Can A Coin's Condition Improve Over Time?
Every now and then, I have the good fortune to hear someone make a really profound statement. So far, this one is on the top of the list for 2003. I had gotten together with a couple of other veteran coin dealers. Between the three of us we easily have 125 years of professional experience. The purpose of our meeting was to review a significant collection of coins that had just arrived from a grading service. After we all had examined the coins, Jim said, "You know, this coin wasn't nearly as nice when I sold it to Ed back in 1973."
Jim was kidding a bit, but each of us understood the importance of his remark. With the exception of minimal discoveries, the coins we are dealing with today are the same ones that were around in 1973, 1953 and 1923. This is certainly the case when discussing the "classic" scarce and rare coins that have appealed to collectors for more than a century. If I didn't especially care for a coin thirty years ago why would it impress me now?
In this article I'm not going to address "gradeflation" or to suggest that grading standards were tougher at any time in the past. I would hope many experienced dealers would agree that prior to the establishment of grading services opinions concerning the proper grade of a coin varied far more than they do today. It's probably also fair to say that even just thirty years ago grading tended to matter less because the rather precise standards we use today were not in place.
Once provided with the starting point a grading service opinion provides, our willingness to take exception to their judgment is often tempered. In other words, what might have been seen as a nice coin can become a "kind of" great coin once wrapped in a MS-67 grading service holder. This is especially true if the technical grade results in making the coin among the finest known. I doubt that all of todays "finest" would have been judged as such in the past because subjective judgments had greater credibility.
A habit I've developed when looking a fresh group of coins in grading service holders is to examine the reverse of the coin first without gaining a grading clue from the holder label. I'm a big fan of "grade the reverse first" anyway so this works well for me. When a dealer hands me a double row box of slabs, I turn it around so the backside of each coin and holder is facing me. You might want to give this a try as well.
In the late 1960's, I had the good fortune to meet a collector who also provided an important nugget of valuable insight. "I only buy a coin if I really like it," he said, while handing back the piece I'd offered him. His simple approach to the hobby worked well back then and he was able to build a sensational collection. Like the coins we deal with today, wise collecting practices have changed very little over time.