Dealing With The “Hyper Grades”
Due to ignorance, lack of attention, and inexperience, I previously thought using numerical grades beyond MS or PR-67 was often extremely subjective and amounted to splitting hairs in an absurd attempt to decide how imperfect a nearly perfect coin might be.
What furthered my skepticism concerning the use of MS/PR-68 or higher grades was that I was unable to find a professional grader who could or perhaps would explain to me how one can consistently tell the difference between a coin graded MS/PR-67 and one deserving the 68 numerical grade. What I wasn't buying at all was any explanation that included highly subjective elements such as eye appeal. In my opinion, when grading any coin determining the proper technical grade has nothing to do with how attractive the item might be to the grader. Features such as toning, brilliance, lustre, strike and many other possible considerations can dramatically influence the desirability and value of a coin but these features have nothing to do with determining how well a coin has been preserved since leaving the mint. I would immediately change my opinion if anyone could prove to me that in the marketplace it is common for an attractive coin to be worth more than an ugly coin with a higher technical grade. In other words, to grade a “pretty” coin MS-65 when it honestly deserves to be labeled a MS-64 is wrong and so is doing the opposite with a coin that happens to be ugly. Does eye appeal influence grading even among the most skilled professional graders? In my opinion, it is a frequent error, but the frequency of the mistake doesn't make it right.
My interest in becoming an expert at grading coins that were obviously better than MS/PR-67 increased dramatically after viewing enlarged digital images. Examining these images on a computer monitor offered far more information than I could obtain when viewing the coin using a 5X magnifying glass. What I discovered after a few hours of observing many coins was the image on the monitor allowed me to see the entire coin at once rather than viewing portions of it using a magnifying glass. It was a unique experience to view coins that were now the size of a pie plate. Based on my experience, the best, meaning most consistent, graders I've met use the “at a glance” approach. They have developed and refined their ability to see and record an enormous amount of data via swift inspection. This is not to say the finest graders would not further study a coin or use the assistance of magnification. What I've observed with experts is that the vast majority of the time closer inspection indeed serves to confirm their initial opinion rather than change it. I'm guessing the majority of expert graders would agree with me when I say that coins of a particular grade have a certain “look” and this appearance has nothing to do with eye appeal.
While I certainly don't classify myself as an expert grader, I've found that after viewing untold thousands of coins it is quite a simple matter to swiftly inspect the obverse and reverse of most coins and consistently determine the proper grade. Now that I was studying modern coins that obviously deserved a grade higher than MS/PR-66 I realized that my previous inability to distinguish the difference among hyper-grade coins was based on not having studied enough of them. The enlarged high-resolution images my associate was providing conclusively proved to me that there were indeed negative features to be found on seemingly “perfect” coins. Instead of looking for bag marks and such that would be present on lower grade coins I was studying the quality of the planchet, seeing die imperfections and lint marks. Thanks to the images I could use during my training, I was able to acquire a mental photo album to use when viewing the actual coin. The enormous aid I had available during this orientation was the ability to grade the actual coin while holding it in my hand and then using a high-resolution enlargement to confirm or refute my opinion. The goal I had in mind was to teach myself how to quickly tell the difference between at MS/PR-68 and a MS/PR-69 with the same level of consistency I'd developed when grading coins that were obviously not approaching perfection.
It was necessary for me to view thousands of modern coins before I began to think I could indeed consistently identify the differences between coins deserving the MS/PR-67, 68 or 69 grades. As a dealer, I had the distinct advantage of being able to make side by side comparisons of the same date and type of coin all of which I had personally removed from the original mint packaging. When looking a several dozen of the same coin arranged on a table I was indeed beginning to see a different in quality and this was a difference I could point to and explain to others.
As a sideline to my education, I was also learning there could be a huge range in quality between Proof and Specimen quality coins produced in different years. If I examined 500 Proof examples of Coin A I might find six coins I thought deserved the PR-69 grade. Looking at 500 pieces of Coin B would yield more or less such coins and yet in the next two batches of 500 coins the ratios, at least to my eyes, seemed to stay the same. Please keep in mind that others, especially those employed by grading services may have entirely different opinions.
Because coin grading is a function of the marketplace, I understood that my now considerable experience was really of little value unless the standards I was using to determine the differences between the highest MS/PR grades corresponded to those being used by the grading services. These days, it seems being able to anticipate what a particular grading service's will call a coin is really what grading is all about. Like it or not, in the numismatic marketplace the grading services are the ones that set and attempt to maintain the standards.
My submissions of large quantities of modern, hyper-grade, coins to two grading services has conclusively proven to me that I'm really no better at grading the “hyper grade” stuff than I am with what I'll call “regular” coins. The task I'm now facing is to properly anticipate the response of any chosen grading service.
In my view, this can only be done the hard way. If I want to receive this education it can only be gained by grading the raw coins, submitting the coins to a grading service and then carefully studying the results. During this examination it is as important to discover why the grading service agreed with my opinion as to try to figure out why my opinion was wrong. Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn is that when the grading service and I don't agree it is ALWAYS me that is wrong.
Grading while trying to anticipate the next person's reaction to the coin has long been an important element in the marketplace. In one instance I learned that a certain grading service obviously set a maximum possible grade for a particular issue of coin. Grades above that number simply weren't currently used for this type of coin. In my view, this is quite like the policy of using the MS/PR-70, which varies significantly among grading services with some rarely using the grade and others frequently determining some coins deserve this ultimate grade. In the case I'm referencing, 130 of the 1992 125th Anniversary proof quarters where sent to the grading service. All 130 coins were given the PR-67 grade. I had examined each of these coins prior to submitting them and had reached the conclusion that the lowest grade was indeed PR-67. I also thought there were a good number of PR-68 coins in the batch and a scattering of clearly superior coins that by comparison to the others deserved a PR-69 grade. I confirmed this opinion to my satisfaction by making side by side comparisons of enlarged digital images. I could certainly see an obvious difference in quality that was not influenced by eye appeal. Apparently this difference was either not noticed by the grading service or was not great enough to result in some coins receiving a previously unused grade.
Prior to doing a long and in my opinion extensive study of modern coinage, I thought certain grading services might be rather casual when assigning grades to this material. My attempt at learning to grade these types of coins convinced me that grading them is no more or less difficult than grading a large assortment of common circulated silver dollars or large cents. To achieve consistency attention is required.