Regular readers of this column are well aware that the themes of
uncertainty and ambiguity loom large in the domain of error coins. And
yet the companies that advertise their competence in determining the
nature of these errors cannot or will not accommodate the slightest
trace of doubt. That presents a real problem for collectors. Is the
diagnosis printed on a “slab” label an incontrovertible finding, the
best choice among several working hypotheses, or a “best guess”?
There’s no way to tell unless you dig down into the details.
In broaching the subject of ambiguity, I’m not referring to
diagnoses that are simply incorrect, half-correct, incomplete,
inadequate, hopelessly nonspecific or indefensibly precise. Such
diagnoses are often (but not always) attached to errors that are
complex, compound, rare, subtle, obscure or novel. A diagnosis that is
merely flawed can be subjected to critical analysis, producing a new
and better interpretation.
In the April 5, 2010, column, I discussed the numerous elliptical
strike clip cents that emerged in the years 1989 through 1994. These
are inevitably and incorrectly labeled as “elliptical clips” (an
unrelated planchet error) by the leading grading services. Many
diagnostic features serve to discriminate between the two error types.
Intrinsically ambiguous error coins are a different matter
entirely. Their status cannot be resolved no matter how minutely you
probe their characteristics.
A classic case of irresolvable ambiguity is found in one of three
known “two-tailed” quarter dollar mules. Two of the mules are
indisputable as they’re die-struck on both faces (see Coin
World, Dec. 24, 2001). The third example is shown here. One face
is sharply struck while the other face is flattened and mushy.
Numismatic Guaranty Corp. diagnosed this as a mule struck twice by two
reverse dies. They concluded that during the second strike one face
was fully indented by an intrusive planchet. All this may be true.
But readers of this column understand that a flattened design on
one face often indicates a
double-struck pseudo-mule. A coin
identical in appearance to this two-tailed quarter dollar can be
produced in four steps.
Step 1: Two planchets are struck together within the same collar.
This produces two complementary in-collar uniface strikes.
Step 2: The top coin is discarded and the bottom coin is flipped
over, so that the original featureless obverse face rests on the
reverse (anvil) die.
Step 3: A fresh planchet is placed on top of the original
die-struck reverse face (now facing up).
Step 4: The bottom coin and the top planchet are struck together.
The bottom coin now has one sharply-struck reverse design and one
flattened reverse design.
In the case of the two-tailed quarter dollar under discussion, I
can see no way to resolve the impasse presented by these two competing hypotheses.
Intrinsically ambiguous defects can be found among a wide variety
of die errors, planchet errors and striking errors. Shown here is a
cent with an edge strike at one pole and an off-center strike at the
opposite pole. Such errors are usually labeled as “double struck with
edge strike” by the leading grading services.
However, as discussed in the July 18, 2011, “Collectors’
Clearinghouse,” such errors are easily produced by a single downstroke
of the hammer die. A coin struck on-edge tends to fall on its side,
and the continuation of the downstroke will produce either an
off-center strike or a broadstrike. The positioning of the off-center
strike at the pole opposite the edge strike is consistent with
scenario, but does not prove it.
Below are some suggested strategies for encapsulating these
problematical errors. I’ve used the two-tailed quarter dollar as a
(1) Choose the most likely or the most prosaic scenario (not
always the same thing). In this case, I would opt for the pseudo-mule hypothesis.
(2) Add a question mark (?) or the word “uncertain” to the end of
the diagnosis: “25c struck by two reverse dies?”
(3) Add the word “possible” or “possibly” to the diagnosis: “25c
possibly struck by two reverse dies.”
(4) Include more than one diagnosis, separated by “or”: “Double
reverse mule or pseudo-mule.”
(5) Choose a nonspecific diagnosis that embraces multiple
possibilities: “25c with two reverse designs.”
(6) Slap on an acronym like OPE (Other Possibilities Exist).
I don’t really expect the grading services to adopt any of these
suggestions. It is therefore incumbent upon each collector to rack his
brain for alternative scenarios before embracing the printed
diagnosis. Either that, or consult with relevant, helpful online
communities. These would include the one that I host, the Error Coin
Information Exchange (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/error
coininformationexchange/) or the Collector’s Universe U.S. Coin
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