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Some basic coin examination and grading tips - slightly revised from 2003...

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I first wrote this, in two parts in 2003, and have combined and revised it slightly, below. Hopefully it will be of some help to at least a few current forum members.

 

 

Disclaimer :

 

I have no doubt that much or all of this has been discussed previously and in some cases, in greater detail and in a more interesting fashion. But, I have received a lot of questions about pointers for examining and grading coins, so I'll try to address them in this format.

 

These are merely my opinions and they may differ from those of others.

 

 

LIGHTING

 

Different people prefer different types of lighting. I prefer using 75 or 100 watt incandescent lighting and/or a halogen lamp, depending upon the circumstances. A halogen lamp sometimes allows me to see flaws (such as hairlines or light cleaning/wiping) that I might not otherwise see, using an incandescent lamp. At the same time, however, the halogen light can drown out the color on a coin.

 

There is no right or wrong in this area. I would suggest experimenting with a few different types of light sources to get a feel for what you can see with each and what you are most comfortable with. Warning - no matter what, do not look at coins in bright sunlight or under laser beams!

 

One thing I would stress - it is very important that whatever type of lighting you use, that it be consistent. If you go to a show and buy coins under different lighting conditions than you are used to, you might receive a very unpleasant surprise when you get home and examine your coins!

 

I would also caution you about lighting at coin auction viewings and shows - if the overhead lights are too bright they can drown out the light source that you are using and you might not be getting a good look at the coins. Be aware of the type of lighting in use, any time you are examining coins. You would be amazed how at different the same coin can look under different lighting conditions. Think about some of the on-line coin images you see and how two different images of the same coin can look so different and you will begin to get the picture.

 

MAGNIFICATION

 

BEFORE you put a glass to a coin, I would urge you to look at the coin for a few seconds without magnification - get a feel for what it looks like - look at the big picture first.

 

Many very expensive coins get graded and bought and sold without the use of magnification. I don't always use a magnifying glass. But I am far more likely to for very small coins like Three Cent Silvers and gold Dollars, as well as instances where I see something like a spot or flaw that I wish to examine more closely. When I do use magnification, it is most often a 5X and occasionally a 10X. I think it is important when you use a glass, that in most cases, you be able to look at a good portion of the coin and not simply one tiny area in isolation. If you look at just one area you can get a distorted view.

 

If you use strong enough magnification, I am convinced that just about any classic coin can look bad! And, while you might be proud of yourself for finding 17 flaws on an MS66 coin, you might be doing yourself a big disservice by passing on it, flaws and all.

 

Whatever magnification you use should allow you to get a good look at the coin but not to lose sight (pun intended) of what the whole coin looks like. And remember, if you have decent eye sight and have been trained to examine a coin properly (more on that later) you wont need a glass in many cases. I PROMISE YOU - SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT HE OR SHE IS DOING CAN SEE THINGS WITH THE NAKED EYE THAT MANY OTHERS WONT EVEN SEE WITH A GLASS.

 

I am certainly not against the use of magnifiers, but feel that they are sometimes overused and misused. Think about the whole/big picture and learn to overlook the little flaws (unless, for example, the coin is supposed to be an MS or PR 68-70) - oftentimes, they simply don't matter that much on a practical basis.

 

Please do not take what I have stated above to mean that I think it is OK to buy over graded coins or that imperfections and flaws don't matter with respect to grade. That is not the case at all. However, I see many non-experts engage in "micro-grading" where they focus so much on little, mostly inconsequential imperfections, that they lose perspective and can't see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.

 

 

EXAMINING COINS

 

Now it's time to discuss examining/viewing coins properly.

 

First, make sure you don't have your pet dog, cat (or snake) anywhere near where you will be studying your treasures.The same goes for babies and significant others - this is serious business and you need to be able to concentrate!

 

Lighting has already been discussed but I did neglect to mention that blinds or shades should be drawn so that your light source is not interfered with by any outside light.

