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HomeUS CoinsA Reader Writes: Harvey Stack on the Hobby's Relationship with Toning

A Reader Writes: Harvey Stack on the Hobby’s Relationship with Toning

Harvey Stack - Writes In...

By Harvey StackCo-Founder, Stack’s Bowers Galleries …..
Dear Charles,

Welcome home! It had to be a hard week. Morning till late-at-night events, your days just on the floor doing videos with Hubert, but you surely tried to keep up with everything going on. Bravo!

I enjoyed the livestreaming you did and found the variety very interesting. Those who couldn’t be with you had a good bird’s-eye view of the happenings, and when you start sending your reports back this coming week I feel you will have many extra viewers.

I must admit I missed (I don’t know why) your recent July 21 CoinWeek Ask livestream and reviewed it the other night. It was great about the color of coins, how they can change, et cetera. You related just what happened years ago, as well as what happens today.

But speaking of years ago, I remember it so well that there is a story I must tell.

Years back it was common for Stack’s to have bulk lots of coins that did not meet Mint State grading standards but were close (at least many coins were in each lot), in order to sell them in auctions because they were part of the holdings of many collectors.

Especially with Indian Head and early Lincoln cents, they usually darkened but looked still pretty good. One dealer especially, from the New England area, used to buy these lots, one after another. At first we thought that he had a wholesale business and either gathered them or sorted them for sale in quantity.

No, that’s not what happened.

He would take them home, bleach or strip them in some way, then he would put them in a frying pan and heat them slowly, watching as they turned from pinkish to a somewhat red or light tan (others would become too badly spotted so I guess he removed them), and then within two or three weeks he would place large ads in Coin World or Numismatic News, offering a range of dates, claiming they were Full Red, Part Red, Red/Brown (etc.), and did a land office business until he was sued and had to close shop for mis-representation. So the coloring you talk about was in many cases artificially done. UGH!!!

Of course, this was not the only contributing factor to tarnished or faded coins.

Collectors of the 19th century stored their coins in envelopes, on wooden trays in cabinets for easy viewing or wrapped in tissue – all in the hopes that the coins remained as bright and beautiful as they might have been originally. However, from that period of time to maybe the present century, sulphites, dust, heat and the decomposition of whatever happened to be near the coin in storage tended to–with oxidation–start toning the coin.

Whether the coin was toned in the center or simply around the edges was a matter of the natural effects on the exposed coins. Some coins even changed from a light blue or grey to take on a much darker toning; some, unfortunately, even turned black. So the collector, in an effort to save his coins from further discoloration, would use chemical cleaning products like soap and water, ammonia, and light polishes to try to clean them. Some of the toning stopped, while some coins hit a certain coloring or a certain pattern and seemed to stop there.

So to many collectors, brightness was part of the beauty of a coin. So to “improve” the coins, colelctors tried various ways of preserving what they had originally.

Many coins were stored in 2 X 2 paper envelopes, believing that the bond type paper would not tarnish the coin. They didn’t suspect, however, that the GLUE that held the envelope together had sulphur in it, and as the envelope dried out so did the glue, which emitted sulphites of one type or another that tarnished and streaked the coin wherever it came into contact with the sulphur-laden dust. So it is natural to try to stop this action and remove some of the staining so it can have beauty again. Some collectors found a way to do just that; others managed to ruin their coin for the sheen was impaired, similar to what happens to a pair of shoes that are lightly scuffed or dulled. The difference is that, with a good polish, you can repair or hide the scuff and the markings are repaired. NOT SO WITH A COIN!!!

But again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Later, in the early part of the 20th century, coin collecting became more popular, and several enterprising companies made large cards with holes in them for placing coins in, usually by date and mint mark.

