US Coins

Bowers: Grading the most controversial hobby area

The Joys of Collecting column from the Aug. 29, 2016, issue of Coin World:

In last week's column, I told of when I started as a coin dealer in a small way as a teenager in the 1950s. Counterfeit and altered coins were everywhere, including at conventions. In many instances, once I looked at a coin and bought it, it was mine. If it turned out to be fake, that was my problem. By necessity I studied intensely, learned a lot about authenticity, and in time became well-versed.

This week I shift to another essential aspect: grading. This is the single most controversial, most undefined area of numismatics. The least scientific. You are welcome to disagree, of course. However, that is how I see it. 

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Back to the 1950s when I started in coins there were no grading standards at all that were widely accepted. In 1949, Dr. William H. Sheldon had proposed a numerical grading system in Early American Cents. It applied only to cents dated 1793 to 1814. In the Mint State category there were three divisions: MS-60 or average, MS-65 or Gem, and MS-70 or perfect as-issued (theoretical, as no such early cents existed). Some specialists in early cents, but not all, used Sheldon’s system, but interpretations varied all over the place.

In 1958, A Guide to the Grading of United States Coins by M.R. Brown and John W. Dunn was published. It used line drawings to give the authors’ opinions, but was hardly ever used. I don’t recall any of the leading auctions employing it, for example.

In 1970, Jim Ruddy published Photograde, which gave adjectival grades such as Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine and so on, and illustrated with clear photographs all coins from half cents to double eagles.

This was a super sensation in the marketplace, and tens of thousands of copies were sold. Mint State grades were not defined, however, as Jim thought it impossible to use words to clearly describe such.

To be scientific, as most agreed that Photograde was, or nearly so, the same coin studied by a user in Tacoma, Wash., should be graded the same as it would be by a Photograde owner in Tallahassee, Fla., or Bangor, Maine. By and large that worked. There was little controversy.

So far, so good. But what about Mint State? Are all sortable into numerical grades of either MS-60 or MS-65? Would that make everybody happy?

More next week.

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