 

If you have coins that are uncertified and completely out of any type of holder, I'd recommend that you have something soft and yielding (a towel, a felt tray, etc.) underneath where you will be holding the coins, in case you drop one (or two). The best/sharpest coin graders are not necessarily the most sure-handed!

 

I do recommend that you remove uncertified coins from their 2x2's, etc., to get a proper look - even the thinnest layer of plastic can mask flaws and prevent you from getting the view that you should.

 

Be conscious of how easy it is to put fingerprints on your beauties. I have seen a lot of people start off by holding coins at their edges, but gradually lose concentration and allow their long and or fat fingers to move from the edge to the surface of the coin.

 

To get the best possible look at a coin it is imperative that you tilt and gradually rotate it so that the light bounces off of it from as many angles as possible. A coin can look completely different, if looked at head-on, vs. from an angle. Light reflects differently and colors and luster can look different, as well. You might see hairlines, cleaning, wipes or other problems from one angle that you wont see from another angle. Look at a coin from all angles, top to bottom, right side up, sideways and upside down, etc. This is a simple concept but you'd be surprised at the number of people who don't do it right.

 

I know some graders who start off looking at the reverses of coins first just to get a different perspective. I know others who begin, looking at coins sideways instead of up and down, for the same reason. I don't usually do those things but it's probably a good idea to try it once in a while, just for a change in your routine.

 

When you take your first look at a coin, do so without a glass/magnifier. Eyeball it for a few seconds on each side to get a general first impression - to see how it hits you. Don't worry, initially, about looking for flaws and problems - get a feel for the big picture and the eye-appeal or lack thereof.

 

I cannot over-emphasize the fact, that in many cases, the first, split second look of a coin is extremely important. It will either grab your attention or not. If it doesn't, it might not be so special and it might not impress the next viewer, either. If it is special looking and grabs your attention right away, it very well might have the same effect on the next person. Many buying decisions regarding many valuable coins are made in a matter of seconds, based on that all-important first impression.

 

Look at the focal points - the main design elements (the cheek on a Morgan dollar, Ms. Liberty on a Walking Liberty Half dollar, the Indian on Indian gold coinage, etc.) If you have questions about the most important areas for grading for a given type of coin, please feel free to ask.

 

Next, look at the other areas, toward the borders. As you are doing this, you should be slowly and gradually rotating the coin and tilting it back and forth (as mentioned previously) at the same time - try to get the light to reflect off of the surface from as many angles as possible.

 

Now, for those of you who are dying to do so, it is OK to pick up your magnifiers - go for it, but don't forget about how the coin first struck you, when you looked with your naked eye.

 

Please feel free to comment and/or ask any questions, either in this thread or via PM.

 

 

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Thank you, Mark, for this very informative and insightful primer on coin examination. The importance of "eye balling" the whole coin before looking at the details is so simple but easy to overlook. Sort of like looking for individual trees rather than the whole forest at first.

 

When shopping at brick and mortar stores in my area most of the coins have one or more obvious problems. One dealer says I am too picky,passing on a coin that would be a nice type set filler. I'm just trying to collect nice and as problem free coins as possible.

 

Do you have any suggestions for coins in the VF25-EF40 range regarding problem coins? I see many with scratches in the fields or across the devices. Some are old; others of more recent vintage. Are there times when this should not be taken into consideration? Rim dings are another problem How much do they affect grading?

 

One other question. I see a lot of copper, especially Indian Head and early Lincolns with colorful toning that strikes me as having been dipped and swiped with MS70 or other such product. These coins are raw which makes me question them even more. The fact the dealer sells MS70 makes me even more suspicious. Is there any easy way to detect this?

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Thank you, Mark, for this very informative and insightful primer on coin examination. The importance of "eye balling" the whole coin before looking at the details is so simple but easy to overlook. Sort of like looking for individual trees rather than the whole forest at first.

 

When shopping at brick and mortar stores in my area most of the coins have one or more obvious problems. One dealer says I am too picky,passing on a coin that would be a nice type set filler. I'm just trying to collect nice and as problem free coins as possible.

