US Coins

Some official coin grading standards abandoned

The Joys of Collecting column from Sept. 12, 2016, weekly issue of Coin World:

Today, grading is the biggest bugbear in numismatics — the most unsettled, the most unscientific. In my opinion, grading is more disorganized than it has been any time in the past 30 years. The leading certification services have abandoned at least some of the Official ANA Grading Standards

In 1996, the standard for an Indian Head cent was as follows: 

Fine 12: Obverse: One-quarter of details show in the hair. Ribbon is worn smooth. LIBERTY shows clearly with no letters missing. Reverse: Some details visible in the wreath and bow. Tops of leaves are worn smooth.

This official standard has not changed.

In recent months I have spent a lot of time looking at certified coins on eBay and at conventions.

Certified grades are all over the place. One Very Fine 30 cent had the central letters of LIBERTY missing. Fine 12 to VF-20 coins are in many instances what used to be called Very Good 8. The same inconsistencies are to be found across all grades, from well-worn to Mint State. Some Mint State coins I would call that, such as the illustrated example. Others I would rank as About Uncirculated, often recolored (but not so mentioned).

Rick Snow, one of the leading specialists in Indian Head cents, recently issued a booklet stating how far off base many certified coins are in comparison to the official definitions. He suggest that something be done about it, and gives ideas.

Gradeflation and inconsistencies are all over the place. If you track down a PCGS Population Report for 1990 you will find that 19th and early 20th century coins in grades above MS-65 and Proof 65 were rare. Today they are common.

The coins haven’t changed, but the grades have. (I don’t have Numismatic Guaranty Corp. data on hand as I write this, so I only mention Professional Coin Grading Service.) Heaven help anyone seeking consistency.

This makes market studies almost impossible, although very few people realize this. Recently I read a market report that stated that the prices for MS-65 Standing Liberty half dollars 1916 to 1947 have crashed. But have they? Not considered was the fact that many “MS-65” coins of today were certified as MS-63 or -64 years ago.

For a true analysis of the current market, it is necessary to treat grades, which should be on a steady axis, as an erratic variable.

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