HomeGradingFrom the PCGS Coin Grading Room: Surface Smoothing and Other Metal Mischief

From the PCGS Coin Grading Room: Surface Smoothing and Other Metal Mischief

By Kyle Clifford Knapp for PCGS ……
 

One of the many dreaded PCGS No Grades that may prevent a coin from receiving a numeric (70-point Sheldon) grade surface is smoothing. Considered a subcategory of “damage” due to the physical movement of metal involved, smoothing is a commonly encountered problem on issues from the early United States Mint and is seen on rarities from other eras as well. Basic familiarity with the appearance of such alterations can prevent unpleasant surprises in grading results and give one a better grasp on the condition and value of an affected example.

Repaired 1795 Flowing Hair Dollar. Courtesy of PCGS.
Repaired 1795 Flowing Hair Dollar. Courtesy of PCGS.

Perhaps the oldest form of surface smoothing is simple heating or melting. This method is similar to some well-known methods of jewelry repair, wherein the metal is raised to a high temperature, at which point it becomes malleable and can be tapped, scraped, or otherwise manipulated to remove or obscure scratches, tooling, or other problems. This method has been around even longer than United States coins themselves, with many ancient gold coins having been repaired even centuries ago. The resultant surface is typically wavy and uneven, often discolored, and with any natural flow lines from the striking process always obliterated. The 1795 Flowing Hair dollar pictured above has had a large part of its right obverse field (that in front of Liberty’s face) repaired in this way, probably to remove an old graffito.

Whizzed 1891-O Quarter. Courtesy of PCGS.
Whizzed 1891-O Quarter. Courtesy of PCGS.

A slightly more modern form of coin surface smoothing is that of whizzing. Popular in the 1970s and ‘80s before its telltale appearance became widely known, whizzing involves using a high-speed rotating brush to impart the semblance of mint luster on the surfaces of a circulated coin, thereby creating the illusion of a higher grade. The final result is a coin with intense but unnatural sheen, the cartwheel “bands” of luster thickened almost to the point of absurdity, sometimes encompassing a quarter of the surface area or more and jolting violently when rotated beneath a light source (the natural cartwheel bands indicative of original mint luster should be bright but narrow, dancing easily through crevices and atop devices).

Whizzed 1879 Morgan Dollar. Courtesy of PCGS.
Whizzed 1879 Morgan Dollar. Courtesy of PCGS.

The annular pattern of surface disruption during whizzing also frequently causes a buildup of metal along the leading edges of letters, stars, and devices as encountered by the brush. Note the prominent ridges seen on the date and other elements of the Morgan dollar pictured herein, a characteristic trait of heavily whizzed coins.

Artificially circulated 1800 Half Eagle. Courtesy of PCGS.
Artificially circulated 1800 Half Eagle. Courtesy of PCGS.

A final common form of surface smoothing is artificial circulation. Usually accomplished by rotating coins in a rock tumbler, this method seeks both to conceal underlying problems and mimic the appearance of a naturally circulated piece by lightly abrading the entire surface of the coin. While occasionally deceptive at first glance, artificially circulated examples – like the 1800 half eagle pictured above – evidence an unnatural uniformity to the surface accompanied by a graying or darkening of the high points and a general flattening of all raised elements. Under magnification, one can see the many small pits caused by repeated collisions with the tumbling medium. Compare its aesthetic to that of the example below, which shows a natural circulation pattern; even wear on the high points and open fields contrasts nicely with the protected areas between the stars and lettering.

Naturally circulated 1800 Half Eagle, PCGS XF40. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
Naturally circulated 1800 Half Eagle, PCGS XF40. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

As with all No Grades, coin smoothing or similar problems need not render a piece uncollectible. There are many rare and desirable issues for which even the most advanced connoisseur would be satisfied with an impaired example. Recognizing and describing such pieces accurately, however, is an essential part of proper grading and consumer protection.

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PCGS
 

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