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Understanding Classic U.S. Coins and Building Excellent Coin Collections, Part 2: Dipped Coins

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #186

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds
This is the second in a series. It is not necessary to click to read the first part to follow the theme in this second part. This discussion is about the dipping of coins in acidic solutions. Sophisticated collectors and collector-dealers are cited at length.

Of the six guidelines that I put forth in part one, the last (“F”) is the most important, ‘Weigh originality heavily and focus on quality apart from numerical grade.’ A central point is that, in accordance, with accepted grading standards, many coins that do not score highly in the category of originality do qualify for high numerical grades.

coin_dippingDespite the fact that that many, very apparently dipped, classic U.S. coins have received high grades, often from 66 to 68, from the PCGS, the NGC, and many dealer-experts in the mainstream, sophisticated collectors tend to avoid them and instead choose coins that score more highly in the category of originality. Put differently, the grading criteria employed by the two leading services and many (though not nearly all) dealers in the mainstream are inconsistent with the grading criteria that has been traditionally employed by most sophisticated collectors in the present and earlier.

The discussion here relates to naturally toned coins and apparently dipped coins. Overgrading and coin doctoring are different topics, which I have addressed in the past and will again in the future. As it is generally agreed that copper coins should never be dipped and that nickel coins are not nearly as harmed by dipping as silver coins, the primary focus here is on silver coins, though most points put forth are applicable to gold coins as well.

I. What is dipping?

The ‘term’ dipping has a particular meaning in the field of coin collecting and should not be taken too literally. If a coin is immersed in acetone or ammonia, it is not being ‘dipped’ in the sense that the term is employed in the field of coin collecting. The removal of just dirt, scuff, or substances that are loosely resting on a coin’s surface, while somewhat controversial, is usually not ‘dipping,’ even if a coin is physically dipped.

The definition of dipping is the immersion of a coin in a solution that contains acid for the purpose of stripping toning and metal from a coin’s surface so that the coin is brighter, whiter (for silver or nickel) and/or plainer afterward. A silver coin that is dipped will often become bright white.

The effect of dipping on a gold coin varies. Frequently, dipped 90% gold coins become bright orange. In other instances, dipped gold coins may become a white-gold or a bright yellow-gold color. Dipped gold coins tend to be more uniform in color than gold coins that are much more original, though this is not always true.   (EDITOR’S NOTE: See Doug Winter’s Article on CoinWeek titled What Do Original United States Gold Coins Look Like)

It is important to emphasize that dipping is not coin doctoring. Even those who are rabidly opposed to dipping should realize that dipping and doctoring are different concepts. Doctoring involves harming a coin for the purpose of deceiving experts along with everyone else who may be interested in the coin. For example, a coin doctor may take a coin that most experts would grade as MS-64 at most and then add automobile putty to the coin to cover imperfections, for the purpose of deceiving graders at the PCGS or the NGC into thinking that it legitimately grades MS-66. Indeed, it is difficult to notice expertly added putty and many experts might really think that the covered contact marks are not really there. Other coin doctors add films or gels to cover marks, hairlines, or Mint caused imperfections. Green or orange gels are often added to gold coins to make experts think that these coins are more attractive than they were before gels were added. Coin doctoring is about deceptive modifications.

When a bright white, 19th-century silver coin is submitted to the PCGS, the NGC, or brought to the attention of other experts, it is usually true that the coin has recently been dipped and that such a dipping is obvious. Doing something that is obvious to experts, or even obvious to intermediate level collectors, is not an attempt to deceive.

Except when dipped coins are marketed to beginners as being original, there is no deception involved by those who dip or sell dipped coins. Certainly, experts are not deceived. Indeed, there is no need for a dipper to deceive experts at the PCGS or the NGC about dipped coins, as graders at these services often assign very high grades to coins that are obviously dipped.

II. Harm done by Dipping

Since dipping removes metal, toning, and some other elements at or near the surfaces, much of the character and history of a coin is destroyed. Some people argue that the result is a more desirable coin.

dipped_coinsMany of the coins in the Eliasberg, Norweb and Garrett collections, three of the greatest collections ever auctioned, were all characterized by certain patterns of natural toning, respectively. When an Eliasberg, Norweb, or Garrett coin is dipped, much of the history of the coin is erased, and its pedigree may never again be conclusively documented.

