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Color of Coin Offers Grading Clues
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
September 13, 2012

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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How did a coin’s color become such an important factor in its grade? Those readers who study coins – the numismatists – will instantly recall the book “Penny Whimsy” with the Sheldon Grading System devised to value large cents. In that system, a higher grade was assigned to a “fresh” uncirculated cent with full “red” color (as made) than to an equally uncirculated coin that had become oxidized completely to a brown hue or one that still had traces of red color. I’ll return to the color of copper coins near the end of this column; but first I’ll share some insight about the color of all coins and how color can provide clues to their actual condition of preservation or subjective numerical grade.

I’ll bet at one time or another all of you have looked at the change in your hand from a purchase. On some occasions, you discovered a coin fresh from the roll. Regardless of its denomination, it looked shiny-bright and brand new compared to the other coins in your hand.

2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents
2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents

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That’s the color of a new clad coin or “red” Lincoln cent. Long ago in the same way, many of us got to hold vintage coins of 90 percent silver in our hands shortly after they were issued. Thus, the appearance of an original uncirculated silver coin was burned into our mind year after year with each new issue. Today, many of you younger collectors will need to seek out an untoned coin graded above MS-65 by a major grading service to see what a sbright, fresh, and hopefully natural pre-1964 silver coin should look like.

Let’s look again at the new coins in our hand. Any new nickels will resemble the color of new vintage ones but the color of our newly made cents has become slightly different since 1982 when the composition was changed. Nevertheless, red (RD), red-brown (RB), and brown (BN) coins can be found as before. The clad coins in circulation have a distinct color all their own.

Once you learn what the color of a fresh, uncirculated coin looks like, you can use it to your advantage when grading. That’s because virtually anything that is done to a coin, be it circulation, cleaning, or oxidation will alter its color. The bright, shiny surface of a new nickel will become dull. Clad coins from Ike dollars to dimes will react in the same way to friction wear. There is a change of color on the points of wear along with microscopic scratches from abrasion. I once passed out uncirculated quarters to several male seminar students so they could carry them in their pocket for the week. We checked the surface condition of the coins at regular intervals. It was a great way to monitor the subtle changes taking place and to see what an AU-58 coin might look like.

There are other colors you should recognize to avoid buying altered and overgraded coins. The colors found on polished, brushed, or whizzed coins are distinctive. An overdipped coin will look differently than one that has been abrasively cleaned. I’m reminded of a dealer from Georgia who regularly carried valuable coins in his pocket to let “Father Time,” cotton fabric and pocket change remove the traces of harsh cleaning from their surface. I don’t recommend you try this trick. That same dealer cautioned that, on one occasion, he accidentally spent a very valuable coin. Nevertheless, his method turned many culls back into collectible specimens by restoring them to a more natural color.

I’ve been rambling just a little so I’ll return to my initial topic before I run out of space. I first learned of the Sheldon Grading Scale around 1967. It had no effect on the coins I was purchasing – it was for specialists. Although most dealers and collectors adopted the red/red-brown/brown terminology of the system, it was a much simpler proposition. While I cannot comment on large cents because I could only afford well circulated examples, I could afford uncirculated Indians and Lincoln cents. These coins could be had in all colors of uncirculated. You say that’s not anything different from today yet it was. It was different in this regard. Cents were either full “red” or completely “brown.” Anything in between was designated “red and brown.” As long as any trace of original mint red color was seen peeking around the relief or inside the protected area of letters such as “O” and “S,” the coin was called “red and brown.” Coins with 1 percent red remaining up to coins that were 99 percent red fit this category and there could be no subjectivity to their color designation. Although a 3 percent red coin and a 90 percent red coin were considered red and brown (RB), the coin with the higher percentage of red color was usually priced higher. Even today, I still prefer a lustrous, iridescent brown Indian cent with traces of red from a “set” patina over a more expensive full red example that any future spotting can ruin. Those were simple times.

Today, grading copper by color is more complicated. Each grading service has a particular boundary where an RB coin becomes brown even with some percentage of obvious red color remaining. Readers who collect copper coins are aware of this. Those who are not, should contact each grading service for the guidelines they use to determine the color of a copper coin.

At Independent Coin Graders (ICG) we are returning to a simpler, unambiguous standard for the red and brown color range found on copper coins. Forget the subjective percentages. Coins having most of their mint red color remaining will continue to receive the red brown (RB) designation. Those coins that have become mostly brown will receive our “new” brown and red (BR) designation. While we don’t expect the average collector to notice these RB/BR changes that appear after the numeric grade on our label, we hope the other grading services will see the beauty and simplicity of this approach and adopt it in the same way “Details Grading” became a needed addition that eliminated unpopular “body bags” from our hobby. Time will tell.

While we are waiting, dealers will continue to value a choice brown and red (BR) coin lower than a red and brown RB example yet higher than a brown specimen. It only makes sense.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

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Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition

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