Q. David Bowers: Numismatic hobby needs to simplify current grading system

The Joys of Collecting: Beginning of wish list for 2017 unveiled
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 01/29/17
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The Joys of Collecting column from the Feb. 13, 2017, issue of Coin World:

Here is the first of some things I believe that the hobby (or industry) of numismatics would find of benefit in 2017.

1. Fix the coin grading system: 

Most hobbies have a rather informal system of grading. There are parameters, but they are usually understandable. For example, an old book can be as new, or lightly used, or lightly used with some inscriptions or damage, or rebound, with or without original dust jacket, or if in low grade, simply a “reading copy.” Book collectors have no problem with this, and controversies are rare.

I have collected Currier & Ives prints ever since I was a kid. Such prints are usually described as to their size, whether the margins have been trimmed, whether the color has been touched up (OK to do), and other aspects — all adjectival. Print collectors have no problem with this, and controversies are rare.

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With coins we have the Sheldon/American Numismatic Association 1 to 70 grading system. Actually, we have more than that. Within Mint State 60 to 70 we have 11 different grades: MS-60, MS-61, and so on to MS-70. As if that were not enough the certification services have added + marks. Assuming that 70+ (or more than perfect) does not exist, we have 21 grades! 

There’s more. Not only are these grades completely undefined, they can move around.

The hobby needs to simplify. We don’t need 21 grades between MS-60 and MS-70 that move around and no one can understand. Dr. William H. Sheldon in 1949 proposed three Mint State grades: 60, 65, and 70. As 70 was perfection, that left two usable grades. A few decades ago, the ANA Board of Governors added some others to create -60, -63, -65, and -67. Perhaps that is enough? Would the trade in rare books benefit by having instead of New, New 60, New 63, and so on?

The present system is beyond complex. The reality is that if you look up certain coins in a given grade on the Internet you will find that quality is all over the map.

Many MS-63 coins are nicer than those certified as MS-65. Moreover, some coins in the same grades can sell for twice as much as others. For starters, check Mint State 1857 Flying Eagle cents such as those illustrated above.

To get the most value for your money, use grades only as a starting point and think for yourself! More to come.

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Older Comments (5)
I couldn't agree more. The grading system for MS coins has gotten way out of hand. My thought (just my opinion) is we just go back to 60,63,65,67,70. I believe all the other ones were just created by the TPG companies to create more revenue in the registry area of collecting. It's like, "hey look, my MS67 is better than your MS66. That's why I paid $15,000 more than you did."
I believe we should as well. The problem with the current system is there are too many points of grading across the scale and for below MS, no agreed to way to indicate whether a coin is gem, choice, average or problem for the grade. I use those modifiers. A Gem VF-20 is worth more to me than an average VF-35 or problem AU-50.
I agree in some ways and disagree in others. First, I agree the current grading system is overly inflated and adjunctive tac-ons only serve third party graders. Anyone who can present a clear case on the objective difference between a MS-60 and MS-61 I'd be most interested to hear from.

Second, I disagree that this cause can be compared to other hobbies. Saying rare-books only have three main grading categories isn't comparing apples-to-apples. Of course there is no MS-65 grade for a 200 page book. Also, how could you define a "mint state book" (using the same meaning as numismatic "mint state")? Never opened? Never read? How do you prove either?

There is enough subjectivity inherent in coin grading and a coin is just one item (two if count the obv and rev). Could you imagine the subjectivity problem compounded when trying to calculate a grade for a 200 page book? It would be laughable at best.

The problem I see in ever changing the current system is people like the ease of being able to compare. On the surface a 62 is better than a 60. If you smash all mint states to 60, 65 or 70; the market won't adopt it.

The new system would have to find a reasonable balance between ease, objectivity and the coin market's desire (how ever flawed logically it may be) to be able to classify those coins which are just a bit better than the one just below it.
Perhaps the TPGs could adopt the 5 mint state scale recommended by others, but grade each coin as "at least" that grade. If a coin was close to 63 - say a "62+" - it would grade a 60 rather than 63.

I would also like to see each service retain the coin ID from the previous grading, whether NGC or PCGS. That way we can watch the grades inflate, and see the history of the coins we buy.
Totally agree with Mr Bowers; the current grading system is broken. The standards allow for too much subjectivity resulting in "+" grades, star designations, and coins being re-holdered and re-holdered receiving increasing grades each time (How does a coin improve over time????) Slabbed coins are sold with desigination of OGH because everyone knows if you have it regraded, it will get a better grade. And, honestly, there is financial incentive for the grading compaines to grade or re-grade coins at a higher grade.
With the advances in computer, photography, and laser technologies plus the low cost of these technologies, has anyone tried, again, to use these technologies to create a system as automated and objective as possible?