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Morgan Obverse Most Important
By F. Michael Fazzari
January 15, 2014

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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I’m always looking for subjects that will make this column interesting and informative. My two best sources are questions sent to the editor and collectors who ask for opinions at the ICG table during coin shows. The latter inspired this column and required some research to get it right. “Coins have three sides.” I don’t know who to give the credit to for that statement but I regret not being its author. Don’t neglect the edge and rim when grading; however the obverse has always been the most important side of a coin to consider.

While pre-screening some Morgan dollars to see how they would grade, a collector – let’s call him “A” – mentioned that one member (collector “B”) of his coin club had returned from this year’s American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar with some useful information that he had learned in one of the ANA grading courses.

Collector “B” told “A” that the students were instructed to consider only the obverse of a Morgan dollar and that they didn’t even need to look at the coin’s reverse to arrive at a grade. “Don’t believe everything you hear. That’s absolutely nuts and can’t be true,” I replied.

We all know how hearsay or rumor can twist the truth, so at first I questioned what the collector had heard but he stuck to his story. Since the source for his statement, Collector “B,” was unavailable for questioning, I quickly searched for some explanation for what the collector had actually heard. What could be a reasonable explanation (if it actually happened) as to why the instructor would make such a statement to his class?

I told the collector that it must be some type of practice drill the advanced students were given. In someone’s account of a class I read that students were required to quickly grade each coin that was passed around the table in a short amount of time. I don’t remember the exact amount of time but 10 seconds (or less) sounds like fun. I’ve done this drill with beginners, giving them only 30 seconds to reach an opinion, near the end of my classes after they have become more comfortable with their grading skills.

It does not take much time for a professional numismatist to grade a coin. The best probably know its grade and both its wholesale and retail value in seconds.

I told the collector what possibly took place in the class was the students were given the coins and told that the obverse side was most important because it gives us our first impression. That way, they only needed a quick glance at the reverse or didn’t need to consider it at all in the drill because that side cannot raise a dollar’s grade (unless perhaps for amazing breathtaking color).

In many instances, the reverse will lower a grade significantly if there is a wide difference between the sides – say an MS-66/MS-62 or some major impairment. That seemed to be a satisfactory explanation with regard to what the collector said he was instructed to do in the grading class; yet I decided to do some further research. That’s where it got “scary.”

During my research for this column, I told the story about the instructions said to be given to the students in the grading seminar to a professional numismatist and respected silver dollar authority at the show. I was shocked to hear him say that Morgan dollars are graded 95 percent by the condition of their obverse alone. If true, that might explain my supposition about the drill given to the Summer Seminar class; however, I did not believe his response and told him it was nuts. I would need to check this out when I returned to Tampa.

Each professional numismatist has his/her parameters for grading coins. I guess that is also true for every collector who must set their own personal standards. The effect each person may have on our hobby depends on how influential that person is and the number of coins they see. The combined knowledge of the “movers and shakers” makes up the standards we use for grading today.

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James Halperin provides a perfect example. In the NCI Grading Guide published in 1986, he wrote that the appearance of a coin’s obverse accounts for 70 percent of its grade. Who can argue with that? His book, published almost three decades ago, had a profound effect on my grading when I read a pre-publication galley sent to Charles Hoskins for review. Nevertheless, I cannot explain why I did not adopt his percentages.

In the Technical Grading System we developed in the 1970s, the obverse accounted for 60 percent of a coin’s Over All Eye Appeal while its reverse was weighted at 40 percent. I don’t recall the basis for these percentages or how they evolved in my mind. Until I read Halperin’s book, I was not aware of how commercial interests viewed these percentages. What is scary to me is how a change to 95 percent/5 percent as stated by the silver dollar expert could have taken place without me at least reading about it somewhere.

Hoping for clarification, I checked with several professional graders at other services and one instructor who teaches one of the advanced grading courses at the ANA. One professional I spoke with would not be pinned down by a specific percentage or range as “grading is subjective.”

The advanced grading instructor I spoke with confirmed that no one in his classes has ever been told to ignore the reverse and they often do a speed grading drill in the class. So now I can report that a 65 percent to 70 percent range is still the market-acceptable percentage given to a coin’s obverse. As to other opinions, while giving them a little wiggle room out of profound respect, I’ll say anything over 80 percent is nuts!

Please allow me to interrupt this thought to interject an amusing story. Ancient coins also have sides and much of their grade depends on the style and artistry of their engraving. Many dealers are prone to display the most appealing side of these coins in their trays. There was at least one advanced collector of ancients in the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., who would place any coin he examined back into the tray with its more unappealing side up – reversing the dealers effort. When he left the bourse table, each coin had to be repositioned.

In summary, while grading your coins, overall eye appeal is more important than a coin’s actual condition. The condition of the obverse side is most important making as much as 70 percent of its final grade. Finally, don’t believe all you hear/read – even when it comes from the mouth or pen of professionals (me included) – check it out for yourself. I’ll look forward to any feedback on this column – especially from any 95 percent proponents.

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