US Coins

Guest Commentary: Questions color reader's decision to switch to copper coins

As time passes and collections grow, our collecting interests invariably shift as well. In some cases, we reach a collecting goal within a series or perhaps hit a “collecting wall” of price or availability. Whatever the circumstance, our eyes begin to wander in new directions.

For me, that direction has been to copper — Indian Head cents more specifically.

As a good student of our hobby, I feel confident in my grading abilities. Most of my collection consists of raw coins, as I find that the best opportunities for true bargains or “finds” remain outside of slabs. If your joy is in the hunt, you understand my thinking. With a sharp eye, experience in knowing the series being collected, and knowledge that dealers often show more price flexibility in raw versus slabbed coins — I like the raw coin scene.

But now I’ve discovered this new love of copper. And I have become truly confounded by one of its key condition factors — that being color.

Suddenly I feel like a rookie in a major league clubhouse — uncertain of who to trust, how to judge value, and what advice to take. I understand the base differences between brown, red/brown and red, but it is the authenticity of that color that has me baffled. My challenge, and that of others interested in this area, is judging the origin of the color we see.

Maybe the third-party grader has now become my new best friend? I’m suddenly very interested in opinions I see on the tops of slabs — like “Cleaning – AU Details,” or “Genuine, Quest. Color – Unc Details.” Yes, I collect for the long term, but I don’t want to invest in a coin that others may see as having been tampered with to improve appearance and price.

I’ve asked a number of dealers for advice and counsel. The answers vary. At one extreme, a dealer told me: “You should collect what you like. You’re buying a coin, so if it’s pleasing to your eye that should be the most important factor.” A second offered: “Cleaning is a relative term. If a copper coin has been dipped to remove grit and grime, but not rubbed in a way to truly alter the surface, I don’t see that as wrong.” And a third who advised: “You should stay with trusted third party slabs in this ball game. You risk too much by buying an expensive coin raw only to find that others judge it cleaned, colored, or both.” Add to this the writings of Rick Snow and other luminaries who advise that, in certain years, the color of planchets may have varied (further muddying the “color” water).

In other words, this is an area of collecting that seems to have broad and differing opinions.

Some collectors who prefer third-party grading apply a hit-miss strategy to the issue. Threads on discussion sites tell me of copper coins returned with “ungraded” opinions (due to cleaning/color alteration opinion) that on second try may return with the desired, graded result. How can that be? Are the grading luminaries of our hobby equally baffled by this judgment, to the extent that their opinions can vary on a different day and time?

I’d love to hear how other collectors have sorted out this challenge. As for me, I can separate the badly cleaned, artificial looking copper from the herd, but will always be tempted by the many, many copper coins that have pleasing look, color, and luster — in other words, the “eye appeal” that draws me (and you) to a showcase. I’ve decided to continue reading, studying and looking at as many Indians online and at shows as possible. I’m confident that, with time, I’ll become a much better judge of handling history and more knowledgeable of the peculiarities that make some years look “honestly” different from others. Within certain price levels, I’ll follow my heart on raw coins that catch my fancy. But if I venture into territory requiring several hundred dollars of investment, I am likely to trust the third-party grader if for no other reason than to protect my investment and open more doors to selling or trading in the future.

Such is the beauty of our hobby. Coin collecting presents a constant challenge to learn, appreciate and grow in knowledge. Yes, we may learn our lessons the hard way at times, but the School of Hard Knocks has always been an effective teacher. I’m happy to take the challenge and build my collection of sharp, sexy Indian cents. I just hope to avoid too many “raw deals” along the way!

Doug White is a 20-year collector in Fort Worth, Texas.

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