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Uneven Wear Challenges Graders
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
March 12, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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I’ll bet that every professional numismatist has at least one series or coin type that they have more difficulty grading than all the rest. For some, it’s possibly the Draped Bust or Capped Bust series of coinage. Many characteristics such as uneven wear and strength of strike that make this group of coins difficult to grade can also be found on coins in the Seated Liberty series.

Perhaps the major difficulty with grading these coins arises because many were not fully struck up to begin with. Thus, design details such as breast feathers or Liberty’s hair strands were never on the original, untoned blazing-white, frictionless, coin when it was removed from the press 200 years ago. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what a rare sight a coin such as that would be today. Once its surfaces became toned-down and slightly worn, the apparent grade of the weakly struck coin could look as much as two grades lower than the actual amount of circulation wear it received. This is similar to the situation numismatists have today as they grade more contemporary Buffalo nickel coins that are weakly struck.

A large number of Bust coins are seen with uneven wear patterns making the choice of a fair grade difficult. It’s a well-known fact that the obverse of any coin is its most important side when arriving at a final grade; yet early coins (especially dimes and half dimes) exist with their obverse apparently more worn than their reverse. We can easily find circulated coins that are barely “Good” on the obverse with “Very Good” detail on their reverse.

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A Draped Bust example is not at hand as I write this but the coin in figure 1 is an example of a Capped Bust dime with uneven wear. The obverse grades G-4. It is heavily worn. Liberty’s head is outlined but there are no details. The reverse grades higher, the center of the coin is very detailed. The opposite is also true. Many coins are seen with a detailed obverse yet their reverse rim is well worn into the legend. Coins such as this beg to be graded using the split-grade method that was popular in the 1970s.

Another difficulty arises due to subjectivity and rarity. Let’s ignore rarity for this column. Just be aware that some rare coins may be slightly overgraded to better reflect their commercial value. As for subjectivity, each grader must assess how much originality versus imperfections will be tolerated before assigning a “details” grade to a specimen. I’ll explain “details” grades shortly; but first this: In the distant past, many coins with defects were “net” graded – that is, the coin was graded for its condition of perseveration and then that actual grade was reduced to a lower grade to reflect the effect of the defect on the coin’s value. Net graded coins will always appear to be in better condition than labeled. Today, grading services use a “detail” grade to describe coins with major defects. First the coin is graded for its condition and then the major problems are noted. For example, a gem coin that is lightly buffed might be graded “AU-58, Cleaned.” No one cares to acknowledge that this is actually simple technical grading as we devised 40 years ago.

Obviously, Draped Bust and Capped Bust coins are old. They were not made to be put away in pristine condition. Most have received a lot of handling while performing the use in commerce they were made for. Once they were removed from circulation, many were cleaned by their owners and passed down only to be cleaned again and again. Due to their age, a large number of these coins have major defects. Because of this, some feel that it may not be critical to give a pin-point grade to a problem coin since it does not have the same desirability as a defect free specimen. I do not support this trend but collectors should examine these coins closely to confirm their grade.

I told you in the beginning that these early coins may be difficult to grade. That’s one reason grading has been described as an art. I believe the grade of these early coins should be weighted by considering the amount of detail present at its boldest point to help determine its “actual” condition. What do you think?

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