 

Do you have any suggestions for coins in the VF25-EF40 range regarding problem coins? I see many with scratches in the fields or across the devices. Some are old; others of more recent vintage. Are there times when this should not be taken into consideration? Rim dings are another problem How much do they affect grading?

 

One other question. I see a lot of copper, especially Indian Head and early Lincolns with colorful toning that strikes me as having been dipped and swiped with MS70 or other such product. These coins are raw which makes me question them even more. The fact the dealer sells MS70 makes me even more suspicious. Is there any easy way to detect this?

You're most welcome.

 

If YOU don't feel you're being too picky, that's what counts. It's your collection and you should be as picky as you choose.

 

Regarding scratches (of any size and on coins of any grade) - if they are conspicuous and/or bother you, pass and wait for a coin that makes you happy. Personally, I am more tolerant of older scratches that blend in with the surfaces and toning better than on newer, brighter/more obvious scratches.

 

Rim dings can affect grading anywhere from not at all to slightly to a no-grade - it just depends on their severity.

 

MANY copper coins have problems with respect to their color, and that even includes the ones that aren't especially colorful. There is usually no easy way to detect artificially colored copper coins, so unless you are expert in differentiating original from unnatural color on them, I would stick with very low price and/or certified ones.

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Thank you, Mark, for sharing. Very useable advice. With so much magnification being utilized today, it is scary how many collectible coins are being looked over. I have always felt that circulated copper must have a limited amount of marks or something is wrong. I utilize a 10X pocket mag. and if the color, strike and design elements suit me and no major nicks on the rims, I probably won't need it to make my decision. Again, I appreciate your time invested in this post.

Jim

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Thank you, Mark, for this very informative and insightful primer on coin examination. The importance of "eye balling" the whole coin before looking at the details is so simple but easy to overlook. Sort of like looking for individual trees rather than the whole forest at first.

 

When shopping at brick and mortar stores in my area most of the coins have one or more obvious problems. One dealer says I am too picky,passing on a coin that would be a nice type set filler. I'm just trying to collect nice and as problem free coins as possible.

 

Do you have any suggestions for coins in the VF25-EF40 range regarding problem coins? I see many with scratches in the fields or across the devices. Some are old; others of more recent vintage. Are there times when this should not be taken into consideration? Rim dings are another problem How much do they affect grading?

 

One other question. I see a lot of copper, especially Indian Head and early Lincolns with colorful toning that strikes me as having been dipped and swiped with MS70 or other such product. These coins are raw which makes me question them even more. The fact the dealer sells MS70 makes me even more suspicious. Is there any easy way to detect this?

You're most welcome.

 

If YOU don't feel you're being too picky, that's what counts. It's your collection and you should be as picky as you choose.

 

Regarding scratches (of any size and on coins of any grade) - if they are conspicuous and/or bother you, pass and wait for a coin that makes you happy. Personally, I am more tolerant of older scratches that blend in with the surfaces and toning better than on newer, brighter/more obvious scratches.

 

Rim dings can affect grading anywhere from not at all to slightly to a no-grade - it just depends on their severity.

 

MANY copper coins have problems with respect to their color, and that even includes the ones that aren't especially colorful. There is usually no easy way to detect artificially colored copper coins, so unless you are expert in differentiating original from unnatural color on them, I would stick with very low price and/or certified ones.

 

Thank you, Mark, for the further info. (thumbs u

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Thanks a lot! Really enjoyed that insightful refresher on the basics! It drives me nuts when people handle the coins by the rims barefingered BTW! I always wear gloves to avoid the fingerprints and the oil residue. I see listings online ALL the dang time of a seemingly REALLY sharp coin and the seller is holding the thing in his bare hand! Anyhow, thanks a lot for the contribution! It was a good read!

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I find that what you are saying and what I do when examining coins is very similar , with one addition :

 

I must use magnification for details that fit into my particular search criteria.

I collect Full Step Jefferson Nickels . The step details are difficult to see clearly without magnification , especially when looking for depth of marks that would 'break' the line of a step , as well as the completeness of them.

