In old police procedurals, any time the scene cuts to a dark room
with one bright light, you can bet someone is about to be interrogated.
I’ve never been interrogated, but a recent experience in Numismatic
Guaranty Corp.’s one-day grading class is close enough, in my book, to count.
The class was held in a dark room, broken only by bright lights.
Was I nervous? Check.
Sweating? You bet.
On March 28, while at the Whitman Expo in Baltimore, I was able to
take NGC’s introduction to grading course with NGC grader John Schuch II.
As interrogators go, Schuch’s gentle nature, big smile and hearty
laugh belie his ability, to make a student — me — sweat bullets.
Though I am fortunate to blend my hobby with my profession, my
background with numismatics has focused on the historical side.
When I found out I would be attending the Baltimore show, I knew the
grading course would help me learn and grow in the hobby.
And am I ever glad that I went!
Grading at NGC
Schuch shared just some of the knowledge gleaned from his two-plus
decades in the hobby, half of which he has spent at NGC. He received
his start in coins working for his coin dealer father, before serving
in the U.S. military.
At NGC, two people grade each coin, with a third person, the
finalizer, ready to arbitrate any dispute. Schuch grades from 350 to
600 coins a day, he said, even including time to discuss coins with
other graders for a different perspective.
Sixteen students formed the class in Baltimore. Over the course of
the day, we participated in four rounds of grading, reviewing 16 coins
per round, punctuated by discussions about why we arrived at our
RELATED: Watch Jeff Starck discuss his experience
in the grading class
Each student was given 60 seconds to make notations and grade each
coin, before handing the coin to the next student. If Schuch took a
minute per coin, he said, he’d have been fired long ago.
The clock started and I panicked. It takes me 15 minutes to decide
what I want at a restaurant — how was I going to grade a coin in less
time than a commercial break?
After we graded each coin, Schuch shared what the grades of the
coins had been as NGC had encapsulated them. At times he expressed
disagreement with NGC’s assigned grade, preferring another (often more
I considered it a victory if I matched either the holdered grade or
the grade assigned by Schuch.
The first round was pitiful. After nailing the first coin, I struck
out on each of the others.
The second round was only slightly better, before a tricky third
round had many of us (myself included) fooled.
By the final round, I was able to correctly grade six of the 16
coins. That round featured a counterfeit 1914 Indian Head gold $2.50
quarter eagle, which had telltale tooling marks visible only upon
Besides confidence in my ability to improve as a grader, I walked
away from the class with three major (if commonly known) lessons about grading.
Three grading lessons
The first lesson is that lighting is critical.
Sunlight and fluorescent lights are no-nos, Schuch said. Graders at
NGC work in rooms with no outside lights. One bright lamp is focused
on a narrow field at each grader’s desk.
How important is even lighting?
NGC has a stockpile of incandescent light bulbs (which by law are no
longer made) to ensure graders have proper light for years to come, he said.
Lesson No. 2 is that mastering coin grading means looking at lots
and lots and lots of coins.
Schuch said he can visualize the design of certain coins in his
head, so when he is grading coins, he already has a mental image to
compare to the coin in hand.
In this way, it seems that grading coins is like looking for
As a writer, I have spent hours reading every week. Typos often “pop
out” at me immediately when looking at a page.
In the same way, hobbyists employ pattern recognition when looking
at coins. Knowing what should be there matters tremendously in
determining what’s right (and wrong) about the coin you’re holding.
The final lesson is that you’re going to make mistakes.
The cliche rings true — mistakes are the price you pay for education.
Three coins in the third round of grading, which was by far the
toughest, illustrated the challenges that grading services, dealers
and collectors face.
A “1926-S” Indian Head 5-cent coin was actually the obverse half of
a cut-down 1926 example mated with the reverse of a 1931-S 5-cent
coin. The edges of the coin were smoothed to conceal the mark created
by the joining of two halves.
“Two of the biggest graders [in the country] missed it,” Schuch said.
Two other coins in that round, a 1914-D Lincoln cent and an 1891-S
Morgan silver dollar, each featured an added Mint mark.
Even the professionals make mistakes, but thankfully, NGC stands
behind its service, and when there is a rare mistake, collectors are
protected with a buy-back promise.
I have work to do, and many coins to study. But I look forward to
spending many decades in the hobby, increasing my knowledge and
sharing it with others.
Want to know more about coin grading? Here are some stories!
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World coin review service realigns sticker
options for solid, premium coins
Numismatic Guaranty Corp. grades and
encapsulates its 30 millionth coin
Florida firm to identify ‘value-added’ traits
for coins previously graded, encapsulated by PCGS, NGC
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