

Back then, once a student learned what the natural surface of an uncirculated coin should look like, a fluorescent light would reveal any loss of luster on the coin due to friction wear.

I have closely watched the grading standards “evolve” over the last 45 years, first as a collector and then as a professional numismatist. During that time as an authenticator/grader at various third-party grading services, I tried my darnedest to keep strict standards in use. I should have known better. Long ago, as a younger numismatist working at the International Numismatic Society’s grading service, one of the first American Numismatic Association Hall of Fame members confided in me: “Skip, you are just jousting at windmills.”

So today, many coins that were graded About Uncirculated in the past are now considered Mint State.

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For that reason, today, each student must decide for themselves how much rubbing or loss of luster they will tolerate before lowering a coin from the Mint State range. My aim now is to teach them to see everything that may be present on a coin that will raise or lower its grade.

Students must look for the amount and quality of luster present; then the number, location and severity of marks. The sharpness of the coin’s strike and its color must also be considered.

During the Cleveland seminar, in order to speed up this learning process, for the first time ever, I tried using a teaching aid in my class that proved to be extremely useful. The information in it has been available for a long time. In fact, I’m sure every professional grader including myself unconsciously uses some form of this system. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how well the students using this chart of characteristics I’m about to reveal, were able to identify the grades of slabbed Morgan dollars.

When we reviewed our answers and uncovered the grade on the slab, I only missed one grade myself as I explained what I saw on each coin using the chart on the handout. What is this “secret” teaching tool that I’ll be sure to use in my classes again? Stop reading and go get your copy of The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins published by Whitman.

Since the first printing of this guide, grading has evolved enough so that the standards outlined in the book can be considered to lean conservative, yet, I found that the chart used to break down the characteristics of luster, marks, hairlines and eye-appeal for each MS grade is still an amazingly useful tool.

Let me tell you how this chart might help you. Practice at a coin club, show or with a friend’s graded coins. As you pick up a previously graded slab by one of the four grading services recognized by eBay, cover the entire label with your thumb (Let’s assume the coin is uncirculated).

The first attribute I look for is the coin’s overall eye appeal. If I decide its eye appeal is pleasing to above average, then I can start out in the MS-64 and higher Mint State range. Next, the luster on my example is fully original so I am still dealing with a coin in the MS-64 to MS-66 grade. The luster on a MS-63 coin may also be original but this coin’s eye appeal looks higher than this grade.

Now, I’ll look for marks. The marks on my example are light and scattered. We can still be in the MS-65 range but some are in the prime focal areas of the cheek and field, thus they are the first my eye is drawn to. On the chart, a coin such as this is found in the MS-63 or MS-64 range. Although a coin’s strike is not included in the chart, coins without a full strike are rarely graded above MS-64. The strike of this coin is normal to strong. Since there are no hairlines or heavy bag marks visible anywhere, I’ll grade the coin MS-64. When I remove my thumb, the grading service label agrees.

Coins with overall dark toning usually cannot grade higher than MS-64. Detracting toning can lower a coin’s grade at least a point. Rainbow toned coins, even those with black oxidation at their edge, are considered attractive and may go up a grade.

In addition to the chart found in the ANA Grading Guide, you should also have one of the grading guides showing the prime focal areas and high points to a coin’s design that are often the first to show wear. The standards outlined in this grading chart can be adapted for coins in other series; however, the size of smaller coins such as dimes must be taken into consideration when using the chart.

Now, after reading this, you may wish to take out your certified coins and grading guide so you can test yourself. If you try this test, be especially watchful for hairlines that can be more difficult to detect through the plastic of a slab. Many coins that appear to be a much higher grade than that assigned by the grading service may be hairlined or have rim problems. But you will get the hang of this the more you practice.



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