Please try these grading tips at home

F. Michael “Skip” Fazzari

(Originally published in the “Making the Grade” column of Numismatic News, August 20, 2013)


I’m beginning to think that a majority of dealers and collectors do not know how to examine their coins. That’s because the most common question I get at the Independent Coin Grading booth during coin shows deals with cleaning.

“Is this cleaned?” My usual response is: “What do you think?” It is one way to draw them out, make them think, and possibly educate them. Most don’t even have a hand lens to use when they come to the table. Often, I feel my instruction does no good; yet once in a while some see the light and it is all worth the effort. So with this column, I want to scold some of you into action so you start to look at coins in a different way. Please read on and try some of my advice.

Our coins “talk” to us. In order to “hear” what they are saying, the conditions must be right. Just as an orchestra in a concert hall will sound differently from the same performance outside on a busy street, the conditions at a poorly lighted coin show are not the same as a professional grading room.

I have worked for a number of grading services, but not all, so I cannot speak for them; but at the major grading services at which I have worked, we do our jobs in a dark room. Most professional graders use a 75 to 100-watt incandescent light source. At one time, halogen lights were popular but I don’t recommend them. OK, a dark room is vital; but in practice, such as a coin shop or show, we must give up that requirement leaving us with only an incandescent bulb.

Next, you must train yourself to tip and rotate the coin in the light DOING BOTH AT THE SAMETIME. It is very frustrating for me to see a collector pick up a coin to examine it with a Ioupe for 1 0to 20 seconds without moving the coin at all. When I tell them to tip and rotate the coin, I’ll see the coin move up and down a little in the light but that is all. You rotate a coin by turning it, the 2X2, or the slab it is in with a twisting motion of the wrist. For example, if you rotate a coin properly, the date will move from the 6 o’clock position, through 9 o’clock, 12, 3, and back to the 6 o’clock position. It is not easy to do this at first. Practice twisting your wrist slowly while holding something like a tennis ball. If you still have trouble, just hold the coin in several positions of the clock dial. Remember to tip the coin up and down slightly as you do this. The subtle changes that the coin is “screaming-out” to you are best seen as changes in its surface that become visible with each small degree of rotation through 360degrees. If at all possible, work over a soft surface in case you drop some coins at first.

Now, just look at the coin from five to eight inches away depending on your eye-sight. Its color, luster and eye appeal will give you the first hints as to its authenticity and grade. Obviously, the more coins you have examined properly, the easier it will be to understand what the coin is telling you. Any time you see pictures of professional numismatists viewing coins this way without a hand lens, they are judging the overall attractiveness and eye appeal of the coin; or it is a photo opportunity to show the person’s profile.

Incandescent light, tip and rotate, what’s next? Most collectors use many times the magnification power they should be using. I’ll leave dealers out of this discussion because it seems to me that many rarely use any form of magnification at all to view coins. What is the ideal power of magnification? Trick question-it varies. Low powers are useful for grading and higher powers are usually needed for authentication. I learned to grade using a 4X-40X Nikon stereo-zoom microscope. It covers all the bases; yet that is a luxury reserved for the grading room. That’s why I carry several hand magnifiers (both plastic and glass triplets) .that give me a range of 3X to 20X. The most common magnifier I see collectors using at shows is 10X. I don’t recommend them for any novice because they have no range. In my opinion, a 10X magnifier falls into a “no-man’s-land.” It is on the borderline of being too low a power to search for minute varieties yet is far too much magnification to easily grade a coin. Although, most professional numismatists seem to grade coins with their naked eye, they will pick up a magnifier to look more closely for repairs or authenticity. I use a stereo-microscope instead. For grading coins, I recommend beginners use between 5X and 7X magnification. My favorite hand lens is the Bausch & Lomb 3X, 4X, 7X combination lens. Originals are out of production but you can find a suitable “knock-off” on the Internet. I don’t like the B&L 4x, 5X, 9X combo that is presently available as its lens diameter is too small. The larger size, low power combo has spoiled me. The 3X, 4X, 7X lens lets you view the entire surface of most coins all at once. It also has a large depth of field. Since you can focus the coin while holding the lens farther away, plenty of light reaches the coin’s surface so you can see it better. If for some reason I need to use more magnification, I’ll take out an expensive triplet magnifier. To be in focus, a 16X or 20X hand lens that some collectors use must be held so they almost touch the coin’s surface -thus blocking much of the light needed to see anything. It’s simple to remember. The higher the power of magnification, the smaller the lens opening (diameter), and the shorter the focal length so you need to have the coin closer to the lens to be in focus. With the lens closer to the coin, the less of the coin’s surface you will see at one time and the less light will reach the coin – yuck. That’s just what you don’t need for grading so put those high power hand lenses in a drawer where they will be safe.

Once you decide on a hand lens, you’ll need to learn the proper way to use it. No matter how you are looking at coins now, please try this at home: In a dark room, get your head close to a single incandescent light source. Pick up the coin in one hand over a soft surface with your magnifier in the other hand. Bring the hand lens up very close to your eye and keep it there (I take my eye glasses off for this). Now, move your hand holding the coin toward the hand lens until it comes into focus. You should have both your hands very close to your face. Do not move the lens away from your eye to focus the coin and remember to tip and rotate the coin in the light. Give it a try. It will feel strange at first; but this is the proper way to use a hand lens. Let me know if I’ve made any converts.