Not all MS65s are created equal
By Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
[Editor’s Note: It must be understood that certification services (such as those mentioned below) that sticker certified coins accept that the original grading service made the correct call as to a given coin’s grade. The purpose of a sticker is to provide additional insight–NOT to call into question the ability of third-party grading services to accurately grade coins. A majority of all coins graded by PCGS/NGC are graded in line with market expectations.]
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Third-party grading has become ubiquitous in the numismatic world, but grading isn’t an objective activity. Most collectors will, at some point or another, disagree with a grade presented on a slab. In addition, there’s a range of quality within any given grade, from “just barely squeaking by” to “almost the next step up.”
To provide an outside monitor for graders, and to help novice collectors tell the difference between low-end and high-end coins within a grade, we now have stickers.
Multiple companies have popped up that offer a second official opinion on graded coins–the oldest in 1995; the “youngest” as recently as 2017. Some comment on the grade – Is the coin high quality for the grade? Could it be undergraded? – while others testify to a coin’s appearance, helping it trade sight unseen.
These are undoubtedly a helpful addition to the market and provide an outside watchdog for grading companies to try to combat grade inflation. However, there are so many different stickering companies now that they can get muddled together. Which company accepts which coins? What do the different colors of stickers mean? Who can submit coins?
Let’s break it down.
CAC – Certified Acceptance Corporation
Stickering coins since 2007, CAC (Certified Acceptance Corporation) accepts NGC– and PCGS-graded US coins that are not modern or bullion. The newest coins they currently accept are Mint State Eisenhower dollars, though the cut-off for most denominations is in the 1940s or ’50s. In addition, they also accept territorial gold, patterns, Hawaiian, and Confederate issues.
In conversation among dealers, a graded coin is commonly given a letter – A, B, or C. “C” coins are below average for the grade, “B” coins are strong for the grade or above average, and “A” coins are high-end for the grade. CAC puts green oval stickers – sometimes called “green beans” – on A and B coins. If a coin is submitted and doesn’t receive a sticker, it means it’s either a properly graded C coin, or might be overgraded.
In addition to “green beans”, CAC will occasionally give gold stickers. These indicate that the coin would be solid in the next grade up. In other words, it would have received a green sticker had it been graded one step up.
Their site has a page to search for submission centers in your area, or dealers and collectors can apply for membership to submit coins directly. Applications are currently closed, though the site suggests applications might open again sometime next year.
The goal behind CAC stickers is to make it easier for consumers to know the quality of a coin for the grade. While CAC doesn’t publish serial numbers of coins that have been submitted and failed to sticker (which is common practice among many stickering companies), those that do receive stickers help dealers and collectors know that they’re purchasing a solid coin. Experts may not rely heavily on this reassurance, but it’s helpful for beginners.
The CAC website does have population reports and a searchable index of the serial numbers of stickered coins, to help combat counterfeit stickers and provide additional information.
For US coins too new to be covered by CAC, there’s QA Check. They focus on modern coins and have very little overlap with CAC. The oldest series they accept are wheat pennies starting in 1909, but most denominations pick up very close to where CAC stops. Between the two, it looks as though all circulating US coins are covered.
In addition, QA Check also accepts bullion pieces, such as Silver Eagles and 5 oz America the Beautiful pieces. They began stickering coins in 2015, seeing a gap in the market with no companies offering these services for modern coins.
Similar to CAC, QA Check has two different types of sticker but their meanings are a little different. The platinum sticker indicates a solid quality coin: no obvious issues like spots or unappealing toning, and strong for the grade.
The gold QA Check sticker, however, does not indicate coins that are undergraded; instead, it identifies coins that are solid for the grade and also have a “wow” quality in color, strike, cameo contrast, or luster. They may be undergraded, but that isn’t a requirement for the sticker. Gold stickers are very selective and identify those coins that are something special, even when you ignore the technical grade.
QA Check accepts NGC- and PCGS-graded coins from dealers and collectors who are members. You have to mail in a membership application to be able to submit coins directly to the company, or you can submit your pieces through an authorized dealer.
There is a certification number search feature on the QA Check site, though no population reports are advertised.
