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Grades Change but Not Die Markers
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
October 24, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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I found an old friend in my pocket change today – a 1958 Lincoln cent. For many years, perhaps from 1952 to 2000, I remember marking the passage of time by the first shiny new cent with the New Year’s date. Some years were special. In 1959 the reverse design of the cent was changed. The year 2000 marked the Y2K scare; and in 1962, I graduated from high school.

The long corridor of the main building at my high school is lined with black-framed pictures of the graduating classes going back before the turn of the century. Classes were small, averaging under 25 students, so each senior had a separate cameo image. I can remember looking into the faces of those students and tracing the evolution of hair styles, along with the width of jacket lapels and ties through the decades. That was over 50 years ago and now my photo is on the wall among them. Perhaps some student has paused to reflect on past graduates as I did long ago.

How’s this nostalgia related to coins and collecting? Just as the physical appearance and dress style of those young men evolved over time, our authentication methods and grading standards have changed. Just as those students matriculated at that school for a few years – now only to be seen in photographs; so have the faces of dealers and collectors changed.

Today we can only read about Farran Zerbe or B. Max Mehl; yet they were someone’s contemporaries. There are many collectors and dealers alive today who remember interacting with George Beach, Charles Panish, and Harry Forman (to name a few); yet in a short time, those people as well as myself will be consigned to the past. As our fellow collectors and dealers pass from the scene, in many cases a large chunk of experience and knowledge is lost.

Fortunately, many numismatists have taken the time and effort to pass on information. Books written by Breen, Fuld, Bass, Akers and Awash that are in my library come quickly to mind. Whenever I meet one of our hobby’s notable numismatists, I encourage them to pass down their knowledge, recollections and experiences for the enjoyment of all of us. What stories they can tell.

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We have much to learn about our coins. New discoveries occur on a regular basis; yet much information remains scattered among specialists. For example, while working at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, Rick Montgomery showed me a diagnostic marker (Figure 1) he used to authenticate 1894 Morgan dollars. I’ll bet the large “dash” die scratch in the recess above the eagle’s talon was known to every silver dollar dealer in the country; yet even after three decades as a professional authenticator, it was totally new to me. I had used other diagnostics to authenticate this date such as the diagonal die polish pattern (Figure 2) in the foot of the “R” in “Liberty.

Coin authentication is not complicated as long as one has the right tools and access to genuine specimens. The Internet has opened up the entire world to us. I suppose that by looking for the diagnostics of an 1894 Morgan dollar years ago on the World Wide Web, I should have found the same information Rick passed to me in that day in the grading room. It never occurred to me to look.

I’ve written many times about the explosion of knowledge that has taken place in just about every coin series. The VAM World website is one such place I go to every day for information on Morgan and Peace dollars. I am constantly telling my coworkers how I wish we had Internet access decades ago in the “old days.” Today, identifying an unfamiliar foreign coin, medal or token can usually be done in minutes as long as the letters are in English. New collectors will never understand the full impact of that last sentence.

While the diagnostics for rare and key date genuine coins do not change except to become expanded and more detailed, coin grading is different. It continues to evolve as we old-timers pass from the scene. Newly trained numismatists learn from the younger professionals and experts who never collected coins back when the definition of uncirculated was “No Trace of Wear.”

Grading standards will continue to erode further as each generation passes the torch to the next. Actually, you can forget the generations. There is ample evidence the standards change much faster for noteworthy coins in auctions as one major grading service’s MS-65 becomes another’s MS-66 within a few years.

Time is passing. While you are still an active collector and before you become just a picture on a wall, bite the bullet and have some of your coins evaluated by a major grading service. Oh look – here is a shiny 2013 cent.



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