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Dings and scratches often problems
By By F. Michael Fazzari
December 04, 2017

In the July 11 issue of Numismatic News, Adam Gloeckner wrote the editor to request an article about grading circulated coins focusing specifically on how such things as dings and scratches affect their grade. I should have learned to be more mindful of circulated coins in my grading columns as decades ago after a presentation for a Maryland Coin Club, one member asked why I had not mentioned lower grade coins at all! Circulated coins are what the majority of collectors can afford.  Nevertheless, due to the price structure in the coin market, availability of information on circulated coins and the desires of my students, most time in a grading class is spent learning the AU “line” and the Mint State range. Today’s collectors can turn to grading guides, reference books on a particular series and even the Internet to see images of circulated coins. Perhaps that’s why many of us may feel that grading circulated coins should be easy. A collector matches the amount of design detail remaining on a coin with a photo and it’s graded. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. That’s because in addition to the remaining design details, many of the usual considerations for grading Mint State coins are still involved in some way and might not be as obvious.

Discussing circulated coins in any way is a very broad and involved subject taking hours in a grading seminar. Focusing on the specific imperfections mentioned by the writer above narrows it down quite a bit. Mr. G has noticed that low grade coins with dings and scratches are given some leeway and are graded less strictly.  From what I see, I’ll agree with his observation; however, the severity and location of the damage, or even corrosion must be considered.

Look around at a coin show. Coins in the Poor to Fine grades will match the images in the latest editions of the grading guides. Even the majority of those graded VF will also. A gray area with circulated coins starts in the Extremely Fine grades and continues upward. We’ll get to this in another column when I write about “Net” grading. For now, I’ll concentrate on Mr. G’s question: when do dings and scratches become large enough to affect a coin’s grade?

This is an excellent question. If we consider “dings” to be bag marks, they are covered in the grading guides. If “dings” refer to rim problems, they are not. So, up to now, neither the American Numismatic Association nor the major third-party grading services have attempted to address this issue with regard to scratches and rim dings.

As a way of ducking the question, let’s twist an old saying around to this: damage is in the eye of the beholder. Now we are back to subjectivity.  Just as the sound of a broken record, repetition will generally cause something to become accepted as true, so I’ll point out again and again that any imperfection to a coin occurs in degrees of severity. Additionally, that degree is very important with regard to detection and eye appeal.

For example, I can outline the wings of a Morgan dollar with a pin leaving a bright and shiny scratch; yet after the scratch tones down to match the surrounding surface, I’ll bet over 95 percent of the folks who examine the coin will not see the damage.

Today, the terminology I used at the Certification Service in the 1970s to describe almost anything that happed to a coin after it was struck – “impact damage,” has been replaced by PMD (Post Mint Damage). For now, until some standards are set out, collectors will need to decide for themselves when a hairline becomes a light scratch and so on. Due to space limitations for images and completeness, I’ll limit the remainder of this column to scratches.

I judge this type of PMD by their length, width and depth. Over time, with the experience of looking at these marks for 45 years using a stereo-microscope, I’ve developed my own standards. You’ll need to do the same until something official becomes accepted. I like to divide this type of imperfection on our coins as hairlines, fine to very light scratches, and scratches. Depending on the size of the coin, I then consider the severity and length of the mark. Obviously, a very light, detracting staple scratch from the eye to the rim of a brown Lincoln cent (Fig.1) may look like nothing on a larger Morgan dollar. The depth of the mark is important and I allow less subjectivity there. Even a short, thin, deep scratch is very noticeable and detracting. When a short deep scratch is wide across its length, it becomes a gouge (Fig.2). That’s real damage.

Scratches of any kind can affect a grade once they are seen and if they are not ignored on purpose as is often the case for whatever the reason. How much should not be ignored becomes an issue for each of us individually. Even tiny hairlines are part of the ANA grading equation as they indicate mistreatment when they are not random

Long ago I passed on a Mint State 1904 Denver Mint so-called dollar because I was too critical of its hairlined condition.  Regrettably, I have rarely seen one nearly as nice or as inexpensive.

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