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Test Yourself by Getting Coins Graded
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
October 31, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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I’m writing this column while at the American Numismatic Association convention in Chicago where I saw a commercial that can be adapted to many of life’s pursuits, including coin collecting. As I recall, the punch line went something like this: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Have you figured out why this struck me as so true?

Based on the coins I am asked to examine at every show I attend and the submissions we receive at the Independent Coin Grading office, the average collector and many dealers lose a fair amount of money due to either ignorance or inattention. Ignorance is the perfect word. One meaning is having little or no knowledge about a particular subject. Just as I can claim ignorance on many topics, brain surgery being an extreme example to make my point, many collectors are ignorant with regard to grading coins. With this concept clear, here is some advice for readers related to the commercial I saw.

Bite the bullet, spend some money and have a few of your coins graded by one of the major grading services. The results will give you an indication of how you will fare when it’s time to buy more coins or sell the ones you have. Until you become comfortable with your grading skills, I recommend that you only purchase coins already graded. There are several good reasons why collectors and dealers prefer a particular service over another but the major services grade pretty closely. I’ve proved this for myself because I can examine a slabbed coin from any of these services and guess their assigned grade with 90-95 percent accuracy. I’ll tend to miss on the conservative side (calling a MS-66 slabbed coin MS-65) or being too strict with damaged coins that are straight graded.

If you decide not to have your coins professionally graded, at the very least, let some other collectors examine your coins. In some cases, this may be like the blind leading the blind but most local coin clubs or coin shows have at least one “go-to” person you can approach for an opinion. In some cases that person may have even taken one of the ANA grading courses, which you should do if you get a chance.

Remember that your eyes change with age. If you can’t see, you can’t grade. You should check for color blindness at your next eye exam. The color of a coin’s surface provides major clues to its condition and originality. Recently, I saw an advertisement for lighting fixtures that claimed between the age of 20 and 60 our ability to distinguish contrast diminishes 2-1/2 times. That’s why we need brighter light the older we get. The ad claimed a 20-year-old can use a 50-watt bulb while a 40-year-old needs 100 watts and a 60-year-old needs 150 watts to have the same amount of contrast. I don’t know how true this is but most professional coin graders use 100-watt bulbs to grade. Now that 100-watt incandescent bulbs are being replaced, who can say what the future holds? One collector I know ordered a case of 100-watt bulbs from China. I’ll try to get a few when they are delivered.

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It is very frustrating for me when I see “raw” coins in flips or 2x2 holders that are marked “choice,” “gem,” and “Unc” that are actually polished, damaged, or overgraded.

At the recent July Florida United Numismatists show in Orlando, a couple submitted almost 300 Bust and Seated Liberty coins from a deceased family member. The coins had not seen the light of day since they were put away in the 1960s. Unfortunately, a majority of the coins were not market acceptable due to buffing, polishing, and some form of damage. It seemed that the collector was ignorant about originality and grading.

Nevertheless, there were several gem iridescent proof halves and several MS-64s in his holdings. I ask myself, how did that happen? One amazing Seated half dollar had a “gem” reverse (almost MS-70) even under the microscope. Imagine this: Full original frosty white luster with just a hint of gold at the rim. Fully struck with no hairlines or visible marks at 10x except for two microscopic nicks hidden in the feathers that most would miss. I’ve never seen one better. Unfortunately, although the coin never circulated, its obverse was badly hairlined. If this collector had taken the time to learn about what he was buying, his collection would have been one to drool over and make his heirs rich. The family is sending us several more large groups from his holdings. I’m hoping for the best; but I’m expecting similar results.

It’s important to develop good relations with dealers. Sending a few coins to be professionally graded is a good check on the dealers you use. I cannot say how many times a collector has questioned one of our free grading opinions offered at shows because he believes his coins cannot be overgraded or buffed just because he has used the same dealer for over 20 years. From my own personal experience, some are better than others. As a new collector, I can remember being brushed off when I wanted to know what the marks were that appeared to be letters under the chin of a Buffalo nickel. I’m guessing that the dealer didn’t know either as he told me they were nothing; yet I could see letters.

Years later, I learned on my own that they were called clash marks, which occur on coins when the dies come together without a planchet between them. In the micrograph, part of the “Pluribus Unum” from the reverse can be seen upside down and reversed under the Indian’s chin.

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll be looking for your coins at a show or in the office. If you write me a note when you send your coins to be checked, I’ll call you personally to review the results.

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On November 7, 2013 Brent Zimmerman said
Thank you so much for so many great articles! They enrich our knowledge each time they're read.
I'm hoping to go to the next FUN show, and hoping to meet you. If I do, I'll probably bring a few coins with that I should have graded for your opinion.
Keep up the wonderful work!

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