When I begin teaching a complete novice how to grade coins I start by stressing the importance of consistency. Consistency is the essence of grading no matter if what's being graded are hen's egg or Victoria half dollars. When collectors have concerns about their ability to grade coins the problem can usually be identified as inconsistency.
Without trying, every coin grader rapidly assembles a mental grading set filled with images of the coins they've seen. After working with many people who had no previous experience grading coins, I'm absolutely convinced that some are far better at organizing and referencing their mental “grading set” than others. My experience has also confirmed that someone need not examine thousands of similar coins to learn how to grade them. At a ratio of about one in twenty, I've found grading coins is not a suitable task for some people. This circumstance is not viewed as a deficiency. Everyone is better at some things than others.
I have spent many hours building “test groups” of coins that are used to measure the progress and proficiency of new graders. In one exercise the new grader is given 100 coins of the same denomination and type. The lot contains coins grading Good, VG, Fine, VF and EF. There are 20 coins of each grade in the lot. Four different grading experts have examined each of these coins and agree on the grades. There are no “ in between”, weakly struck or otherwise confusing coins in the lot. Each coin is a “perfect as can be” example for the grade.
When the grading exercise begins I explain to the student that their task is to sort the coins based on the amount of wear they find on each coin. They are then provided with an uncirculated example of the coin so they can see what an unworn coin of this type looks like. We then begin by examining a few coins from the box. Grading terminology is never mentioned. What I repeatedly stress during this orientation is the logical fact that in terms of wear if two coins look the same then they can't be different and if two coins look different then they can't be the same. Using any coin from the box as the sample, I then ask the grader to find, based on the amount of wear another coin that looks like the sample. Then they are asked to find a coin that looks different.
Every coin grader, including the freshest beginner must trust what they see. During this orientation we take a few minutes to compare a Good grade to an EF and then make additional comparisons until I'm confident that the student is able to recognize, based on wear that some coins look alike and others are quite different.
Well over 300 people with no previous grading experience have participated in this exercise. Only 7 have decided on the first pass through the coins that there should be five different groups. Not one of these 7 put 20 coins in each of their five groups and thus attained a perfect score on the first attempt. By far, the most common tendency among new graders is to create more than five groups.
When I first developed this orientation procedure several of my senior associates suggested I was making it too difficult. After all, we were dealing with people right off the street. I countered with the argument that if the company wished to sell only three grades by lumping G and VG coins and F and VF together then the exercise could be simplified. To suggest to the beginner that G and VG coins were the same and to later explain they were different could only result in confusing the student. There is either a difference between these grades that can be consistently identified or there is not. If only an expert can tell the difference between a G and a VG or a VF and EF then the grading system we are using would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of people who collect coins. None of my associates suggested this was the case.
After the new grader has finished sorting their 100 coins we review the results. Once again this is only done in terms of which coins look alike and which look different. This is always the most difficult and delicate part of the exercise. I'm hoping the new grader is willing to listen to me and agree that certain coins should be moved from one pile to another. What I don't want is for the grader to simply adopt a “whatever you say” attitude. I'm trying to find is a new grader a willingness to defend the selections they've made on a coin by coin basis or press me to explain why two coins are alike when they seem different to them.
A major flaw in this grading orientation program I will never be able to repair is that no two coins are indeed exactly alike. Even though I stressed from the start that the coins are to be sorted based only on the amount of wear received, the student's drive me crazy with comments like, “This coin has more shine This one is darker. This one has a mark—see?”
As mentioned previously, I have examined thousands of coins in each grade trying to find only 20 pieces that are close to identical and perfect examples for the grade. After revising the contents of my test box several dozen times, I've quit trying. To save my sanity, after the first 10 people were allowed 30 minutes to sort the coins I reduced the time to 15 minutes. If given time to do so, I'm convinced some new graders would create 50 different categories even though I'd clearly explained the purpose of the exercise was to sort coins into groups based only on wear.
What this continuing experience has taught me is that those who don't know any better grade coins based on personal preference. When given a choice, they have an astonishing ability to make discriminating selections based on what pleases them. What seems attractive to each new grader remains fairly consistent. To the majority of beginning graders I have worked with that a coin might show more wear than another does not always make it the least desirable of the two items. As would be expected, as the new grader becomes more familiar with what their work is meant to accomplish less of each coin needs to be examined and the overall appearance is no longer the primary consideration.
I've also learned from these beginning graders that the supposedly obvious difference between the circulated grades varies considerably depending on what type of coin is being graded. This information confirmed what I'd suspected. Even among supposed experts, some coins are generally easier to grade than others. Some graders are better at grading some types of coins than others. What I found very interesting is that a good number of graders don't necessarily become more proficient at grading certain coins by grading more of them. An “expert” who can properly grade anything you show them is rare.
Most of the grading guides I've read suggest one standard can and should be applied to all coins. Based on my experiences with beginning coin graders, this may be an idealistic if not misleading theory. My observation has been that as coins of different types obtain wear their appearance, based on a comparison to an uncirculated example of the type is not diminished at the same rate. I'm certain those who mint coins would agree some coins wear better than others. Simply put, as wear occurs the general desirability, based on appearance, of some coins lasts longer than others. This situation can create confusion for the beginning grader. When comparing two different types of coins both deserving the same technical grade one can be considerably less attractive than the other. Numerous times during orientation programs with new graders, I've found myself saying, “For what it is this coin deserves to be called---.” For this reason, my grading exercises are always limited to dealing with one denomination and type of coin.
I have reported my experiences knowing it would be very difficult for you to duplicate the clinical atmosphere I've established. In the coin grading workplace, my goal is to create grading proficiency one denomination and type at a time. As soon as the new grader is able to deal with a certain type of coin these coins are assigned to them as part of their work. When they are able to grade even three different types of coins with 87% accuracy or better there is always enough of these coins to grade to keep them busy forty hours a week. As a collector, you may be interested in many different types of coins and you are not being provided with training exercises and then the daily grading work that creates familiarity and builds confidence.
Based on my experience, I would strongly suggest the quickest way for the collector to acquire grading skills and to reach a level of consistency that inspires confidence is to make side by side comparisons of different and like coins. Because it can be done with pocket change from the piggy bank this may sound like remedial advice. It really isn't.
If your interests are limited, building a three coin grading set of the type and denomination you collect may be a wise investment. For example, let's say you've decided to build a set of Victoria large cents. Your “target” grade is EF. When you encounter a coin you're thinking about buying it could be very helpful to have a typical VF example at hand to confirm the coin you're interested in is not only a VF. Having a typical AU example available for comparison purposes also will help to identify the “target” grade.