Eagle Eye Photo Seal
Eagle Eye Photo Seal is one of the more specialized stickering companies, focusing on only Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents. Based on their standards, approximately half of these coins are either overgraded or suffer from poor eye appeal. To earn a Photo Seal, the coin must be accurately or undergraded by NGC or PCGS and have strong eye appeal.
In addition to a sticker on the slab, Photo Seal coins also come with a laminated photo certificate and are included in the site’s database, which allows users to look up their certified coins.
Varieties will receive an additional sticker identifying it by the Snow number on the holder, including varieties that may not be recognized by the original grading company.
Photo Seal is also the oldest stickering company, started in 1995 and examining coins ever since. Every submitted coin is examined by Rick Snow, and submitters can request a phone call to discuss their coins with him personally. Even with this personal touch, they average a one-week turnaround.
Anyone can submit their coins by simply downloading and filling out the submission form and mailing them in. There is no membership or application required, which makes it a bit more accessible for those with only a few applicable coins.
The parent company – Eagle Eye Rare Coins – runs a business on almost exclusively Photo Seal coins, and will offer to purchase any stickered coins that are available. This adds another level of confidence in the coins, as there will always be a buyer.
WINGS – World Identification and Numismatic Grading Service
For the most part, if it isn’t covered by any of the services above, WINGS will look at it. Established in 2008, they sticker all world and ancient coins, as well as tokens and medals both foreign and from the United States. Really, the only thing they don’t do is US coins.
They also accept a wide range of grading companies – PCGS-, NGC-, ICG-, ANACS-, and ICCS-graded coins are all accepted. They’re the only company listed here to branch out beyond NGC and PCGS.
Similar to CAC, they offer two types of stickers. Silver stickers are given to coins that are “solid for the grade”, indicating a B coin as explained earlier. Gold stickers identify coins that are “premium quality”, suggesting an A or an undergraded coin. Again, failing to sticker does not mean a coin is overgraded but can simply suggest that it’s on the lower end of the assigned grade.
Anyone can submit coins by printing the submission form from their site and mailing it in. Authorized dealers may receive lower prices, but there are no membership options for collectors.
Their website also offers a certification look-up feature, though no population reports are advertised. Of course, with such a wide range of accepted coins, maintaining a population report would be a massive undertaking.
I remember when coin grading companies first came to be, and at first saw pros and cons. I was in my 20’s in the 80’s and it showed me my local coin shop was selling over graded coins in flips. But one of the pitches was that you could buy a coin unseen, though we all learned this was a farce.
The value of slabs to me has helped deterring counterfeits from entering my collection, and coin preservation because I have seen both over graded and under graded coins. With the introduction of slabs came to slogan “Buy the coin and not the holder”, but the holder does make a difference when reselling. There was an evolution of third party grading, which I think hurt the industry even though it instituted a more common consensus in the grades and grading companies and we have seen a lot of companies fail who could not keep up. Then came grades with a “Plus” and or “Star”, Coin Cleaning is now acceptable if called “Conservation”, the release of “Bullion Coins, and an environmental damage called “Spotting”.
Then coin grading evolves yet again with fourth party graders with the introduction of these stickers. The first issue is, not all slabs get sent in to be “stickered”. Secondly they may only agree with the grade or disagree if they think under graded, and thirdly is that environmental damage can appear at any time. But even without the damage, I have seen stickers on coins that I feel do not qualify for such a listing.
I will not get into collecting the multitude of slab labels, but I only buy slabbed coins to protect my interest and have little to no interest with these stickers. I still find myself having to exam each coin purchase myself with much scrutiny, just as I first did when I began collecting coins in the 60’s. But I cannot deny these added features can increase profits when selling, but then again I also see atrociously “White Spotted” coins demanding exuberant prices because of the grade on the slab.
So where will it all end?
I feel all of these attributes can be useful to help educate the modern numismatist, but you cannot rely on any of these facets. Education is the key to success, can anyone truly trust buying a coin sight unseen even after all this time?
You left out the “evolution” of the elimination of returning the coin to the submitter in a “body bag”; everything gets slabbed now, just not necessarily with a grade, but some with a notation of “cleaned”, “scratched”, “questionable toning”, etc.
False. Excessive corrosion, altered surfaces… there are still body bags. I have one on my desk.
I never in all my born days thought it would be possible to make a living saying, “I agree with the grade on this slab.” It’s phenomenal that this is even a viable business endeavor.