On Writing in Books

by F. Michael Fazzari

I just read an excerpt from an article written by numismatic bookseller Charles Davis that was published in the Journal of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society. The article explained how one famous professional numismatist, George Clapp, made disparaging comments in the margin of an auction catalogue of an equally famous coin dealer, Max Mehl. For example, the coin in Lot#86 is listed as being Unique and Clapp’s comment was “Bunk! I have three of them and know of three others.” Some would say the written comments lower the value of the catalogue from that of a pristine example. I can understand this; yet I also understand Clapp’s need to comment.

I regularly take a pen to the pages of numismatic periodicals to refute a statement or to note an idea for a future column. That’s how this column came about. Nevertheless, I hate it when someone marks up a reference book in the company’s library. It’s no longer pristine and will be worth less years from now. Check out the prices most out-of-print numismatic books bring. A former coworker routinely marked-up books I used regularly in a very ostentatious and unnecessary fashion that I found disgusting to look at. If the variety has a huge, naked-eye diagnostic visible in the photo; what’s the point of coloring it over with a large felt pen. Now the volume looks like a multi-colored comic book! Our Senior Numismatist at ICG, Randy Campbell, has pointed out that many researchers became so focused on the small details of a certain variety of Morgan Dollar that they missed many major diagnostics. From my experience, he has proven to be correct. Consequently, I have begun to make very neat, and inconspicuous notes in many of my books; often adding or tracing die polish or a die break to a coin illustration. I find this is much quicker than drawing a diagnostic card and more convenient to use than searching for a photograph in a file.

It seems this practice of embellishing or adding-on information to a publication has “exploded” lately with regard to Third Party Grading Service (TPGS) slabs. I prefer an attractive, pristine slab with a simple label. It does not detract from the coin and in many cases it will even enhance the coin’s appearance. When slabs were first issued, many dealers attached labels with price information and even their personal “qualifiers” such as “PQ’ for premium quality, “Plus” signs, etc. Often, many of these slabs with their added opinions also appeared comical. I thought slabs were formulated to remove subjective adjectives and symbols from the coin’s description; yet stars and symbols have become commonplace on labels.

Around 1996, I was going to get into the grading business through the Institute for Applied Numismatics. That was until I found out the start-up costs for a grading service were astronomical. I settled on the idea of attaching a self-destructive label featuring a tiny microscope to any TPGS slabs that were actually truly Uncirculated. My plan was put aside when I was hired as an authenticator at a major grading service. I believe Rick Snow was the first person to apply his “Eagle Head” sticker to TPGS Indian cents that met his grading standard. I can tell you for a fact that that the major services did not like this intrusion. Many years later, CAC began a similar practice with a sticker that confirmed a TPGS coin was “solid” for its grade. More recently, we have one company “certifying” the TPGS grade of world coins and two new companies that sticker modern coins.

It can be demonstrated that some coins are perfect examples of their TPGS grade. No professional dealer, grader, or astute collector could possibly disagree with the assigned grade. Other coins are more complex. That’s one reason we can find some coins that are over or under-graded in slabs. Under-graded coins are eventually cracked out and re-graded. Thirty years ago, the only two authentication and grading services were not “in tune” with the commercial coin market. That’s one reason PCGS and NGC came about, capturing a majority of the business, and leading to the demise of the first grading service, INSAB. If past history is any indication of the future, perhaps the major services will need to spend more time (not profitable for them) evaluating each coin’s condition – especially “moderns.” That will lead to more precise grading on their part. If the major grading services do not get “in tune,” they will open the door to yet another new company that “stickers” slabs to indicate an appropriate grade was assigned in the first place.

Do we need all of this? What’s a new collector to think? Will we eventually see slabs with the verification (one sticker) of the verification (another sticker) of the verifier (TPGS slab label)? Who knows for certain about the future? My prediction is that we may be heading for a decimal grading system instigated by one of the new “sticker” companies.