Coin grading during the 1950s much different than today

Numismatic Bookie column from April 20, 2015, issue of Coin World
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Published : 04/01/15
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Have you ever wondered if a coin in your collection grades as Very Fine or maybe Uncirculated? 

Of course not. In today’s coin grading system, “Very Fine” and “Uncirculated” are separated by two grading categories and 30 points on a 70-point scale.

That question wasn’t so silly, however, as recently as 1956, back when the grading “system” wasn’t so systematic.

Open a copy of the 1956 “Red Book,” and you’ll see that it listed coins in only five grades: Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, and Uncirculated. Many in 1956 tried to fill the gaping chasm between Very Fine and Uncirculated with the intermediate grades of Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated, but the latter grade in particular begged questions about what defined an “about” Uncirculated coin. How much wear was allowable? How much luster must remain?

Few today remember the men who defined AU: the improbable team of an insurance agent (Loyd B. Gettys) and a Catholic priest (Edward M. Catich). In the May 1956 issue of The Numismatist, this unlikely duo presented their landmark article, “AU or BU: A New Approach to Scientific Grading.”

They began by observing that 1956-style coin grading was anything but scientific. The time had come, though, to draw a clear line between circulated and Uncirculated coins. To make that distinction, Gettys and Catich revealed an old trick of the trade used by astute hobbyists: “On every coin there are certain key check points which their appraising eye will immediately inspect.” Fortunately for less insightful collectors, those “key check points” were not a trade secret. All one need do, the authors advised, was to “examine the high points of the coin.”

Gettys and Catich guided their readers to the high points by doing what no previous grading guide had attempted: using photographs. For 14 pages, series after series, from large cents to double eagles, actual coin photos were used, with directional arrows added to pinpoint the high spots on both obverse and reverse. 

The Gettys/Catich article, with its careful definitions and clear photographs, revolutionized coin grading. Within weeks, collectors bought out The Numismatist’s May 1956 issue. The American Numismatic Association quickly issued a 16-page reprint of the article, offered at $1 per copy. 

Within a year, both EF and AU became widely accepted grading designations.

Collecting ANA reprints, which constitute a sort of “greatest hits” of The Numismatist, is an inexpensive, but challenging undertaking, since scores of titles were issued from the 1940s through the 1970s. 

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