By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com ……
Forrest Gump, the namesake protagonist of the 1994 hit drama Forrest Gump, remarks, “My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. Where they are going. Where they been.”
Just as well, the coins in my collection could probably tell you a lot about who I am as a coin collector and perhaps even who I am, period. Somebody with an understanding of numismatics could glean a lot about my tastes in surface quality and eye appeal, as well as my overall collecting budget, just by taking a look at my collection and the grades of my coins. The quality of my coins may even yield some insight on my personality.
A few months back while attending a major coin show, I spent time casually conversing with some of the exhibit presenters who had their coins on display. As a journalist, I have a natural inclination to ask lots of questions of the people I talk to, including those whom I run across at coin shows. I don’t ask questions to interrogate but merely because I’m curious to learn about the people I talk with. You can find out a lot about a coin collector simply by listening to them and observing their collection, even just a few minutes.
What I’ve learned over my years conducting interviews for hundreds of articles is that we coin collectors are an interesting, eclectic lot. Talking with others in the hobby reminds me of the conversations I’ve had with auto enthusiasts I’ve met browsing car shows. Each of their four-wheeled (and, yes, even three-wheeled) beauties vibrantly reflects the personalities and character of their colorful owners. And goodness knows so many of those Mustang convertible collectors I’ve met wax nostalgic about their more youthful days enjoying the shore, sun, sand, and surf!
Back on the bourse floor, I’ve discovered that the grades of the coins in a person’s collection don’t necessarily say much about whether he or she is a beach bum or the owner of a 40-acre slice of heaven in Wyoming. Still, coin grades may indicate other personal attributes. The first case in point is my collection and what the grades of my coins can say about my nature.
What the Grades of My Coins Say About Me as a Collector
Certainly I can say that the heavily circulated Lincoln wheat cents that I collected during my early teenage years in the hobby were a direct function of my then-limited, allowance-based budget. Years later, as my hobby budget grew, so did my love for higher-grade Lincoln cents. Sure, I had more money to work with and could afford better-graded coins, but I’ve always had a competitive streak anyway. I was that kid in the arcade during the 1980s who wanted to smash record hi-scores in Pac-Man and in the ‘90s sought every opportunity to beat my opponents in the virtual races of the popular Mario Kart video game.
Therefore unsurprisingly, the concept of building a registry set, or a collection of high-caliber coins whose individual grade points are collectively weighted to achieve a calculated score in a third-party coin grading company database, became my next competitive experience. Let me see if I can build the best Lincoln cent collection, I thought to myself. Yet while I was enabled financially by a full-time office job in my (then) late 20s, there was no feasible way I could really compete with the “big boys” with six-figure incomes who amassed incredible Lincoln cent registry sets.
Does that mean that everyone who builds a registry set is inherently competitive? Not necessarily. Yet registry sets, by their very definition, cater to the nature of competitive hobbyists because these assemblages of high-grade certified coins prompt collectors to buy the very best coins they can within a given series and then put their sets up for comparison to others like it.
Raising the stakes of competition even more? The registry sets with the highest grades typically earn public recognition by way of an award or certificate issued by the certification firm. Game on.
On the flip side of the registry set arena is my affinity for lowball collecting, or the objective of building sets of coins that are in sub-par grades such as Poor-1 or Fair-2. If this goal sounds easy enough to reach, try building a set of modern types, such as Kennedy half dollars or Eisenhower dollars, that exhibit extensive honest wear. It’s something to write home about if you find a Kennedy half dollar with enough honest-to-goodness wear to grade under Very Good-8, let alone lower than Good-4. I searched through a box of 1,000 Kennedy half dollars, and the most well-circulated example I could find among those graded maybe a Very Fine. Building a set of lowball coins isn’t necessarily competitive and it’s generally not expensive.
But it’s a surprisingly challenging pursuit, and this particular collecting approach is still relatively novel in the scope of the hobby.
And, gee whiz, if those lowball coins could talk, imagine the stories most of them could tell! I own a Poor-1 Morgan dollar that was passed on down to me via my deceased mother from my maternal grandfather, who died only a few months before I was born. This heavily circulated 1921 Morgan dollar is monetarily worth only melt value, but to me it’s priceless because my grandfather carried it in his pocket for years. It serves as a personal connection point between my grandfather and me – significant in that on his deathbed he knew my name before I was born yet we never met. It’s a coin that my mother prized, and who proudly gave it to me days before her death following a long battle with cancer – the same cancer that took my grandfather. It’s a coin I wouldn’t trade for the world.
What does this slick pocket piece say about me? For one, it encapsulates my sentimentality, but it also suggests that I appreciate old coins, and that I love a good story. And, of course, my love of good stories plays right into my passion for journalism – a career that, too, I wouldn’t trade for the world.
What’s in a Grade, Anyway?
A lot of folks may agree or disagree with my observational assessments here, and that’s perfectly OK. I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t even play one on TV. But the way we dress, the cars we drive, the places we choose to eat, the shoes we wear (thanks, Forrest!), and even the way we style our hair – or buff our bald spots – really do say something about who we are as people. So, why not the grade of our coins, too?
Granted, I know there are many folks who can’t afford the grade of the coins they wish to buy and are simply buying the best coins they can acquire. So is it still fair to say that coin grades speak about who we are as individuals, especially if personal economics is often the primary determining factor in the quality of coins that we buy?
Yes. And here’s why.
The collector whose proverbial coin cabinet is full of culls or other low-grade coins has made a numismatically simple yet powerful statement: all coins matter. In other words, coins need not necessarily glisten with luster or qualify for registry set glory to be worthy of collecting. That doesn’t mean the hobbyist who buys only slabbed uncirculated and proof coins doesn’t care about raw circulated coins. But it does say something special when a collector spends his or her funds on coins that might otherwise be difficult to home, doesn’t it?
That’s why it burns my cookies when some collectors refer to any coins as “junk”. How many times have we heard some collectors (or coin dealers) use that term, or even harsher pejoratives, to describe worn Lincoln wheat cents, modern coins such as 50 States Quarters, Susan B. Anthony dollars and base-metal world coins?
Call it what you will, but I say it’s nothing less than snobbery.
Such blunt, belittling remarks about coins, any coin, hurt the morale of collectors who can only afford, or simply prefer, coins that others call mere “junk”. These gruff, arrogant comments foster an unwelcoming numismatic environment and only serve to discourage collectors, especially newbies, whose pride and joy might be a worn 1920 Lincoln wheat cent, circulated 1941 Walking Liberty half dollar, About Uncirculated Susan B. Anthony dollar found in pocket change, or 1986 British 10 Pence coin.
Besides, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure. And, in today’s numismatic world, treasure is often defined by little more than a number anyway. An MS-69 may look to the naked eye no better than an MS-70, yet the price guides say otherwise usually by blaring a $10,000-plus spread between the two grade points. One coin can receive a grade of Extremely Fine-45 from one certification firm and score an About Uncirculated-50 label from another. And that About Uncirculated-50 coin could be cracked out of its slab and score an About Uncirculated-55 grade down the line – from the same company. When it comes to the subjective art of coin grading, stranger things have happened.
Really, what’s in a grade?
Collect the coins you like in a grade that suits you best. If the grades of your coins say anything about you, then may it be a reflection of your sheer happiness with the hobby we collectors share and the pure joy you receive from owning the coins you love.