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Grading Services Do Not Repair Coins
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
March 21, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Once again, this column is inspired by my interaction with customers who ask for opinions on their coins at shows. While authenticity is a black or white issue, most of their questions about grading can be distilled to a question of relevancy. Does something matter or not and how much does it matter? Have you given any thought to how the various imperfections you see on coins affect their grade? The professionals at the major grading services must do it constantly on a coin for coin basis.

Last week, one collector brought a barber quarter to the ICG booth to be graded. He handed me the coin with its reverse side up. I thought it was an attractive piece that could “blast” with some minor conservation. Saying that, as I turned the coin over, I asked him to write “Please Conserve” on his submission form. Whoa, then I saw the 3 mm long, dark gash in the center of the cheek!

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When I told him we can only give this coin a “details” grade and note that it was damaged, he requested that we remove the mark during conservation. I took a few minutes to explain the difference between repairing a coin and conserving it. Grading services do not repair coins; but you all knew that – right? The deep mark on this coin was certainly relevant.

Regardless of what you may have heard or read, size matters – at least in numismatics. Figure 1 shows an 1854 gold dollar coin with a 2 mm scratch into the obverse field. While this defect is very detracting on a small coin, it could be “lost” on a Morgan dollar that is seven times larger.

After examining a coin that had been harshly cleaned from another collector, he sheepishly showed me the label (Uncirculated Details, Improperly Cleaned) from the grading service slab that he had removed the coin from. Regular readers of my column know that cleaning may or may not be relevant because it occurs in degrees. I explained to him that the effects from cleaning can be undetectable such as the results from excellent conservation, all the way down to major surface damage. While there is a difference as to how each degree of cleaning is treated by major grading services, it should be a very rare event that a coin returned as “Improperly Cleaned” by one service is assigned a “straight grade” at another.

I am just now reminded of a grading aid I’ve observed that is used by many professionals at the grading services. On occasion, a grader would put a coin he was grading back into its plastic flip to get an indication of how it would appear (through the plastic) once it was encapsulated.

I’ll bet this was an attempt to evaluate the relevance of something he saw on the coin; perhaps hairlines or the depth of the “mirror” reflection from a prooflike specimen. Give that grading method a try sometime.

I can’t write about cleaned coins without mentioning color, luster and originality. They are probably the first characteristics of a coin that most professionals see. They are also the major attributes of a coin that are affected by improper cleaning. The direction this column is taking may be old hat to longtime numismatists yet a coin’s appearance is the most relevant factor for commercial grading. As I pick up a coin, I can tell with 95 percent certainty if it is original.

That’s even before I begin a close examination. This is no special talent. Anyone can learn or be trained to do this. It is a matter of experience. In my case, I believe that viewing coins using two eyes, fluorescent lighting and a stereo microscope all these years has speeded that learning curve. One “secret” to detecting originality and other relevant characteristics has to do with the color of a coin’s surface. Let me show you an extreme example. The $2.50 Indian in Figure 2 exhibits two vastly different colors on the field above the eagle’s wing.


In the orientation I have placed the coin for the micrograph, the dark area of the field is natural while the light surface next to the wing has been altered. Be mindful that on many coins, the effects from improper cleaning or alterations may not be this obvious. If you have coins in your collection that are of a questionable nature, it’s worth the education to have them examined by a professional.

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