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Ron Drzewucki’s Grading Coins: Lights and Loupes

ron drzewucki grading coins 2 - lights and loupes

By Ron Drzewucki on Grading CoinsModern Coin Wholesale …..
So check this out.

I flew in to Texas a few weeks ago and met up with a dealer friend of mine. This is a guy who knows his coins. He’s a major Texas dealer who’s been in the family business his whole life. I tell you this because I want you to get a sense of how shocked I was when I walked into his store and saw how he runs his shop and how he is grading coins.

For all his experience and for all the money he’s made in the business, my friend didn’t have the slightest clue to what the proper lighting conditions should be for grading coins. How much money has he lost both coming and going, not knowing the one simple trick that professional coin graders know?

So I asked my friend, who we’ll call “Bob”, what the halogen lamp at his desk was for.

“That’s my grading light, why?”

“Grading light?,” I said, “How can you look at a coin under that thing, much less grade with it?”

“I don’t know…?” he said.

It seemed that I’d touched a nerve. I understand that. Coin dealers are a prideful and knowledgable group, and as much as I hated playing my “I’m one of the world’s top graders” card on him, I wanted to help him stop getting burned by undergrading (and overgrading) the coins in his inventory.

In this month’s Grading Coins, I’d like to share with you what I told Bob.

Proper Grading Light

When it comes to grading coins, there’s only one light source that you should ever consider. That’s a desk lamp with an incandescent light bulb.

Wattage is a personal affair. Some people like 75, others go for 100.

Incandescent light is better than halogen light because halogen is too bright and washes out detail. Every coin looks like a top pop specimen under halogen light. Incandescent light provides a true picture of the coin’s qualities and deficiencies.

As important as the type of light you use is the ability to control that light. In the grading rooms at the major third party graders (and I’d assume at the major auction houses as well), light is kept to an absolute minimum. In fact, were it not for the table-mounted grading lamps, the rooms would be pitch black.

As a grader, you want total control of your grading environment. A grading lamp in a dark room is a directional light source. By tilting or rotating a coin under directional light, all flaws on the surface of the coin are revealed. Hits, dings, and scrapes are reflective; ambient light conceals these problems and will cause you to overgrade.

Unfortunately, incandescent light has a serious drawback – it’s disappearing.

It’s a reality that the industry has yet to come to terms with. Incandescent bulbs have been around since Thomas Edison. They’re cheap, and up until a few years ago they were plentiful, too. Before long, they won’t be so easy to get and prices are only going up.

I stocked up. Boxes of bulbs are tucked away everywhere in my office. And I’m not alone in that.

The coin industry as a whole hasn’t decided what to do next. But every new-fangled light bulb that I’ve ever tested can’t hold a candle to old fashioned incandescent light.


zeiss_loupeLoupes, like lamps, is another tool that’s often misunderstood.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen somebody whip out a loupe after being handed a certified coin.

What are they looking at?, I wonder. Do they think it’s fake?

What these folks don’t understand is that you can grade practically every coin in practically every grade with the naked eye.

A loupe, because of it’s sheer power, isn’t the ideal grading tool–but it’s absolutely essential for authentication.

Think of it this way:

The first reponsibility that a coin grader has is to verify authenticity. Bottom line, it’s pointless to grade a “coin” that was struck in some guy’s basement last week. Collectors and dealers might give the grading services grief for over- or undergrading coins, but to be called out on the carpet for failing to spot a fake would be a PR disaster.

Luckily, as I said in my first column, professional graders are masters of pattern recognition. When you see enough 1914-D Lincoln cents, for example, you know when a plain 1914 with a phony “D” pops up. Same thing goes for a number of the most commonly counterfeited collectible coins.

Hopefully, these tips clear up some of the misconceptions you might have had about how graders use these tools. And every collector should strive to become a better grader. It helps the market and it’ll help your wallet.

See you next month!

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  1. What type of incandescent bulb exactly? There are several types. I’m assuming the clear bulbs and not the soft whites? Thanks.

  2. “Ever coin looks like a top pop specimen under halogen light.” Seems like obvious hyperbole to me. If a professional grader needs special light to grade properly, then does the entire grading industry go out of business just because modern society transitions to a more sustainable bulb!? Miami FL is going to be under water in 50 years because we’ve burned oil and coal like nobody’s business. If you can’t figure out how to grade coins properly in ambient or natural light, then it isn’t worth it! Let’s get some perspective here.

  3. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen somebody whip out a loupe after being handed a certified coin.
    What are they looking at?, I wonder. Do they think it’s fake?”

    Honestly, yes. Though I don’t always need a loop to do this, I am also looking closely at the holder. I want to see if it looks like it has been tampered with. Does the hologram look right? Does the ink and the font on the label look right? There are a lot of fakes out there. It is best to do research on the different types of holders as well as the coins inside them.


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