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Appearance & Grade

Tom Becker

It isnít necessary to possess numismatic knowledge to properly grade coins. Coin grading is a specialized activity quite like many other forms of quality control. Just as someone who inspects circuit boards may know nothing about computers, it is entirely possible for a highly skilled coin grader to be uninformed about the value or numismatic significance of the coins they are grading. Grading coins has nothing to do with numismatics.

While I consider myself to be a reasonably competent coin grader, there have been numerous times when my knowledge of coins and experience with them has negatively influenced my ability to grade them. Back when the technical grade wasnít all that mattered, I developed the bad habit of judging the total appearance of a coin before addressing the question of grade. If I didnít like the coin then it hardly mattered what the technical grade might be. Now that the exact opposite seems to be the case, I must remind myself that ugly coins can indeed be worth more than attractive ones.

A decade or so ago, there was a major push in the coin business to establish and promote the sight unseen trading of coin housed in certain grading service holders. The notion was that once in a grading service holder coins could be traded like stocks or commodities.

Being entirely serious, I suggested to a prominent grading service that the surest way to accommodate the sight unseen marketplace would be to design the holder so only enough of the coin inside was visible to confirm the date, mintmark and denomination. I predicted sight unseen trading would never reach its full potential if traders were allowed to view the coins. So far, Iíve been right.

By comparison to their modern counterparts, previous generations of coin collectors were generally more discriminating and demanding. Personal taste often influenced the collectorís choices. To be included in their collection coins needed to have a certain ďlookĒ. Numismatists were allowed to adopt this attitude because they faced less competition in the marketplace. They were also considerably less sophisticated and failed to realize that in the future all that would really matter would be the technical grade.

I recall buying 20 1935 silver dollars in the original cardboard tube. I didnít bother to look at the coins before making the purchase. A collector came by my bourse table and expressed an interest in buying one of the coins. Because I was rather busy at the time, I told him that if he took the first coin off the roll it would cost him X. If he wanted to take his pick of the coins the selection would cost $1 more. Without hesitation he took the first coin and was on his way.

Around the same time, I made the mistake of getting involved with a person who was putting together a set of large cents. His objective was to assemble a set matched as closely as possible by color. Medium tan was his choice. Never once during the year long ordeal did my customer ever mention a coinís grade. If the color pleased him he was as happy with a nice EF as a brown Unc. Paying maybe a dollar or two more for the uncirculated coin didnít matter--if the color was right.

Our wonderful hobby is constantly evolving. Change is good because it stimulates new ideas and invites a fresh batch of participants. What Iím now seeing is a gradual return to the collecting methods of the past. In the marketplace, the dominance of third party grading and the supposed assurance it provides allows the collector to make choices based on personally important attributes.


Tom Becker is a regular contributor to the Canadian Coin Reference Site, you can direct your questions directly to Tom easily by or visit Tom's website @


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