May 24, 2000
Contact marks can occur on coins in many ways. When business-strike coins are ejected from the coining dies, they drop into a container. In 1792, this was a small receptacle; today, large hoppers are used for this purpose. Most business-strike coins have contact marks before they leave the mint! After the receptacle became full, it was emptied, and the coins were placed into kegs or, later, cloth bags. Transportation to banks in kegs and later in cloth bags also accounts for some of the contact marks. Banks then opened the kegs or bags and placed the coinage into cash drawers, again allowing for more coin-on-coin contact.
When looking through bags of coins, one may find a coin or two with almost no marks. This is a minor miracle, when one thinks of the weight (50+ pounds for a bag of 1,000 silver dollars) and the miles traveled in stagecoaches, trains, and later, trucks. Obviously, the heavy coins (half dollars, silver dollars, ten dollars, etc.) are more prone to these types of marks than are smaller coins. Also, the softer-metal coins (gold, silver, and copper) are more likely to receive these marks than are nickel coins. If a coin survived from the mint to the bank drawer relatively unscathed, and a collector obtained it immediately thereafter and preserved it, a high-grade coin existed. Most coins were not so lucky.
There are other ways coins can survive with few contact marks. It was common practice to sell coins to visitors of the early Mint or present them to visiting dignitaries. The Lord St. Oswald coins discovered in England in the 1960s are examples of these. The Lord St. Oswald 1794 silver dollars are relatively free of marks and may have been caught in a glove from the coining presses. The coins saved from the melting pots by members of the annual Assay Commission are another way relatively mark-free coins may have survived. All of the mints had to send coins for assay to this commission, although usually only a random sample was destroyed in the assay process. Obviously, there were some Assay Commission members who saved certain of the survivors; many of the 1873 rarities are believed to have been rescued by the Assay Commission.
The only 1893-S Morgan dollar graded MS-67 by PCGS is rumored to have survived in this way. Indeed, the coin is free of the contact marks seen when coins are placed in bags, and it and other coins may have survived relatively mark-free in this manner. J. M. Clapp started obtaining coins directly from the various mints in the late 1800s and his son sold his collection to Louis Eliasberg Sr. through Stack's, in 1942, for a reported $100,000. Mr. Clapp was a visionary, and some of the most mark-free coins, especially gold coins, come from this source.
There are two basic types of coin contact that are encountered. The edge of one coin hitting the surface of another is one of these, causing what sometimes are referred to as reeding marks, although for plain-edge coins this would not be technically correct. These are also called bag marks, but not all of these marks occur in bags, so again this is not technically correct. These marks also may result from an object other than another coin hitting the surface of a coin. The second type of coin contact is sometimes called bag or roll friction. This is characterized by friction or contact, often just slight luster breaks, on the high points of coins, often confused with wear. (See the discussion of Wear in The Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection for a more in-depth view of this.) There are other variations of coin "contact." These also are discussed under Wear and include hairlines, album slide marks/lines, cabinet friction, and flip rub.
The following discussion will therefore be limited to the two basic types of contact within the four basic coin metal groups.
The early copper coins usually were shipped in wooden kegs. This often led to sharp "keg" marks in the field since copper is a soft metal. The edges of coins striking the surfaces of other coins left marks that ranged from small, shallow dents to long, deep marks. The large cents and half cents that were struck from 1793 to 1857 were large copper coins. These "bigger targets" were more likely to receive contact from other coins and foreign objects than were the smaller cents that followed. The locations of the contact marks influence how the grade will be affected. The marks on the faces of Miss Liberty detract more than those in the hair or hidden on reverse devices. The copper coins that followed, although smaller and lighter and less likely to receive marks from other small copper coins, are treated similarly. Thus a mark on the Indian's face detracts more than one that is hidden in the headdress or the reverse wreath.