Most sophisticated collectors and most other experts, though not everyone, would agree that there are at least some cases where the harm done by dipping is outweighed by the benefits. If harmful materials have attached to a coin, in some cases, dipping is the least harmful way of removing such materials. If a coin is improperly stored in some peculiar setting, or was living below ground, undesirable substances may have bonded to the surface and, in some such instances, the acid in a standard coin dip is the best way to remove such undesirable substances.

It is also true that some forms of deliberate artificial toning are best removed with dipping, though such cases are very rare. Usually, artificial toning can be removed with running water or acetone.

Suppose that a coin has become covered by thick, black toning or has toning that is so heavy that the coin cannot be fully identified. Yes, it is being stated here that there exist coins for which the benefits of dipping will probably outweigh the harm done. This, though, is beside the main topic, for two reasons. First, such cases would amount to less than one percent of all instances of classic U.S. coins being dipped. Secondly, experts at the dominant grading services and many influential dealers tend to be accepting of the dipping of high-quality coins with attractive, natural toning.

There are a large number of white, classic U.S. silver coins in PCGS or NGC holders with grades of 67 or 68 that were bright white on the day that they each, respectively, were encapsulated. Many of these have been sold to beginning collectors or to ‘investors,’ who are often not familiar with the culture and traditions of coin collecting in the U.S.

III. Natural Retoning

A large percentage of uncirculated (‘MS’) or Proof, 19th-century coins have been dipped at one time or another. Fortunately, most dipped coins recover to a large extent. While a coin’s ‘original skin’ and first toning is lost forever, dipped coins that are properly stored will naturally retone, often in an attractive manner.

In 2010, I wrote about the first coin to ever be graded “68+” by the PCGS. It is a 1901-S quarter. Before 1990, it was PCGS graded MS-66 and had brown toning. It was dipped in 1989 or 1990 and it was turned a very bright white color, with no apparent toning at all. When it was offered at auction in 1990, it was NGC graded MS-68.

1821_10c_ngc_nat_toneThis 1901-S quarter surfaced again and was sold at auction by Spectrum-B&M in March 2010. It had been stored in a normal envelope. Over a period of twenty years, this 1901-S quarter had naturally and substantially toned, while in an NGC holder. Even sophisticated connoisseurs, who are generally opposed to dipping, liked the way the coin appeared in 2010. Indeed, some experts could not tell that it had ever been dipped. Many coins, however, tone awkwardly after they are dipped, with colors and surfaces that look strange to experts.

When coins tone unfavorably after having been dipped, they are often dipped again, or even many times. In a publication by former ANA president Anthony Swiatek in the 1980s, before and after pictures of a dipped 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar were printed. These same pictures were then re-published in multiple editions of Scott TraversCoin Collector’s Survival Manual.

These pictures were taken under extremely high magnification and clearly show that a standard dipping in a typical acid solution removes metal and changes the surfaces of coins. On this Kennedy Half, the pattern of luster was much different afterward.

Coins that are dipped, especially those that are dipped multiple times, are likely to appear grainy or even ‘porous.’ Such coins are referred to as being “overdipped.” Any (acid) dipping of a coin, however, will destroy natural toning (if there is any there to destroy), remove metal, and change the structure of the coin’s surfaces.

IV. Dipping and Culture of Coin Collecting

In part 1 last week, I refer to the culture of coin collecting and I explain my qualifications to interpret this culture. Now, I present analytical comments on dipping from specially qualified collectors and collector-dealers.

Richard Burdick has been a collector for fifty-seven years and a full-time coin professional for more than thirty-five years. He has assisted in assembling many great collections, including the ‘Foxfire Type Set,’ one of the five best type sets of U.S. copper, silver and nickel coins ever assembled.

Burdick’s “first ANA Convention was in 1962.” He has “attended all but three ANA Conventions since 1969.” Furthermore, he has attended a large number of landmark auctions: Garrett sales in 1976, 1979 and 1980, Bowers’ Eliasberg auctions of 1982, 1996 and 1997; Stack’s Floyd Starr sales in 1984 and 1992; most of the apostrophe auctions; the Jimmy Hayes sale of 1985; Stack’s offering of Lelan Rogers’ type coins in 1995; Akers’ Pittman sales in 1997 and 1998; most of the Heritage Platinum Night events, Dan Holmes and Naftzger sales by the Goldbergs, etc.

At these auction events, Burdick carefully examined many rarities and other classic U.S. coins. In some cases, he was a very active bidder at the auctions. For example, he purchased numerous coins at the Garrett sales. Also, it is clear that Richard is one of the sharpest graders of 19th-century copper and silver U.S. coins.

“When I was ten years old,” Burdick recollects, “I thought dipped coins were wonderful. By the time, I was sixteen or seventeen, I began to understand the difference and I wanted attractive, originally toned coins. I also started to realize how rare the original coins really are,” Richard declares.

“I find beginners and hustling dealer-collectors are more prone to like dipped coins. Over time, collectors who become sophisticated come to prefer naturally toned coins over dipped coins. It is a matter of studying and learning and getting deeper into the culture of coin collecting. Sadly, there are some people who never understand the difference, or just do not care. Usually, collectors who try hard to learn and seek mentors will learn how to appreciate and love, naturally toned coins. Becoming sophisticated takes time and the ability to develop an advanced, knowledgeable eye for coins,” according to Richard.

“If you choose the wrong mentor, you may end up collecting average, unexciting coins or, even worse, awful coins,” Burdick warns. “John Pittman was one of the best ever. He understood all this. He taught me a lot,” Richard warmly remembers.

“A few of the most sophisticated dealers became my mentors. The really big coin firms did not teach collectors how to understand the quality of coins. Lester Merkin was one of my great mentors. He was the best. He would share his knowledge with serious collectors and collector-dealers, even if they did not have any money. Some dealers only cared about the collectors who had money. “Merkin understood originality and he taught me that naturally toned coins, especially coins with original skin, were better than coins than had been dipped, chemically cleaned, or doctored,” Richard recollects.

Like Richard, Jay Brahin began collecting coins when he was a young buy. Unlike Richard, he lost interest and then came back to coins much later in life. Brahin immersed himself in the coin collecting community, learned fast, and became a leader.

Jay says, “when judging a coin you are looking to buy the first and foremost quality is that the coin be totally untouched by any foreign substances or chemicals detrimental to the integrity of the coin. By far, the first thing I always notice is whether a coin has original natural toning and surfaces. A great natural coin will always be very highly desired over a dipped coin, a wiped coin and, of course, a doctored coin.” Jay asserts that “the vast majority of dipped coins have no place in any collection”!

Brahin regards Dr. Steven Duckor, who is a legendary collector, as his mentor and Jay, like Duckor, has been very much influenced by the late David Akers. Jay, Dr Duckor and a third accomplished collector founded the Early 20th Century Gold Club, which later became the U.S. Rare Gold Coin Club. Some major collectors of gold coins are members. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Dr. Duckor notes that “most collectors of Peace Dollars, and some collectors of Morgan Dollars, tend to want blast white, dipped coins. They are the exceptions,” Duckor says. “Serious collectors of other series of classic U.S. coins prefer coins with natural toning. The coins I love have never been dipped or cleaned, those that have their ‘original skin.’ My coins that brought the strongest prices in auctions are those that are so original.

“Advanced collectors appreciate the beauty of silver coins that are natural and undipped,” Dr. Duckor emphasizes, “true silver texture and natural toning are beautiful. Staining the Mona Lisa” painting in The Louvre with white mist would be terrible. Dipping likewise “makes silver coins unnaturally whiter and impairs the texture of coins.”

Dr. Duckor continues, during “the last fifteen or twenty years, I have met around seventy-five sophisticated collectors and they all want natural coins and dislike dipped coins. The [collector] members of the U.S. Rare Gold Coin Club all want natural coins that have not been dipped. If I see a dipped coin, I will not buy it, no matter how rare it is,” Dr. Duckor declares.

Like Richard and Dr. Duckor, Mark Hagen began collecting coins as a kid and continued, with some interruptions. Mark has attended “every summer ANA convention since 1989”!

“I started collecting when I was eleven,” Hagen reveals. “My first major auction was the Bowers & Merena sale of the Abe Kosoff Estate in 1985, which is where I got my introduction to patterns. I attended the Norweb III sale in 1988, the Pittman sales, the Eliasberg 1996-97 sales, and many other major auctions over the last twenty-five years. I have attended every FUN show since 1988,” Mark recollects.

I can attest to the fact that Hagen does not just attend shows; Mark carefully examines many great coins and patterns. He participates in auctions and converses with other sophisticated collectors. Mark has owned many wonderful coins.

Hagen recently indicated that he stands by his statements, which I quoted in 2009, a few of which are restated here. “Hundred year old coins should not be all white,” Mark asserts. “I typically do not even look at white, dipped silver coins. I am looking for originally toned silver coins. A coin must have [much] originality or else I will not even consider buying it. Naturally toned coins are much more desirable and much more important.”

“Most of the collectors I know have similar preferences,” Hagen notes. “For almost all silver coins, dipping them is harmful.” Mark adds in 2013 that “original darkly toned coins without any other impairment should be left alone.”

While Jay Brahin, Dr. Duckor and Mark Hagen tend to focus upon coins that grade above 63, Rory Rea collected, circulated bust quarters. Rory has collected coins for twenty-two years. Furthermore, Rea took most of the photographs for and co-authored the leading reference on die varieties of bust quarters, which was published in 2010. Bust quarters were minted from 1796 to 1838. Also, Rory photographed many coins in the Eric Newman Collection long before plans were made to auction a large part of that collection.

“I am stickler for leaving the coin alone,” Rea states. A “problem is once you start removing trace amounts of flow lines that luster is gone forever. On the other hand, I feel it might be acceptable on very rare occasions to warrant a light dip. The coin would have to be very dark and/or ugly, and it should be done with extreme care by someone with experience, even then [no one can be] positive about what problems may lie underneath the toning. Although I am against dipping, I must say I have seen some improvements by dipping to bring out the subdued luster,” Rory admits.

“When performing research for our book, I spoke to more than fifty knowledgeable individuals about bust quarters,” including many serious collectors. “All of these individuals desired natural toning and were opposed to bright white dipped coins,” Rea reports.

Like Rory Rea, Jay Brahin and Dr. Duckor, Saul Teichman is a collector and not a dealer. Though he does not have Dr. Duckor’s experience with superb gem quality, classic U.S. coins, Saul’s experience and knowledge are extremely impressive.

Teichman is the mastermind behind the USpatterns.com site, which he has edited for more than a dozen years. Further, he has collected and researched U.S. Mint Errors for a long time. Saul has also seriously collected and studied coin-related literature of the 19th century. He is familiar with the history of coin collecting in the U.S. During the forty-five years that he has collected coins, Saul has examined a large number of classic U.S. rarities of all types. I am often astonished that he now has clear recollections of many Garrett Collection items and of quite a few of Eliasberg’s gold coins, which he saw more than thirty years ago!

Since 1978, Teichman recounts, “I have attended most of the landmark auctions that were held in New York, including a Garrett sale in 1979, Eliasberg gold in 1982, Jimmy Hayes type set in 1985, Abe Kosoff Estate in 1985, Norweb III in 1988, James A. Stack dimes 1990, Reed Hawn 1993, James Stack silver dollars 1995, Lelan Rogers’ type coins in 1995, Eliasberg 1996 and 1997, and others.” The great coins in these epic collections had natural toning and did not show readily apparent signs of having been dipped.

Teichman does “not know of any great collections that did not [feature] nicely toned coins. Morgan Dollar collections might be an exception. Generally, other than collectors of Morgan and Peace silver dollars, almost all sophisticated collectors of classic U.S. Coins desire attractive naturally toned coins and avoid brilliant dipped coins,” Saul maintains.

“I would rather have an originally toned piece in VF than a dipped Extremely Fine [grade coin] and so would most advanced collectors. The same is true even for higher grades. I would rather have an attractively toned AU-58 than an obviously dipped MS-63 of the same date and type,” Saul states. Also, “since sophisticated collectors avoid dipped coins, PCGS and NGC should deduct at least a point or two when grading obviously dipped Liberty Seated and bust coins,” among others.

Charlie Browne’s experience with coins is even more vast than that of Teichman, which is understandable as Saul has a full-time job that is unrelated to coins. Charlie has been a full-time coin professional since 1974 and a collector since 1958.

Browne worked four stints as a PCGS grader, totaling more than eight years. Further, he has examined innumerable rarities as a collector and as a dealer. Plus, Charlie has been employed by large coin firms. Browne attended many of the same landmark auctions that Saul Teichman, Mark Hagen and/or Richard Burdick attended.

Charlie is not quite as opposed to dipping as most sophisticated collectors, though his views are consistent with those of Rory Rea.

“A quick dip in a diluted solution, with proper neutralizing afterward, to get rid of or lessen dark spots or to improve the overall appearance of very ugly toned coin is sometimes beneficial. Any kind of dipping reduces the luster and lessens the reflection of light. A standard dip does more harm than a light dip. A heavy immersion does a lot of harm as do repeated dippings of the same coin. Overall, there are more than a few instances when dipping make sense,” Browne asserts.

According to Charlie, “most of the classic U.S. coins that have been dipped should not have been, for the future of this hobby. Also, dipped coins often tone in a weird way over time. We just do not know what the long term effects will be and repeated dipping of the same coin is often very harmful.”

Importantly, “a lot of dipping is done because it is easier for dealers to sell an artificially bright coin to beginners and investors. Most dealers do not want to take the time to educate coin buyers. Some do not want sophisticated customers. In my experience, almost all sophisticated collectors desire naturally toned coins, not recently dipped brilliant coins,” Browne concludes.

Charlie has raised a key issue. When the PCGS was founded in 1986, a primary point was to grade and encapsulate Morgan Dollars, Peace Dollars, Walking Liberty Half Dollars and generic gold coins. These types have a common denominator in that there are more coins in existence than there are collectors who demand them. Therefore, coins of these types must be marketed outside the coin collecting community, to beginning collectors, whimsical buyers and investors, people who are unfamiliar with the culture of coin collecting and may be persuaded to unknowingly buy bright, recently dipped, classic coins.

As Browne suggests, it is easier to sell bright coins to buyers who are not knowledgeable. I theorize that, as PCGS and NGC became successful and established beyond anyone’s expectations, this initial practice, of assigned high grades to recently dipped coins to make them marketable, had already been incorporated into company policy and grading standards. In terms of quantity, the PCGS and the NGC will always grade more common coins than rare coins and grading criteria were formed (or evolved) with the implicit idea that relatively common classic U.S. coins would be marketed to investors. There thus has been a business requirement, from the beginning,  for recently dipped, unnaturally bright coins to be eligible for all grade assignments.

In fairness, it was figured that the demands of sophisticated collectors for naturally toned, scarce and rare coins could be met as well, with PCGS and NGC certified coins. There are still plenty of attractive, naturally toned, scarce, classic U.S. coins available.

The fact that most sophisticated collectors avoid very apparently dipped, rare or scarce coins is an important point for all collectors of scarce coins to take into consideration and directly relates to my concept of focusing on aspects of quality apart from assigned numerical grades. To those who can afford to do so, I suggest collecting coins that are coveted by sophisticated collectors of rare or at least scarce, classic U.S. coins.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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  1. Another well written article!! I enjoy both toned and un-toned
    coins. While dipping an ugly toned coin is okay, 99.9% of the
    collectors and dealers are incapable of dipping a coin correctly.
    This should
    be left to an expert. I would like to know some of the secrets
    PCGS and NGC use to determine the grade of a toned coin.

  2. I have many bright white Morgans and Peace dollars which drip with luster as well, so I assume they are undipped. How can you tell if a coin has been dipped lightly or expertly? Would it continue to retain all or most of its luster? As for toning, I like rainbows and some edge toning patterns but I have to admit that most toning turns me off. That 1821 dime in the article is beautiful.

    • Sorry, but this may very well be too little and waaaayyyy too late. I have many (200-300) 50+ year-old silver coins that are of verying grades from VF/XF to MS68/69. NONE OF THEM have the telltale signs of having been ‘dipped’. Just take a look at the ‘high end’ (MS67 or MS68) Walking liberty half dollars (online). Almost all of them have that ugly black rim dental tartar or that light yellow-ish stain that covers random sections of the coin. It, basically, looks as if someone peed on the coin and didn’t clean it up. Most high-end silver coins that are SOOO toned that you can’t even see the surface preservation are worthless to me. I’m not looking for Christmas tree ornaments. I’m looking for something that looks as if it just dropped out of the die press.

  3. “While a coin’s ‘original skin’ and first toning is lost forever, dipped coins that are properly stored will naturally retone, often in an attractive manner.”

    Which ‘proper storage’ methods will allow natural retoning? A coin in a third-party graded slab likely will not retone due to the lack of exposure to the air, right?


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