Grading U.S. coins consistently and accurately is usually not easy. However, some series lend themselves to a rather quick learning curve and some proficiency can be gained with only a moderate amount of practice and study. Other series have particular issues that make them considerably more difficult to master.
Over the next several months, we'll be running a series entitled "Difficult to Grade Coins." In it, we'll take a look at eight series that present special challenges to graders. Some of the issues concern planchet quality, some concern die clashing and strike problems. Others deal with inherent design characteristics, and still others address chronic appearance anomalies that must be considered when grading.
Our fourth installment is closely related to our previous, in that it deals with problems facing the earliest U.S. mint issues. Last time we looked at copper coins, and the major problem there was planchet quality. With the gold and silver issues of 1794 to 1807, planchet quality is less of a problem than strike and adjustment marks. Prior to the introduction of steam powered presses in 1836, large screw presses operated by human or animal power provided the means of coinage manufacture.
Too little pressure or worn dies would often result in a weakly struck coin, lacking detail in often critical central areas. Collectors typically place substantial value in a fully, or well struck coin, and prefer them over their weakly struck counterparts, particularly in high grade.
As an example, take a look at the three Draped Bust Quarter reverses below.
Note the example at the far left is fully struck, with E PLURIBUS UNUM, the eagle's head, upper breast feathers and shield showing all their original detail as designed. The center example shows weakness in the eagle's head and breast, and part of the motto is not visible. The coin at the far right lacks nearly all central detail, including the upper part of the shield. Yet all three coins are in Mint State. Which one would you prefer?
Even though it is a relatively soft metal, gold coins were not immune from striking problems either.
Here are two Eagle reverses from the 1797-1804 period. Note the coin on the left shows a very sharp strike on the eagle's head, breast, ribbon and shield. Yet the piece on the right (also Mint State) shows softness on the eagle's head, ribbon and the right edge of the shield, where it crosses the wing. If you look carefully, you'll see weakness throughout, including less detail in the clouds and stars above the eagle, the left talon, and feathers on the wings.
Regardless of surface preservation, luster or even eye appeal, a softly struck coin such as the one on the right will have difficulty making it above MS-63 or 64.
A final issue on gold and silver coins from this early period is adjustment marks. As gold and silver literally was money in those days, and the preparation of planchets was often inconsistent, slightly overweight planchets were filed down across the design to remove excess metal.
Take a look at the two late 18th century reverses. The parallel "scratches" are not the result of damage in circulation; they are a deliberate action at the Mint to slightly reduce the weight of the coin prior to release into circulation. While this should not really count as "damage," it is not viewed by most collectors favorably, and again, consideration must be given in the grading process to account for the reduction in value of coins such as these.
Unfortunately, there is no "magic formula" to account for these types of issues. Strike varies in severity when it comes to adjustment marks. But as a rule, PCGS attempts to adjust the grade for these types of problems to account for any reduction in market value that might result.