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 sixth installment will deal with a popular series with collectors, especially those fond of interesting die varieties. We're talking about Capped Bust Halves, struck from 1807 through 1839. In normal circulated grades, from Fair 02 through AU 55 or so, these coins are not particularly difficult to grade. On the earlier dates, there is some weakness of strike, especially around the stars and around the eagle, but nothing too unusual for the period. Adjustment marks have largely ceased to be a factor, as improving technologies were facilitating the minting process. However, in very high AU grades and lower MS grades (MS64 and below), a couple of anomalies creep in to make grading these somewhat challenging.
Firstly, if the coin is a bit weakly struck, the metal from the planchet was not fully forced into the die, leaving a bit of the original planchet surface visible. This often was a bit rough looking, with tiny nicks and abrasions visible. This manifests itself on Liberty's cheek on the obverse, as that was a high point on the coin. Consequently, even if a coin displays full luster, the cheek of Liberty may appear to be lightly "rubbed."
Secondly, keep in mind that until 1861, there was no real Federal currency. The silver dollar had not been struck since 1803, and would not be struck again in quantity until 1840. Credit cards were over a century away, and while checks had been around since the 16th century, they were not commonly used. Gold coins were struck in low quantity, and many were exported and melted. This left the half dollar as America's "coin of account."
From the 1810s through the 1830s, most of America's silver went into making Capped Bust Half Dollars, nearly all of which went directly to banks to serve as cash reserves. Relatively few went into circulation, and many remained in bags within bank vaults for decades. Moving and handling these bags created some friction on the cheek of many of these coins. While they are technically "uncirculated," many display discoloration and light rub on the cheek. This has resulted in the somewhat satirical monikers of "AU-63" or "MS-58" assigned by graders to some of these coins.
Grading these coins often begs the question, what exactly constitutes "uncirculated"? Many of these coins never really purchased anything, spending their entire lives in banks. But they were handled, and acquired the appearance of a coin that had seen light circulation. Today, we must take into account both of these factors, and if a coin displays full luster and superior eye appeal, we recognize it as Mint State, even if it bears some of the scars of handling.