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Error Grading Not All That Difficult
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
July 15, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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A long time after I became aware that coins were something that could be collected, I discovered error coins. Back then, they might be considered just a stepchild of numismatics; a small limb, high up and far away from the main trunk of the “numismatic tree.” At the same time that I perceived error coins to be “Black Sheep,” it’s certain that a few astute dealers and collectors were forming major collections and saving these numismatic “orphans” for posterity.

When I started my path toward a professional career in numismatics, I still believed that the only error coins worth collecting and searching for were the major doubled-die coins, overdates, and overmintmarked coins listed in the Red Book! The 1972 doubled-die cent became big news. Nevertheless, as I began my training at the American Numismatic Association’s Certification Service, I quickly realized that there was more to learn about error coins than doubled dies.

A competent coin authenticator must know how coins are made. So in due course, I was taken to the Bureau of the Mint’s Laboratory and the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Charles Hoskins, the director of the Certification Service was a former information officer at the Mint, so we had full run of the place. After lunch with Frank Gasparro, we were handed off to the heads of each department. It was a real eye-opener for me. It was on the coining room floor that I held the first batch of unusual error coins that I had only just recently seen in the books I was given to study before our trip.

Fast forward to the present. Error coins are very popular. They are now one of the large limbs from the trunk of our numismatic tree. As such, as more certification services were established, they began assigning grades in addition to attesting authentication.

Let me give you some ideas about how I learned to grade error coins. I think you’ll agree that it is not that difficult.

While errors such as doubled dies are graded just as you would a normal coin, the many types of striking errors including pieces of struck scrap would seem to present more of a problem. Logically though, this is not the case. For purposes of grading, I like to separate errors into two groups – those that have any of their original planchet showing and those that don’t.

Original planchets usually appear heavily beat-up. Figure 1 shows part of an off-center Kennedy half dollar. The unstruck portion (without any design) is heavily dinged from contact with other blanks as they were annealed and washed. In the 1970s I nicknamed these marks “OPSI” for “Original Planchet Surface Impact.” Ideally, after the planchets are struck into coins, these marks disappear. In many cases, especially on coins that are weakly struck, OPSI marks will still show on parts of the coin. Franklin Half dollars are notorious for these surface imperfections. OPSI marks can be very detracting; yet when grading an off-center error with these marks, I only consider the struck portion to arrive at a grade. I ignore the unstruck portion of the coin unless the unstruck portion has been mechanically damaged – often by machinery at the Mint itself.

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For all other striking errors, I’ll grade the coin as I would a normal specimen. I treat “indents” where a blank planchet was impressed into one side of the error the same as an unstruck planchet surface. Impairments such as cleaning should be noted. Therefore, the Kennedy half in this column would fall into the MS-64 to MS-65 range as the surfaces of its struck portion have nice luster and very few marks.

Using this method, I’ve noticed that most “modern” error coins are found in high grades: AU+ to MS. It’s not until I encounter “vintage” coins made before 1964 that the effects of circulation have rendered a large number of them XF+ and lower possibly because error coins were once not as popular as they are today.

Figure 2 is a proof Michigan State quarter with a major error. A large piece of debris (plastic/rubber) became trapped in the coining chamber and was struck into the coin. I’ll give this one a high grade in the Proof-67 Deep Cameo range because the coin only has a few tiny imperfections despite of the error.

I’ve just realized that this entire column can be summarized like this: Grade the struck portions of any error coin just as you would any other coin using its originality, mint luster, number of marks and eye appeal to arrive at a grade. See, I told you it wouldn’t be difficult.

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