 

I also collect Roosevelt Dimes and Liberty head( Merc's) , and personally need the aid of magnification to check details .(FT FL) ...same for any other detail related coin item like FBL of Franklin Halves.

Not everyone collects ecentric stuff like this , but a lot of people do.

I enjoy the hobby , and the way I enjoy my hobby is to collect the way I do . It is the way I like to do this , and that is to get as bogged down into details as possible without suffocating , but that is just me .

 

Really enjoy the post , and thank you for taking the time to share .

You are absolutely correct that anyone , beginner to professional should always take a moment to consider the entire coin prior to pulling out the magnifiers, as when taken in all at once , more information is processed mentally about the whole coin than a hundred details can express individually .

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Thank you very much for providing some excellent information. I do not make it to very many coin shows/shops because they are very rare in my area. You can bet the next time I have an opportunity to attend one, I will practice your advice. I never really thought much about the techniques for viewing in hand a particular coin - I guess I just sort of looked at it!. The information you provided makes a great deal of sense.

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Great read Mark . I use Ott lighting to view my coins , I probably should use a Halogen . I take high resolution scans and photos of all my coins . Sometimes things show up on those photos that are not as obvious when I look at it under a loupe. I will then go back and look at that particular area under magnification to make sure there is not a real issue. I find 5 x works best for me .

One note to my grading technique , any coin I get from Mark Feld Rare coins is automatically deemed to be perfect so I just put it into my safe deposit box and don't even bother to look at it.

:grin:

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I'm forced to come out of lurking to say THANKS for the great information.

 

There is no better advice then that of first hand experience!

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Some thoughts on magnification.

 

As we age, some of our prescriptions change just about ever year for our eye wear. For accuracy, I have found that a large type of magnifying glass is required for just about every coin that I want to examine now days, it comes with the territory.

 

I do not carry one around in my back pocket, yet, I can still read a newspaper and work on the computer, but when it comes to any sort of detail, my eyes need that assistance.

 

Everyone is different and I guess that is why each and everyone sees or perceives something that the other person does not. If the rules were carved in stone with no variables, or hobby would be less intriguing.

 

Good reading Mark, even us old codgers learn from you young whipper snappers. ;)

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Mark, terrific article and writeup! I believe this should be turned into a "WYNTK" article!

 

One question: after putting these steps in practice and given some level of proficiency, how long does it really take to grade a coin, given that there are no immediately obvious flaws (especially of the type that lead to increased magnification)? Is it a matter of mere seconds?

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Thanks for the comments, folks. I am truly happy that a number of you found my post to be helpful.

 

In reply to a couple of comments and a question:

 

 

OK, if you concentrate better with your dog as your grading assistant - go for it. :D

 

If you need magnification to check details for designations like FBL, FT, etc, I understand. But still be sure to check the whole coin without magnification too, in order to get a feel for the overall look/big picture.

 

I, too, use magnification more frequently than I used to. My eyesight has deteriorated slightly since I started looking at coins in the late 1800's. ;)

 

James, for most coins, I probably spend about 10-20 seconds. But I take more time if the coins are especially valuable, pricey for the grade, difficult to see due to dark toning, or if I am screening them for clients.

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My eyesight has deteriorated slightly since I started looking at coins in the late 1800's.

 

You've been looking at coins for 100+ years? No wonder!

 

Thanks for revisiting this, Mark.

 

Chris

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My eyesight has deteriorated slightly since I started looking at coins in the late 1800's.

 

You've been looking at coins for 100+ years? No wonder!

 

Thanks for revisiting this, Mark.

 

Chris

Chris, that was NOT a typo. :D
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My eyesight has deteriorated slightly since I started looking at coins in the late 1800's.

 

You've been looking at coins for 100+ years? No wonder!

 

Thanks for revisiting this, Mark.

 

Chris

Chris, that was NOT a typo. :D

 

I didn't think it was. I knew you were an older fart than me. (worship)

 

Chris :hi:

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