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How Cellphone Photos Took Over the Coin Market in 2020

By Doug WinterRareGoldCoins.com ……
CoinWeek Content Partner
Beginning about three or four years ago, I noticed an ever-increasing amount of my business involved cellphone pictures of coins. This was especially true from the aspect of buying. And as the coin market had to re-invent itself in 2020 due to COVID-19, a significant amount of business became cellphone-driven. If I had to guess, I would say that close to 50%–if not more–of all dealer-to-dealer business is now done based on cellphone images.

This is both great and terrible.

The “great” part is that dealers found a viable way to quickly move new coins. The “terrible” part is that these transactions tend to be sight-unseen, and unless a dealer is very sophisticated and knows how to read a cellphone image of a coin, he or she is going to get stuck with some low-end coins.

Here are some tips which might make the next numismatic cellphone image you get a little easier to interpret.

Learn What Nice Coins Are Supposed to Look Like

In each of the books I have written about branch mint gold, I take a lot of time describing what a “proper” example of a coin is supposed to look like. As an example, when describing the natural coloration of an 1851-O half eagle, I state “(it) is most often a medium to deep orange or green-gold.” If you are being offered an 1851-O half eagle and it is dark red, this is a good sign that the coin has been recolored and should be avoided.

Another important thing to know about each issue is its type of luster. Does a specific coin come frosty, satiny, dull, or brilliant? Although luster may not show up well on a cellphone image, you can often determine whether it is impaired or not.

Evidence of a Cover-Up

A good cellphone image may reveal areas of haze or blotches of odd color that indicate something has been placed on the surfaces to cover up a scratch, some hairlines, or even an area where a spot has been removed. Coins with any of these should be avoided.

Swirls in the Fields

From time to time, the grading services miss minor old repairs on coins. For example, there may be some subtle swirls in the fields which are indicative of a spot having been removed or a mark having been scratched off. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see the edge of a coin in its slab, let alone in an image, so you’ll likely not be able to see if your coin has had its edges smoothed or filed. But look at as much of the edge as you can see and search for dense scratches or an area where the color doesn’t match the rest of the coin.

With Proof Coins You Are on Your Own!

No cellphone image of a Proof gold coin will give you a good indication of the true appearance of the surfaces. If you are buying a Proof gold coin grading 64 or lower, this won’t matter all that much as you can expect the coin will show more hairlines than what is on the image. For higher-grade Proof gold coins, I strongly suggest buying them only on a sight-seen basis.

Video: A Waste of Time

Some sellers will attach a short video of the coin they are selling. I find 99% of these to be a waste of time as they do little more than determine whether a coin has luster or not.

My guess is that the video process will improve dramatically in the coming years. But who knows? We may eventually even have 3-D video available on our phones.

Which Coins Photograph the Best?

With cellphones, there are certainly some people who just take better pictures than others. But let’s assume that with a fairly sophisticated iPhone or Android, everyone can take a fairly decent shot. Which coins photograph better than others?

A cellphone image will have a hard time conveying really great color so if a coin seems to have pretty hues based on the images, then the chances are good that they will be even better in person. Coins that are dark in hand do not photograph well, nor do coins that are really shiny. Coins in somewhat older NGC holders (where the coin appears “jammed” into the slab) image poorly. Nice circulated coins (say an EF45 Dahlonega half eagle) will likely image better than a scrubby AU55.

A Few Tips From a Pro

The serial number of the coin is important.

On PCGS coins that have been graded within the last few years (at least in the Express Tier), the chances are good that you will be able to verify the coin and see an image by going to the Verify icon on the PCGS.com website and entering the serial number. Often times, the coin you are being offered will appear in a lovely large-format, full-color image. I typically do this on a tablet so I can manipulate the screen and expand it to study small details. I can’t tell you the number of times this has saved me from buying a low-end coin based merely on a cellphone image.

On NGC coins, the last three digits of the serial number (the numbers after the dash) represent the number of coins included in an invoice. If the number ends in, say 003, this means that it was the third coin on the invoice. If the number is large, say 048, this means it was submitted in a large group of coins and this is generally not a positive. But if the number is small (i.e., 001), then it may have been submitted either by itself or in a small group. This is a good sign that the coin is fresh or was submitted by a smaller dealer.

But regardless of everything I’ve just said, you can bet that our hobby will see changes in the coming years that are a lot more significant than good quality cellphone images. We’ve already seen the democratization of information in the coin market with more information available to the casual buyer in 2021 than in all of modern history up to this date. This general trend will certainly continue for the foreseeable future.
What are some of your thoughts about this subject? Please respond below.

Doug Winter Numismatics, specialists in U.S. gold coins

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About Doug Winter

Doug_Winter2Doug has spent much of his life in the field of numismatics; beginning collecting coins at the age of seven, and by the time he was 10 years old, buying and selling coins at conventions in the New York City area.

In 1989, he founded Douglas Winter Numismatics, and his firm specializes in buying and selling choice and rare US Gold coins, especially US gold coins and all branch mint material.

Recognized as one of the leading specialized numismatic firms, Doug is an award-winning author of over a dozen numismatic books and the recognized expert on US Gold. His knowledge and an exceptional eye for properly graded and original coins have made him one of the most respected figures in the numismatic community and a sought after dealer by collectors and investors looking for professional personalized service, a select inventory of impeccable quality, and fair and honest pricing. Doug is also a major buyer of all US coins and is always looking to purchase collections both large and small. He can be reached at (214) 675-9897.

Doug has been a contributor to the Guidebook of United States Coins (also known as the “Redbook”) since 1983, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues

In addition, he has authored 13 books on US Gold coins including:
  • Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909
  • Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint: 1870 – 1893
  • Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861
  • Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint 1838-1861
  • The United States $3 Gold Pieces 1854-1889
  • Carson City Gold Coinage 1870-1893: A Rarity and Condition Census Update
  • An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles
  • The Connoisseur’s Guide to United States Gold Coins
  • A Collector’s Guide To Indian Head Quarter Eagles
  • The Acadiana Collection of New Orleans Coinage
  • Type Three Double Eagles, 1877-1907: A Numismatic History and Analysis
  • Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861: A Numismatic History and Analysis
  • Type Two Double Eagles, 1866-1876: A Numismatic History and Analysis

Finally, Doug is a member of virtually every major numismatic organization, professional trade group and major coin association in the US.


Doug Winter
Doug Winterhttps://www.raregoldcoins.com
Doug Winter founded Douglas Winter Numismatics (DWN) in 1985. The nationally renowned firm specializes in buying and selling rare United States gold coins. He has written over a dozen books, including the standard references on Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans gold coinage, and Type 1 Liberty Head Double Eagles. Douglas has also contributed to the A Guidebook of United States Coins, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars, and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues. He is a member of the PNG, the ANA, the ANS, the NLG, CAC, PCGS, and NGC - among other professional affiliations. Contact Doug Winter at [email protected].

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