A more exotic type of page became marketable in the early 1920s: a large card, usually measuring 8 1/2 x 14 inches, the outer part wrapped in a brown paper covering, with holes punched the size of the coin to be inserted. Each side of the hole–both front and back–had clear horizontal celluloid strips to hold the coin in place, so now the collector could see both sides as he examined each page. These pages were made by the NATIONAL COIN ALBLUM COMPANY, and were sold by Wayte Raymond, initially, from his New York office. Raymond also designed a loose leaf type album to store five or six of the pages in. The albums were stored on shelves and the collection was neatly stored.

Some years later Raymond re-designed his album pages to be 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches so they would also fit into albums but more conveniently on shorter shelves, like standard books. When on a shelf they could have been library books, not coin albums with valuable coins inside. This form of storage was very popular and many a major collection used these albums. After World War II a large wholesaler of Postage Stamps copied the Raymond-National page design and sold them widely in the market. They were lettered and made just like the National page.

Later, individual lucite holders were made to house single rarities, usually 2 x 2 inches, so they could be filed in the same storage boxes as the paper envelopes use.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the present plastic holder used by third-party grading services saw popularly use. Not only was the coin graded by a neutral third party and encased in a lucite holder, but it was even sealed so that it was fairly difficult to open. Unfortunately the first plastic holders weren’t completely air tight and if sulphites were on the coin or leaking in along the seams, then toning, while it was slowed down, could not be completely stopped.

Newer ways of making the holder have made them better but still they cannot completely stop tarnish. First of all, if there were any type of sulphites or tarnishing agents on the surface when the coin was put into a “sealed holder”, then the actions of the agents do not always stop.

Too much heat in the storage area, micro-dust on the surface of the holders and other natural actions–even stored in what might be a sealed vault–can, over time, keep the discoloring agents active, even at a slow pace.

These quite natural happenings are not easy to prevent, so if it occurs to your coin, hope that they are slow and not damaging.

The most extreme case of this tarnishing factor I have witnessed I saw when I was packing up the Davis-Graves Collection we bought from a collector who lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The year was 1953. A few years earlier my uncle, Joseph B. Stack, saw the collection in 1950. In 1953 the estate decided to sell it, and from his notes my uncle made an offer. We were the successful bidders and I was sent from New York to Lawrence to pack and bring the collection home. I did.

The collection was stored in a closed “Knitting Mill” factory, (as the industry moved South) and there, in a large and barren conference or board room was a chest of wood, some six feet high and almost as wide, standing locked in a corner of this almost empty room.

I was let in by a watchman, showed where the collection was, and given the job of packing it. Since I was unable to move a cabinet that size, I took from the watchman a pad of large sheets of what appeared to be tarnish-proof paper. I laid the sheets on a table, placed the coins side by side on the sheet, and with rows of eight to twelve coins across folded them into layers and packed the collection into two large cases.

Toned Morgan DollarThe reason I mention this is because the obverses of the coins facing me in each tray were lightly toned, whereas the reverses had little to no color. I asked the watch man what type of paper lined each tray, and he said the same type he gave me for wrapping. He told me that since the factory made the large knitting needles used in the thousands for making fabric in most of New England that it was essential to wrap each needle in this paper, to keep them from scratching and tarnishing so they could be used without catching on the yarn.

So as I said, those coins which faced up had toned, no doubt from the sulphites in the wood of the cabinet as it slowly decomposed.

So in order to enjoy a collection, one should be able to examine, maybe touch or hold the coin in hand, move it from one environment to another and yet try to protect the appearance and value of the coin at the same time.

One hundred years from today, someone will look back and admire all the effort we as a hobby have placed in having the eye pleased while owning the coins. Let’s hope it happens sooner.

As a professional for over 70 years, being born and raised in the Numismatic World, I still believe in the saying and adage: “BEAUTY IS IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER”.

Thoughts for the day (as if you don’t have enough!).

With all good wishes,

As always,

–Harvey Stack

Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan is an award-winning numismatic author and the editor and publisher of CoinWeek.com. Along with co-author Hubert Walker, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the "Market Whimsy" column for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing. From 2021-2023, Charles served as Governor of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), where he was bestowed the Glenn Smedley Award. Charles is a member of numerous numismatic organizations, including the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG).

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