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Label grade can be wrong sometimes
By F. Michael Fazzari
September 29, 2017

Have you ever looked at a coin that has been graded by a major grading service and said to yourself, “What the heck is going on here, that grade is not correct?”  If you have not, either you don’t look at very many previously graded coins in slabs or you may not have fully developed your grading skills. Don’t worry, sooner or later you’ll see such a coin either at a coin show, coin shop, or being “blasted” in an Internet chat room.


I see no point in taking this column to rehash all the usual reasons an individual may not agree with a grade assigned by three to four professionals who get paid for their opinion. For the sake of discussion, let’s take the “laymen” out of the equation. Let’s also eliminate the infrequent “labeling errors” where the date, mint or grade is completely “off.” That leaves us with either an undergraded or overgraded coin in the slab because if you have a problem with a slabbed coin that is correctly graded – one that 95 percent of the professionals who view it would agree on – then you may be the problem. Now, let’s also eliminate the undergraded coins as most of these get cracked out, resubmitted and corrected.


What’s left? The “What the heck is going on with this” slabs. A small number of these may actually be mistakes due to some defect that was missed, like a repaired chop mark on a Trade dollar.  What about the others that look overgraded? First, the grading standards have “evolved.” Older collectors have seen a loosening of the former way coins were graded. Secondly, the professional graders are knowledgeable. Those at the top, the senior graders and finalizers have been at their jobs for decades; honing their skills hour after hour and day after day.  Put two or three of the senior graders together on the same coin and you are going to get a market correct grade, most of the time whether you agree with it or not.  Furthermore, that grade is going to be thought out and considered with the coin in hand and in excellent conditions even though it may all be done in a few clicks of a clock’s pendulum – much quicker than it took me to type this sentence.  Nevertheless, there are instances where a major third-party grading services has bumped up a grade assigned by a competitor. Occasionally, that may be the issue.


While I consider myself one of those third-party grading service “senior numismatists” mentioned above, mostly due to my age, I say in my grading classes that my personal grading standards (formed long ago) are much stricter than those I use at work.  That’s because I need to conform to the standards of my company and the commercial marketplace. If you love coins, you cannot get a better job than working at a grading service once you are promoted out of the “burn-your-eyes-out” modern tier. Now, let’s move this column out of the grading room and return to the slab you are holding that looks so wrong.


I’ve written before that every factor that goes into grading a coin occurs in degrees. Look at the chart from the dollar section of the ANA Grading Guide that I have recommended on several occasions. It’s an acceptable attempt to break down the major characteristics we use to determine a coin’s Mint State grade put into an easy to understand progression of degree from MS-60 to MS-70. For example, an MS-70 coin should have no marks under magnification; an MS-68 may have three or four minuscule (none in prime focal areas); and a coin grading MS-65 may have light and scattered marks.


For a Mint State coin, the professional graders must determine how each amount (degree) of marks, luster, and hairlines comes together to rank a coin’s condition and then factor in its eye appeal and finally its commercial value. That’s why it is often demonstrated that a very pleasing, yet actually AU, coin is worth more money and is often commercially graded higher than a less appealing, low Mint State (MS-60 or MS-61) example.


What about all the defects not listed in the ANA’s Grading Guide chart like rim nicks, scratches and spots? All of these will affect the Mint State grade if they are not major enough to merit a “details” grade. How do tiny corrosion spots affect a coin’s grade? For me personally, they “kill” a copper coin and limit it to the Choice category max. However, take a look around.  Brilliant red spotted copper can even be found on coins graded as high MS-66.


Milk spots and stains are other factors that affect a coin’s eye appeal and thus its grade. Shown above is an extreme example of spotting.  This is a 10X micrograph of a British 2-pound Britannia coin’s obverse.  It is a beautiful design. A perfect Mint State coin as made with no hairlines, or nicks of any kind. Unfortunately, it is heavily spotted with very little eye appeal that will limit its grade to MS-63 or less!


Professional graders have a very tough job.  They cannot be too critical yet they also have their company’s standards and reputation to guard. No monkey business allowed. That brings me to another consideration involved with coin grading – the “Net Grading” folly (as one poster on the Internet called it) that is practiced by the collectors of early copper coins.  I’ll save that for another column.



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