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HomeCollecting StrategiesSome Practical Coin Grading Concepts for the Average Collector

Some Practical Coin Grading Concepts for the Average Collector

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..

Several days ago, a collector (DeplorableDan) posted photos and comments about an 1836 Quarter Eagle, Block 8 on a PCGS message board under the title “My first CACG submission result”.

In the post he showed the coin as it was in a PCGS slab, then as it was when cracked out, and finally as it was after grading by CACG. PCGS graded the coin “MS61”; CACG called it “MS62”. As a practical exercise in accurate coin grading, I’ve posted DeplorableDan’s photos along with a PCGS MS65 coin from PCGS CoinFacts.

To me, this coin is – in anyone’s plastic holder – a superior example of this variety, and an outstanding addition to the owner’s collection. A coin of this quality usually holds or increases its value over time and can provide continued enjoyment to the owner for many years to come. The coin in its PCGS slab looked like this:

Figure 1. 1836 Quarter Eagle, Block 8. (Photo by DeplorableDan.)
Figure 1. 1836 Quarter Eagle, Block 8. (Photo by DeplorableDan.)

The same coin when broken out and after dipping in acetone by the owner:

Figure 2. Same coin out of slab. (Photo by DeplorableDan.)
Figure 2. Same coin out of slab. (Photo by DeplorableDan.)

And the same coin in a CACG photo:

Figure 3. Same coin in CACG photo after grading. (Photo by CAC Image Secure as posted, obverse only.)
Figure 3. Same coin in CACG photo after grading. (Photo by CAC Image Secure as posted, obverse only.)

Now, look closely at the areas immediately next to the stars. Next, look at the raised curls and compare them to the recessed curls. Look at the fields surrounding the portrait, and lastly concentrate on Liberty’s cheek between mouth and hair.

Do you see differences in color or texture? They are visible in the CACG photo just as in the others, but much less prominent[1]. Notice that there is bright metal close to each star, but this quickly becomes darker, approximating the star’s outline (the second star on the right is a good example, although the same effect is visible next to almost every star).

Let’s go to the hair curls. The highest curls are noticeably darker than the deeper ones. The crescent-shaped curl to left of Liberty’s ear is a clear example. If we look at the portrait, we see it is surrounded by a halo of darker metal with a lighter outline close to the portrait.

There’s one further observation which is especially clear in the CACG photo. Miss Liberty seems to have a five o’clock shadow – a beard of stubble marring the original surface.

From Observation to Coin Grading Principles

So what can we learn from these observations?

First, small marks on the cheek and other high places result from either contact with other coins in bags or kegs or they come from handling as the coin passed from one person to another.

Second, Liberty’s halo and dark areas near the stars and in the field could be artifacts of photography – uneven lighting or possibly attempts to show “luster”. They might also be the result of slightly uneven striking or irregular die surfaces, or even be signs of fingers having touched the coin and skin oils rubbing the gold.

Third, differences between the tops of hair curls and the deeper recesses could be due to photographic lighting, or an indicator of slight wear on high points. Long ago I learned grading from Frank Katen, one of the preeminent dealers of the time. I learned that a reliable separator between uncirculated and circulated coins is the presence of slight abrasion on the high points and/or disturbance of field luster: an uncirculated coin can have neither.

Our final photo should help resolve these questions. Below we have a coin of the same date and variety graded MS65 by PCGS[2]. Let’s look at the same areas – stars, hair, portrait, cheek – as before. How do those differ from the first photos?

Figure 4. PCGS MS-65 quarter eagle 1836 same Block 8. (PCGS TrueView photo #0578192, obverse only.)
Figure 4. PCGS MS-65 quarter eagle 1836 same Block 8. (PCGS TrueView photo #0578192, obverse only.)

Do you see a halo around Liberty? Are there dark areas near but not touching the stars? Are the highest hair curls almost identical in brightness to deeper ones? Your answers to these questions will likely generate thoughts about the actual grade of DeplorableDan’s coin.

Can we be more definitive? No.

But we can learn a lot about what to look for and how to better “see” a coin’s surface by concentrating on details in good photos. But no uncirculated, or legitimate Almost Uncirculated, coin should be assigned a grade without careful, unhurried examination under standard lighting conditions.

Recently, a local coin club held a grading contest among its members. A dozen professionally graded coins were on tables, and members wrote their estimates of each coin’s grade on a score sheet. At the conclusion, members were asked to indicate their assigned grade for each coin, and a club officer then revealed the professional grade. Most club members were within a point or two of the assigned grade and did very well on all the coins except one. The exception was a beautifully lustrous Buffalo nickel where estimates went as high as MS-66.

A quick glance supported a high grade, but more patient and careful examination revealed slight abrasion on the highest points of the design. Only one member got it right; a look at the slab’s label revealed this was an AU-58 nickel.

NOTE: All photos are the property of their respective owners and are used herein solely for educational purposes.

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[1] Squinting will help make the difference more discernible.

[2] Haynor, Daryl J. United States Classic Gold Coins of 1834-1839 (2020). This coin is pictured and described on page 137.

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Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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