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Toning Often a Matter of Eye Appeal
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
July 31, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Toning is perhaps one of the most controversial subjects when it comes to grading coins. In the June 4 issue of this paper, Weimar White wrote about preserving your coins from tarnish. Mr. White is a respected chemist/numismatist and author of a terrific book called “Coin Chemistry.” I highly recommend his book as I purchased a copy as soon as I became aware of it years ago. While I’m not a chemist (my degree is in Mineral Sciences), in this column I should like to share some additional thoughts on toned coins. Hopefully, other readers will join this discussion.

The attractiveness or eye appeal of a coin is a matter of individual taste; however, as in any form of art, there are acceptable parameters and standards of taste set by the customs of “those who know.” It can be demonstrated that these standards may even change over time. Some things fall out of favor. Toning is a good example. Since I became interested in coins the desirability of toned versus brilliant coins has changed four times.

Many people view toning as the destruction of a coin’s surface. Who can argue with that? That’s exactly what oxidation does. When it becomes too advanced (black or dark in color), the original surface of a coin is actually corroded away. Lighter oxidation can be professionally removed without a trace, even when the surface is viewed using a stereo microscope. Perhaps purists will respond that damage will be seen using much higher powers of magnification and to that I must agree. In which case, no vintage coin is 100 percent original so let’s keep this discussion relevant to normal magnification.

The way a coin oxidizes depends on the conditions in its environment. Oxidation can take place “naturally,” usually over a long period of time; or in short-order, often aided by individuals. Coin doctors use many methods depending on their sophistication. An attentive ear at a coin show, might pick up references to older methods such as baked potatoes, highly sugared urine, and used motor oil. In most cases, there is no guarantee as to how the coin will look as it oxidizes. Students of mine are familiar with many experiments that have gone bad.

I teach that attractive oxidation is called “toning” and unattractive oxidation is called “tarnish.” Toned coins are desired by many collectors, while tarnished coins are less desirable. I suggest that collectors should not remove the toning from their uncirculated coins. They will be wanted by those who favor color and those who cannot wait to dip the coin to make it bright. Toning/tarnish should rarely be removed from circulated coins. The results are usually unsatisfactory.

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Most of the controversy about toned coins occurs when the subject of originality is considered. The authentication of “original” toning is not an exact science. Longtime collectors have had the opportunity to examine beautiful, naturally toned coins stored for years in original rolls or U.S. Mint sewn bags. It’s rare to find deals like these today; however, there are toned coins still in government sealed cases that can be viewed. Many of us have learned the difference between artificial and natural toning by experiment. You should try Mr. White’s test using the old brown paper 2X2s or a Wayte Raymond coin board in a window and judge the results for yourself. Thankfully, today’s collector can forgo experimentation by using certified coins from the major grading services as a source for coins with original, “market acceptable toning.” Although there are several characteristics of original toning that are used by professional graders to make their determination (Figure 1 is an example of natural “draft toning”), many of these can be duplicated. For further study, I’ll recommend former American Numismatic Association President Bob Campbell’s informative presentation on toning along with Mr. White’s book. Both should be available from the ANA Library.

And now let me address the can of worms I just opened. While most readers can understand why ugly, dark, splotchy, streaked, tarnished coins are not desirable, what form of oxidation is acceptable? When examining a toned coin, I’m not concerned about the how, or the how long it took to tone. As long as the toning appears to be natural, I’ll accept that it is. I’ve seen and heard about too many cases where original toned coins were rejected by “experts.” For example, many specialists believe that all toned Peace dollars are artificially doctored. Figure 2 shows part of a naturally tarnished Peace dollar that was rejected as artificial. Is the coin tarnished? Yes. Is it attractive? No. Was it deemed to be “market acceptable?” No. Is the toning natural? Absolutely.

As a former coin dealer, I’ve worked in an old brick building that was heated by gas. Several storage rooms had knotty pine wall panels. These rooms produced some of the most beautifully toned pink, purple and green iridescent silver coins and one-ounce rounds imaginable. Since I was the first person in years to brush away the cobwebs from the open buckets they were in and then rinse away the dust, I knew the toning was natural. Nevertheless, it’s a sure bet that none of these pieces would be accepted as having original toning by any major grading service. Figure 3 shows a silver Eagle that toned naturally in its holder. At one time this coin was frosty white. Many will question the originality of its colors if it is ever removed from the slab.

Before ending this piece, let me return to Mr. White’s article. It is an excellent argument for proper coin storage. He shows four coins from an experiment that lasted over two years. Each coin started out as “frosty white” in color. Over time, the properly stored and protected coin stayed “white” while the other three oxidized. Two of the coins “destroyed” by oxidation are tarnished and ugly. A third coin, the one in the middle, has nice rainbow colors although slightly splotchy on one side. It’s my opinion that a large number of collectors would prefer to own this particular coin that has also been “destroyed” by oxidation rather than the well preserved “white” coin that anyone can instantly make with a little chemical coin dip.

Toning (oxidation) happens – protect your coins or get over it. To those who abhor toning, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps this will make the purists happy: OXIDATION IS A HORRIBLE REACTION* THAT DESTROYS THE NATURAL SURFACE OF A COIN. Nevertheless, when that destruction occurs in rare, attractive colors or patterns, savvy numismatists seek to add as many of these “damaged” coins as they can find to their collections.

*Except in the case of some applications where it is used to protect the metal.

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