Grading Will Never Synchronize


January 23, 2020

Patrick A. Heller


Several years ago, a good longtime customer came to the store I owned at the time to purchase a somewhat better-date U.S. $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagle in Choice Mint State-63 quality. We happened to have three specimens in stock, so I showed them all to him to pick the one he liked the best.

After he looked at all of them and was having a hard time deciding, he asked which one I liked best. I ended up having two managers and I review all three coins to pick the one we would choose if it were to go into our personal collection.

Yes – you probably guessed it – the three of us, each with more than 40 years’ experience as a coin collector, picked a different coin.

To determine a coin’s grade, which includes how desirable it appears to a prospective new owner, you look at strike, luster, location, size, and quantity of bag marks, and other less tangible features.  For paper money, you look for folds, discoloration, balanced margins around the design, tears, marks, and other signs of wear or mishandling. No two people look at any coin or bank note and judge its quality in exactly the same manner. Among the three of us, one weighed luster more heavily, another put more emphasis on the bag marks, and the other was in-between.

If that variety of opinions can (and frequently does) occur with deeply experienced numismatists, imagine how much greater the variability would be among novice collectors. My company has even served customers who were never satisfied with the technical grade of any uncirculated coins because they did not have the mirror-like surfaces of proofs!

The problems arise partly because the condition of coins runs in finite increments on the Sheldon scale. For example, it would theoretically be possible to find Morgan silver dollars that grade Very Fine-20.000, Very Fine-20.001, Very Fine-20.002, Very Fine 20.003, and so forth. Just because a coin appears nicer than Very Fine-20 does not mean it automatically merits a grade of Very Fine-25. But, to keep the hobby from too many squabbles, it is easier to simply use fewer grading thresholds such as VF-20, VF-25, VF-30, and so forth.

While it can be helpful to seek additional opinions as to the quality of a coin or piece of paper money from others, each collector is ultimately responsible for the satisfaction of each piece in their collection. If you add a coin or bank note to your holdings, do it because you are satisfied with the look for the price you are paying.

That brings me to another common piece of numismatic advice. If you are looking at a specimen that you really would like to acquire, but something nags at you in the back of your head that “something” just isn’t right about the piece, be willing to pass on it. Even if you can’t identify what is bothering you, my experience is that almost always there was a good reason not to make the purchase. Have fun hunting.

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