By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
For as long as I’ve been around coins, the 1916-D Mercury dime has always been one of the most sought after and dangerous twentieth-century U.S. coins. Sought-after due to its status as the key date in the enduringly popular Mercury series; dangerous due decades of chicanery played out by those looking to make a buck at the expense of unsuspecting collectors.
In this month’s installment of Grading Coins, I’m going to take a look at the ‘16-D and discuss how professional graders at the major services deal with this complicated twentieth-century issue and the process each coin must go through before it is determined to be authentic and then gradable.
I’ll also give you an bird’s-eye view on how, as a professional grader, I would assess the condition of a Mercury dime in the commonly-encountered circulated grades of AG3 to VG8.
A $1,000 Decision
Last time I wrote about coin grading I dismissed the use of loupes for grading coins, saying that they are primarily used for authentication.
For most coins, an experienced grader will never need them. With enough experience you can just tell if a coin has the right look, has the correct die marriages, and is un-tampered with.
The ’16-D is one of the exceptions.
In all of my years of working as a coin grader, I can tell you with 100% certainty that I never graded a single 1916-D without first busting out a loupe to make sure that the coin is real. There are so many fakes, you’d be crazy not to.
Let me take it a step further: there are so many fake 1916-D mercury dimes that if you plan to buy one, no matter the grade, you’re better off buying one certified because even if it does turn out to be fake, at least you’ll get your money back from the services.
Luckily, in the lower grades the market premium for a certified example isn’t all that much… about 10% to 20%. Consider that an insurance policy–and a cheap one at that.
Because all of the design details are impaired on lower-grade coins, using die diagnostics to determine which dimes are the real McCoy can be tricky.
In Mint State, finding fakes is easy. All you have to look for are die markers. In a 1916-D Mercury dime, I look for the tiny diamond shape made by the interior walls of the D.
In circulated grades, however, these markers–most of them anyway–get worn down. Heck, at the AG-3 or G-4 level, you’re lucky if the D of a 1916-D isn’t totally obliterated.
So then the question a grader has to ask is whether the D is sitting right on the coin.
If there are serifs left, what do they look like? On a counterfeit coin the D might look janky or pointed. Also consider the “age” of the D. Does the wear of the D look consistent with the overall grade of the coin. Is the metal the same color and texture?
Does it appear to have worn into the coin or does it look like it’s sitting on a box?
If the D looks right, then I look at the rim. I look for any evidence of tampering.
Sometimes a forger will drill in the rim of a coin in order to “punch out” a mintmark. Making the phony mintmark is tricky enough but it’s difficult to completely cover your tracks.
If the coin looks authentic, is worn in a consistent way, and I’m completely satisfied that the D is original, then and only then do I begin to concern myself with the grade.
I’ve seen thousands of 1916-D dimes spanning all grades, and even with my experience, I have to be extra patient, careful, and diligent.
There are just too many fakes out there not to be.
Grading the Lowball Coins
The 1916-D is a rare date coin, especially in higher grades. An XF specimen, for example, could fetch easily $5,000 or more. In Mint State, you’re looking at $15,000 and up for anything remotely attractive.
Most genuine ’16-Ds at your local coin shop or regional coin show are going to be either details-grade, AG or G. If you’re lucky, maybe a VG8.
Nearly all low-grade dimes have problems. Coins that get hammered with “Details Grade” are usually the most egregious. Light scratches, nicks, and rim dings might get by… might… but jewelry mounts, harsh cleaning and environmental damage won’t. The key is, does the coin look like an honestly worn coin is supposed to look or is it messed up?
Even at these low grades, you can pick your spots. There are more ’16-Ds in these grades floating around out there than you might think.
Lastly, here’s a quick rundown of the first things I look for when grading lowball, key date Mercs:
An AG coin will be worn down. The rim will be almost completely gone and the flatness of the coin will encroach halfway into the letters.
Wear along the rims stops at the beginning of the letters. Outlines of the wing on Liberty’s cap may show some soft detail. The outline of the ear is visible.
Letters and the date are now fully visible. There is separation between the rim (or what’s left of it) and the devices. Sporadic hair and wing details are apparent. Nothing is consistent, detail-wise, at this grade.
More details than at G6. Feather details begin to show at VG8. The curvature of Liberty’s face is more defined. Rims are now full. On the reverse, there is some detail visible on the outside of the fasces. Leaves appear to have more detail.