By Charles Morgan with Hubert Walker
If you’re like me and participate in an online collecting forum, you’ve no doubt come across threads where “newbies” share images of coins they’ve found in order to ask other members if they should send them in to get graded. For some posters, of course, it’s all about the money. They snag what they believe is an especially nice specimen and immediately think dollar signs. This kind of collector usually asks, “Is it WORTH it to get this coin graded?” There’s nothing wrong with the profit-motive. Besides, don’t we all make decisions based on some kind of cost / benefit analysis? We all know how satisfying it is to cherry a coin at or near face value when we know it could be worth hundreds of dollars. The difference, however, between a collector who can actually pull the proverbial needle out of a haystack (or coin stack, if you prefer) and one who can’t is experience.
What the novice doesn’t always realize is that common date modern coins selling for significant premiums over face value do so because they are perceived to be scarce and the demand for these coins in high grades is such that there will be buyers for the coin. Clearly, those buyers would love to find these elusive high-grade examples at face value themselves. In fact, many high-end condition-rarity type collectors buy rolls of coins and mint set after mint set hoping to score premium coins. I can tell you that I’ve personally chopped up hundreds of mint sets from 1969 to 1981 looking for high-end quarters, halves, and dollar coins (when included), and nearly every coin that I’ve cut out of government packaging over the years ends up in a tube of same date and mint brilliant uncirculated coins that are destined to sell for a small premium over face value or end up in a CoinStar™ machine somewhere down the road.
Most people have no problem sharing their opinion when they see threads like this. Typically when such threads pop up, the more experienced collectors chime in to tell the poster the coin isn’t worth the trouble. Some try to let them down gently, while others are more… direct. When I’ve felt like joining the chorus of naysayers, I tried to offer some insight to help the collector know what to look for. Maybe I’d point out a prime focal area on the coin with a tendency to get marked up, or how to tell a strong from a weak strike. I’d try to explain which grades might be typical for most coins from that year or mint.
But the more I think about the advice I’d give in those circumstances, the more I think about myself and how I’m more of an experiential learner than a visual one. I tend to synthesize what it is I’ve experienced or read once I understand how it fits within a larger framework. If I were that new collector trying to make my way in a new and exciting hobby, I’d feel put off and discouraged to have my enthusiasm dampened in such a way. By putting myself in the shoes of that collector, I can’t avoid coming to the most obvious of conclusions: My advice was wrong.
Now, I’m not saying never set someone straight. I feel that the honest and responsible collectors among us owe it to the hobby to wave caution flags when something isn’t quite right. I admire and respect dealers like Laura Sperber who are unafraid to speak out when sellers try to pass off products like this. But having said that, allowing inexperienced collectors to submit handfuls of less-than-gem common-date type coins provides them concrete feedback as to the way the hobby sees the coins they liked. This kind of crash course in coin grading is hardly an expensive education at 15 to 20 bucks a pop. Also, it’s much better to learn these important lessons when the stakes are small and the collector is at his most eager to learn. Just as a math student is no better off being given the answer without learning the necessary skills to solve the problem for themselves, telling a new collector why a coin is not some high grade doesn’t help them understand how to identify it when they see it.
No. This experience must be earned through trial and error, and while no grading service is perfect, they do render an expert opinion. It is the process of asking for and receiving this opinion that is ultimately the best aid for someone trying to understand the nuances of the Sheldon grading scale. We all know the scale doesn’t cover everything there is to know about a coin’s quality or desirability, nor am I implying that the way we grade coins is purely scientific. What I am saying is that new collectors first need opinions they trust and respect on the coins they collect, and a professional grader having the coin in hand is much more likely to render an accurate opinion than an internet poster, no matter how well-intentioned or experienced.
Furthermore, it is commendable to think that they are so motivated as to preserve their finds “forever” in TPG plastic even if they don’t hit pay dirt by getting back a rare high grade.
So to collectors new to the scene, if you care to submit coins and have them graded professionally, be undaunted by the naysayers. Submit the coins that appeal to you. Submit the coins that you like and want to learn more about. Whether you are a collector of Lincoln cents or America the Beautiful quarters, there is value to be had in being wrong about a coin. Numismatics is a multi-faceted discipline that requires pattern recognition, attention to detail, and an endless thirst for knowledge. Books and bourse floor action ARE important elements of a coin-hobby education, but none of it, I feel, has as immediate and long-lasting an impact as getting expert feedback. There is permanence to a slabbed coin that you’ve submitted. If you were right in your assessment, then you’ll have a wonderful coin that will mean more to you than something you bought from a dealer. If you were wrong, you will see the coin not through the rose-colored glasses of hope and optimism, but through objective eyes. If you’re smart about it, you can learn all you need to know. The giants of the field, from Farran Zerbe to William Sheldon, from Water Breen to Q. David Bowers, all started out as inexperienced yet curious collectors. The next generation of important numismatists is among us and there’s so much for them to learn. Chorus of naysayers be damned. I say, let them submit their coins.
Of course, if you’d like to check out some great submission tips, check out these Coin Submission Success Strategies.
FLIP OF A COIN:
Forget gold-pressed latinum and imperial credits, the first interplanetary trade medium might just be the Maryland and Florida state quarters. Two of these state quarters are trim weights on the New Horizons spacecraft currently headed to Pluto, with a rendezvous set for approximately July 14, 2015. At 20 Astronomical Units as of February 11, 2012 (about 1.86 billion miles away), they must surely be the coins farthest from Earth, and mankind’s first numismatic representatives to the stars. The Maryland quarter was chosen because New Horizons was built there, and Florida was chosen because the craft launched from Cape Canaveral. Is Ohio jealous?
Not without its irony: In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, California congressman and would-be secessionist William McKendree Gwin (1805-1885) proposed that the United States adopt a series of higher denomination gold coins for use in the Pacific region. He was inspired by Treasury Secretary James Guthrie, who thought up the idea. The name of the coins? The Union and Half Union.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when aluminum was more valuable than gold. In 1855 the price of aluminum per kilogram was over $500. By 1859 the price had fallen to $40. New refining techniques were to blame, and the cost of aluminum continued its decline to the point where the Mint was experimenting with it for coining Indian Head cents. One of the few known of these aluminum patterns is currently listed for sale at $75,000.00 (or $2,332,725 per troy ounce).
I can appreciate the dilemma over advising newbies whether to get a coin slabbed or not.
I have a much neater solution, and tell people that coin slabbing was invented by American dealers so they could market coins to American collectors who wee unable to exercise their own judgement.
Perhaps I am joking.
At the end of the article you “blame” new refining techniques for bringing aluminium (or aluminum in American). Isn’t it better to think positive and to applaud the fact that human ingenuity has made aluminium not only useful, but economically viable for common use.
Incidentally, I wondered what was the earliest coin made of aluminium. Wikipedia tells me it was the 1907 East Africa 1 Cent, so I would like to find one to photograph.
The earliest dated aluminium coin I can locate quickly is a 1920 Germany Weimar Republic 50 Pfennig Aluminium: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawrence_chard/7462314082/
Also remember that platinum was once so cheap, it was used for making forgeries of British gold sovereigns; there’s something else we would like to own and photograph.
The word “blame” does sound like a negative. We were aiming for something of a “you are there” feel, though. I didn’t remember that about platinum until you mentioned it. Yikes, I’d better get back to work or I’m going to start thinking about other economic shift factors and artificially high-priced, cartel-dominated commodities, and get all sorts of paranoid about the state of things.
And since we yanks can’t resist needling our British friends, it was aluminum first. For once, we didn’t make the word ugly.
This American cent “pattern” predates the two you mention. but it is a pattern and as such never circulated as a coin. I’m sure there are others from this period from other mints in Europe.