Grading by Photos?

by F. Michael Fazzari

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, that is not always the case when grading and authenticating coins. Years ago, I remember seeing a very large photo of a 1913 Liberty nickel in another publication and thinking “That coin cannot possibly be genuine.” Due to the graininess of the photo, the coin looked like a crude die-struck counterfeit. The coin was a genuine specimen and that’s one reason we never authenticated coins by photographs. That was years ago when digital imaging was in its infancy. I remember showing an associate the photo as I told him that a digital camera would never be useful for capturing the microscopic details on a coin needed for my diagnostic files.

All that has changed. Today, even a novice collector can use the digital photos of coins taken at major auction houses to get a pretty good idea of what a genuine coin should look like. Now, I’m waiting for some organization, publisher, or grading service to provide an online application that will allow a collector to download a photo of his unknown numismatic item and in a matter of seconds have the website identify the piece. What a boon that would be for Islamic, medieval, and ancient numismatics as well as exonumia (tokens, medals, etc.). I’m certain my wish will one day become a reality.

In spite of huge improvements in photography, I’ll need to use some old fashion “chalk board” drawings rather than micrographs to illustrate the subject of this column because it’s hard to reproduce the contrasting surface characteristics between original and non-original coins in published photographs.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Look at the representations of three Standing Liberty quarters in Figure 1. Coin A is totally original with full mint luster – no friction or loss of luster on the high points. Coin B is also totally original except there is enough loss of original surface on its high points that some could grade it About Uncirculated. It’s a true “slider” that many would sell as an uncirculated coin. When viewing the piece using fluorescent light rather than a 100 watt bulb, its surfaces are as frosty white as coin A except for the patches of gray where the rub is. For sake of simplicity, we will not consider whether this coin actually circulated, has “stacking rub”, or lots of “cabinet friction.” I’ll explain these terms in a future column. Coin C is what happens to a coin such as B after it is lightly buffed, improperly cleaned, or chemically etched. Now, its color (although different) is uniform again – just as our original coin. The contrast between the original surface and any friction has been eliminated. Since there is no change of color in the areas of the original surface that had become “worn”, this coin will look original and uncirculated to the untrained eye even when using magnification under good light!

Coins impaired by some degree of “improper cleaning” seem to be the most difficult to detect and grade for many of our customers. They represent at least 30% of the coins I see at ICG on a daily basis. The “key” to detecting unoriginal coins is their color. Originality, is an easy thing for me to teach most students in a short period of time as long as they are not color blind and have learned to examine a coin properly (tip it back and forth between two fingers at the same time as you are rotating it). In order to develop an eye for originality, readers should study the color and appearance of untoned coins that have been graded MS-65 and above by one of the four major grading services. As a beginner, when buying Uncirculated coins, it’s best to avoid unslabbed coins that are shiny silver or gold, gray, or toned.

Finally, there is a range of market acceptability for unoriginal coins with altered or cleaned surfaces. Most of these specimens will fall into the MS-60 to MS-62 grade that allows coins with continuous hairlines, impaired luster, and generally acceptable eye appeal to be graded Uncirculated. Many of these coins are the “doctored sliders” I illustrated above.