When copper coins rub together instead of striking edge to surface, the second type of contact occurs. This may be called "keg" friction, "bag" friction, "roll" friction, or "coin" friction. Though copper coins with this type of contact may look like they have wear on the high points and the luster may be disturbed or broken, this is not wear--this type of contact is easily confused with wear and incomplete striking. When coin-on-coin contact is present, there are telltale signs. The fields are often pristine and fully lustrous, though incompletely struck coins may also have pristine fields. When incompletely struck coins have coin-on-coin friction, it is virtually impossible to distinguish what is strike and what is coin friction. Wear will look different from either of these and usually will discolor the affected area. This is usually evident on full red coins. As copper coins mellow and fade to brown, wear is more difficult to discern from coin friction and incomplete striking. With coin contact, as with incomplete striking, the luster may be slightly disturbed but it will still be present. With wear, the luster will be disturbed and lacking in this area.
Nickel coins are hard, therefore slightly harder to mark. They are usually small and light (there are a few large patterns and die trials), thus limiting the size of contact marks from other nickel coins. Most contact marks on these coins, including Proofs, are short, sharp, and shallow. Obviously, other hard objects hitting the surface of nickel coinage will cause contact marks, some fairly large. A large contact mark on a nickel coin is usually the result of a foreign object striking the surface. Some apparent contact marks on nickel coins are actually nicks and scratches on the planchets that survived the striking process.
Since nickel is so hard, coin-on-coin friction usually is very minor. This type of friction often is noticeable only on delicate designs, such as the leaves of Shield nickels. Since nickel does not discolor as easily as copper or silver, it is difficult to distinguish coin-on-coin friction from incomplete striking or wear. There should be corresponding weak points on the reverse with incomplete striking, whereas coin friction or wear may only be on one side or the other. Wear, at least when it becomes significant, will dull the luster, while coin-on-coin contact will not.
Silver coins are often plagued by contact marks. Large silver coins may have numerous coin contact marks, combined with coin-on-coin friction. These marks may be large, long, and deep. When they are severe, the coin's grade may be no higher than MS-60 or MS-61 and they may occasionally become so severe that PCGS will not grade them. Since silver is easily marked, it is often impossible to tell whether the contact marks are the result of another coin or a foreign object. If the striking object is a coin with a reeded edge, the resultant marks often are simply the "imprint" of the reeding. With smaller silver coins, it is difficult to determine the striking object, the main concern being the number, size, and location of the marks.
Coin-on-coin contact is very common on silver coins. On Bust coinage, this sometimes accounts for most of the contact marks. The cheek of Miss Liberty on Capped Bust half dollars and other Bust coinage is seen with this coin-on-coin friction in nearly all Uncirculated grades. Morgan dollars almost always have luster breaks on the hair above the ear and on the breast feathers. Of course, the larger silver coins will have more of this type of contact than will smaller coins. Storage in rolls became commonplace within the last century, "localizing" the contact areas. Fewer "bag" marks are the result of placing coins in rolls, although the high points probably receive slightly more coin-on-coin friction in this storage method.
Gold is the softest of the coin metals and is easily marked by contact from other coins and foreign objects. In fact, it was common practice to place gold coins in a bag and shake them to "knock" small bits of gold, which was recovered and sold, from the surface. This process, known as "sweating," caused many small contact marks on the surfaces of gold coins. If these marks are too severe, the coin will not be graded by PCGS. On the larger gold coins, the "reeding" marks often seen on silver coins are present. These staccato marks are the imprint of the reeded edge of another coin. Very few gold coins exist without contact marks. Only tiny gold dollars and quarter eagles are seen with almost no contact marks. It is rare for half eagles, eagles, and double eagles to not have contact marks.
Luster breaks on the high points of gold coins are seen on virtually all business-strike specimens. Saint-Gaudens double eagles always have luster breaks on the breast and on the knee of Miss Liberty. On the very highest-grade coins, these may be extremely minor and may be seen only under magnification. Again, incomplete striking will look similar to coin-on-coin friction; however, the incompletely struck coins will often have a mushy look. When these two elements are combined with extremely slight wear, it becomes impossible to decide what caused what. However, as stated elsewhere, when the friction becomes discoloration, the coin is no longer considered Uncirculated.
Reprinted with permission from Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). For more information about the PCGS book this excerpt was taken from, please click here: The Official Guide To Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection.