Ever wondered what grading coins is like? Modern Coin Wholesale’s Ron Drzewucki gives CoinWeek the inside scoop
By CoinWeek ….
Professional coin grading can be a mysterious and inscrutable process to the average collector. Take a coin, insert it into the “black box” of third-party grading, and watch it come out the other side with a label that can make or break its value on the secondary market. We’ve taken our readers behind-the-scenes with NGC, and taken the coin grading challenge with PCGS – and we find that people are fascinated by the topic.
But, more often than not, the videos and articles inspire just as many questions as they provide answers.
To that end, CoinWeek teamed up with Modern Coin Wholesale’s Ron Drzewucki to answer any questions you might have about coin grading and how the grading companies work. And Ron is one of the best people for the job; he’s been a professional numismatist since 1984 when he turned 15 years old and worked for NGC as an elite grade finalizer for seven years. As a dealer, he’s had a depth of experience with all of the major players in the system that has few equals in the industry.
And finally, he knows that an informed buyer is key to a thriving business.
So without further ado, here is the first entry in what we hope is an instructive and compelling new column.
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CoinWeek: Okay, let’s get this one out of the way. Every time we publish a video about coin grading, people get quite alarmed by the fact that the graders aren’t wearing gloves… horrified, even. It just looks like an accident waiting to happen. Nobody wants fingerprints on their favorite, pristine coins. And on top of that, they had to pay for the privilege. And even I’ve got to admit, it does look pretty cavalier sometimes. So why don’t professional graders wear gloves? Shouldn’t they?
Ron Drzewucki: Short answer? No. Gloves make it harder to hold coins. There’s a much greater risk of the coin slipping out of your hand and causing damaging that way. As long as the grader is holding the coin by the edge, by the reeding, there’s no problem. I mean, yes, obviously, you don’t want to put your fingertips on the face of a coin.
But when you’re handling as many coins as a grader every day, well, gloves are just going to make that process a lot less secure.
CW: Fair enough. I guess it’s a lot different when handling coins is your job.
CW: Speaking of jobs, how do you get a job as a grader?
Ron: The easiest way to get a job as a grader is to become a successful trader. Most successful traders are good graders. You have to be. And the TPGs (Third-Party Graders) see who is a successful trader.
The ironic thing is that if you’re qualified enough to be grader, you probably shouldn’t be. You’d make more money as a trader or a dealer.
Which is okay, really, because the TPGs would be out of business without successful dealers submitting coins to them.
I will say this, though: it’s a bad situation to have underpaid graders. If you don’t pay your graders enough, you’ll end up with a lot of unqualified graders. And it’ll show. Dealers, collectors… we’ll notice. Inexperienced graders go with a more conservative grade. It actually takes more talent and skill to say with certainty that a coin has a higher grade.
CW: So is grading an Art, or a Science?
Ron: It’s a little bit of both. It’s an interpretive act, how a grader sees things like contrast, strike and luster and puts it all together. You’ve got to factor in things like abrasions, etc., as well. It’s difficult to quantify things that require interpretation so that leans more towards the “art” side of things. And you’d need someone who’s been doing it from a very young age. Young eyes, and time to gain the right experience.
You could probably have a computer grading modern coins, though. Silver dollars, too. Those coins benefit from modern technology and best practices, of course. But even then you’d still have to make adjustments based on the interpretive aspects. Add toning, color, other subtleties. As for classic coins, you’d have to make accommodations for specific series, types, eras, etc. The strike characteristics of early type coins, for example. Or the fact that early U.S. gold coins tend to have soft strikes. Very difficult to quantify. The Sheldon scale only covers so much.
CW: Should the Sheldon scale be changed? Should it be abandoned? Should we leave it alone?
Ron: I think we should stick with what works. It’s what we’ve always used, it makes sense, by this point everyone understands it. We know what a good grade is. Plus it’s evolved over time. Why wouldn’t it? All the tens of millions of coins that’ve been graded…
And so much is invested in it. It would lead to so much chaos to just drop it. It’s too easy to imagine scenarios where people advocating change might be working to make more money out of that chaos instead of working for the betterment of the hobby. Let’s not forget, coin grading has taken so much fraud out of the industry. Grading has done what it set out to do.
CW: Different coins have different grading standards, but are there any standards that apply to all U.S. coins, no matter what alloy, denomination or time period?
Ron: Luster, strike, eye appeal… these are important on all coins. Just looking at a coin you can see whether or not it has luster, though of course there’s that interpretive element I mentioned earlier. And different kinds of finish affect the luster, sure, and again, you have to make accommodations for certain types, like early gold Proofs for example. But the presence and quality of luster is important for all coins. How it was made, how it was struck, that’s always important.
CW: In light of that question, how are grading standards developed for a newly-discovered or unique coin?
Ron: You mean a coin where you don’t necessarily know if they come nice or not? Well, you’ve got to take everything into account. All the aspects I just mentioned. The grader’s general experience counts a lot in a situation like this. The ability to consider past models and precedent in the context of a new discovery. Which is nothing without a broad knowledge base of those standards.
CW: Thank you, Ron. We’ll see you soon for the next installment!
Ron: My pleasure, thank you.
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About Ron Drzewucki
Ron Drzewucki is the CEO of Modern Coin Wholesale, Inc. He became a professional numismatist in 1984 when he was only 15 years old. His judgment and keen eye earned him a spot at NGC in 2005 as a “finalizer”, the person who delivers the final verdict on a coin’s grade. Ron worked in this position until 2012, founding Modern Coin Wholesale in December of that year. He also teaches grading seminars and counterfeit detection classes.