Looking at rare coins is one of the great pleasures of our hobby. Every true collector delights in picking up a rare and valuable coin--or even a more common coin with some special characteristic--and studying it carefully and lovingly.
There's more than one way to look at a coin, however, just as there's invariably more than one side to every story. And knowledgeable numismatists should--and do--look at a coin in all these different facets before reaching conclusions about that coin: whether to buy it, whether to sell it or how much it is worth, for example.
The physical details are fairly standard. Every informed collector knows enough to pick up and handle a coin only by its edge. And I generally recommend that in looking closely at coins, you use a 5-power or 10-power magnifying glass if you're making a general evaluation and a 20-power glass if you're zeroing in on some specific feature, such as a mint mark.
For the most part, however, the different ways of looking at coins are not so much physical as mental. What makes these approaches different from one another isn't HOW you look at coins, but WHY--what's going through your mind while your eyes are on that coin between your finger and your thumb.
With all THIS in mind, here's my list of the 10 Top Ways to Look at Rare Coins:
1) Looking for beauty.
This may very well be the most significant way to look at a coin, for beauty is really what coin collecting is all about. In looking for beauty, you might be looking for a certain type of toning ... or a coin that's extremely well struck ... or you might be looking for a coin which best displays the artistic genius of the person who designed that particular coin type.
Collectors who purchase coins for their artistic significance are buying them for their beauty--and whether you're buying a Lincoln cent that grades About Good-3 or a proof Morgan dollar grading 69 on the 1-through-70 scale, to you each coin you purchase is beautiful in its own way.
2) Looking for positive attributes.
In looking at coins they own, many people tend to feel they're in a higher grade than they really are. When something is yours, it always seems better than when it belongs to somebody else. It's only natural that when you own a coin, you're looking for its positive attributes. And if you have a coin to sell, it's always going to seem nicer to you than if you were trying to buy it from somebody else.
Looking for positive attributes is always a useful approach, even when you're buying, rather than selling--for these are the characteristics that will give you pride of ownership if you buy it, and truly enhance its value if and when you later decide to sell it. Magnificent toning ... a needle-sharp strike ... blazing mint luster--these are the kinds of attributes you should look for.
At times, a coin's positive attributes can blind you to its flaws, and you need to be on guard against this danger. Take the good features into full account, but don't let them overwhelm you.
3) Looking for imperfections.
In purchasing coins, it's only natural to look for imperfections, because those may lower the price you have to pay. If you convince the seller that a coin is not as good as he or she first thought it to be, you might be able to buy it for considerably less than the price first quoted.
Looking for imperfections is a good policy just on general principles, aside from the edge in may give you in your bargaining. After all, if you don't look for imperfections when buying a coin, you might not find them-- and then you'll REALLY get the short end of the bargain.
(4) Looking at both the strengths and the weaknesses.
You need to evaluate each of your coins as impartially as you can. If a coin has been assigned a high grade, you need to ascertain just what strengths went into that determination. Conversely, if the grade is low, you need to pinpoint the weaknesses that contributed to that rating. You need to check for eye appeal, mint luster, strike and all the other characteristics which, when combined, serve as the determinants of the coin's grade or level of preservation.
5) Looking at a coin as if it were a clock.
This is an approach I explain in detail in my book "The Coin Collector's Survival Manual," 3rd edition, published by Bonus Books. Essentially, you view the top of the coin as 12 o'clock, then scan the coin in a clockwise direction (or counterclockwise, if you prefer), tilting and rotating it as you do so. You do this first with the obverse of the coin, then repeat the procedure with the reverse.
I liken this technique to proofreading a letter. If you simply skim a letter, you probably won't spot too many mistakes. But if you examine it closely, and in an orderly way, you're far more likely to pick up any errors. Similarly, you may miss important details on a coin if you view it simply as a whole, without scanning each sector individually and in a logical sequence.
If you look at enough coins with the coin-and-clock method, you'll be able after a while to readily identify their strengths and weaknesses and expertly determine their overall grade and value.
6) Looking for valuable varieties.
