I'm all for making coins look better. After having dipped the surfaces of thousands of coins I'd be lying to say otherwise. Apparently we've entered a new era where sophisticated methods are being used to improve the appearance of coins. With this in mind, now may be a good time to review the entire topic of coin enhancement and where we might be headed.
Why would anyone tamper with the surfaces of a coin? The answer could begin with simple curiosity. After finding a coin in the garden, I might remove the encrusted dirt to learn more about my find. Scratching around on the surfaces of the coin with a toothpick reveals the date and some strange lettering. I may decide to place the coin in boiling water to remove more foreign material.
Let's stop at this point and think about how other artifacts are handled-even by members of the scientific community. In many cases all foreign material is removed from the surfaces of fossilized remains. It seems the purpose of this cleaning is done to precisely learn about the object. The cleaning is done to expose the surfaces of an object not to alter them. Likewise, dirt and grime is often removed from paintings with the intention of showing what the artist originally created.
With any restoration the question must be, where do we stop? The answer can vary tremendously depending on the object. For example, in the case of antique and vintage cars some are refurbished to the point where a particular example may look better than when it left the factory. For those who collect pocketknives, even sharpening the blades may dramatically reduce the value.
Now back to the primary topic. If coin collectors didn't like dipped coins dipping wouldn't be such a common practice. I would imagine that the vast majority of dealers would agree that removing tarnish from a coin often makes the piece more attractive and thus easier to sell. What dipping doesn't do is alter the grade of the coin. In fact, in some cases a dipped coin is easier to grade than a heavily toned piece. Dipping may expose hairlines and other imperfections that were obscured by toning. If a coin has corrosion spots or other imperfections dipping may make these flaws more noticeable.
What concerns me is how far the new "conservators" plan to go. Who will supervise the activities of these chemists and technicians? Assuming the technology exists, who will tell the fellow in the laboratory that it is wrong to make a used coin look like new? If it is possible to remove corrosion spots and rejuvenate the surfaces where these flaws have been then how tough would it be to do away with some hairlines or other small scratches? What happens when a conservator's employee, who knows all the tricks decides to leave the firm and set up a shop that might use this technology in a negative direction? I don't think we can expect that "secret formulas" will remain secret for long.
Anyone who has access to chemicals or techniques that can turn a MS-62 grade coin in to one that most knowledgeable buyers would grade MS-64 stands to make a fortune. Can this be done? I have no idea. What I'm guessing is there are plenty of people willing to try.
I'm all for conserving coins. I praise those who have developed "safe" storage products and those who are educating collectors about handling and storage methods. Numismatists collect precious things. The items we love and treasure must be preserved for future generations to enjoy. I'm concerned we might begin to confuse conservation with preservation, especially when huge amounts of money are involved.
Let's suppose (this is complete fiction) that I had the ability to alter the surfaces of any mint state coin so that it appeared as struck. Being an ethical guy (I hope non-fiction) I will only perform my magic if you allow me to encapsulate the coin in a holder that explains what I have done. For example, "Former MS-62 restored to MS-66". Once the coin leaves YOUR hands, how long do you think it will remain in MY holder? Can we be positive that no one will ever use the conservator's work to deceive others?
Now it's time for a true story that may seem utterly absurd. In my experience, the truth has a way of turning out that way at times. In 1972 an elderly woman came to my office and proudly presented an obviously fake Continental dollar. When I showed her the word "Copy" that was struck into the edge of the coin she explained that this was the designer's name. The fellow was from France. His name was pronounced Copay. This is what the young couple owning her $200 in back rent had explained.
To conclude, my point is to suggest that collectors need to be aware of what might be going on in the conservator's laboratories. Questions need to be asked of the conservators and disclosures of activities need to be made.