One of the most interesting--and potentially rewarding-- ways of looking at coins is to seek odd characteristics that set certain coins apart from others. Whether you call them "errors" or "varieties," these coins hold undeniable fascination. And, in many cases, that translates into very substantial premium value.
A case in point is the current national treasure hunt for 1995 doubled-die Lincoln cents--coins on which the word LIBERTY and other obverse elements appear to be doubled. These cents are now trading for well over $100 apiece, so those who find them in pocket change, laying out just one cent, are reaping enormous profits. They're also deriving tremendous satisfaction from the knowledge that their investment consisted almost solely of time, rather than money--and that the discoveries happened because of their own keen wits and sharp eyes.
There are many worthwhile coins in pocket change and old accumulations. I recommend that you get a copy of "The Cherrypickers' Guide to Rare Die Varieties," co-authored by Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton, now in its 3rd edition and published by Bowers and Merena Galleries. This extremely helpful guide and handy reference book will assist you in identifying and cherrypicking coins that otherwise might escape your detection.
Often, people spend such coins without realizing their value. And coin dealers sometimes have them in their inventory--perhaps even in their "junk boxes"--without being aware that they're scarce and valuable oddities. Your purchase of "The Cherrypickers' Guide" will pay for itself many times over if you're able to find one of these varieties.
7) Looking for upgrades.
Many coin dealers earn their living by going through boxes of coins which have been certified by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC), the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) or ANACS and picking out coins that might be good candidates for a higher grade. And you can improve the grades of your coins, too--as well as the level of your income--by gaining the expertise to do likewise.
Let's say you found a coin graded Mint State-64 by NGC or PCGS which, if resubmitted, might be good enough to qualify for a grade of 65. In some cases, the difference in price between a 64 coin and its 65 counterpart is many hundreds of dollars, even though the difference in grade and appearance is slight.
Looking for upgrades may not be the No. 1 way to look at rare coins, but it certainly could end up being the most profitable way for you, if you're able to spot the right coin to upgrade.
8) Looking for signs of wear.
Third-party grading services such as PCGS, NGC and ANACS have given collectors and dealers a strong sense of security. They trust the services' grading--and, in most cases, that trust is merited. Unfortunately, though, this also has caused many hobbyists to let down their guard and relax their former vigilance in checking each coin closely when they buy it. A lot of them just don't bother to look for signs of wear anymore, as long as a coin has been certified and encapsulated by one of the leading services. And this is very unwise.
The fact is, even the experts at the grading services can--and do--sometimes overlook things as fundamental as wear. You absolutely CAN find coins in holders bearing grades such as MS-61, MS-62--or even higher--and discover, on close inspection, that those coins have wear or friction on their very highest points. Even though a grading service says a coin is mint-state, it may have wear. And, if it does, it isn't mint-state, no matter what anybody says.
In looking for strengths and weaknesses on their coins, people tend to look for obvious things such as flaws or scratches or signs of coin doctoring. All too often, they don't examine the high points for signs of wear. Or, if they do, they conclude incorrectly that the high points' lighter color is just part of the toning. In fact, it may be good, old-fashioned wear.
Looking for signs of wear, and learning how to recognize those signs, can be extremely valuable to you, and I certainly suggest that you make this an integral part of your coin-evaluation procedure.
9) Looking for a specific type of toning.
Many collectors like sets of coins that are matched--and when it comes to coins of the same metallic composition, they like those coins to have similar toning. For instance, some collectors like silver coins with concentric-circle toning-- perhaps an ocean-blue periphery which fades into a sunset- golden center. And when they purchase silver coins, they try to find coins with that kind of toning.
Matched sets tend to be more aesthetically appealing, and therefore more valuable, than unmatched sets. They bespeak a higher level of care on the part of the collector who put them together. Thus, this would be a good way for anyone--you included--to look at coins.
10) Looking for signs of deterioration.
This recommendation is last, but it definitely isn't least. Looking for signs of deterioration is very important. You could put a coin away for two or three years and find, after taking it out, that its surface has been under chemical attack--even if that coin is resting (supposedly safely) in the holder of a leading grading service.
You need to look at your coins on a regular basis to make sure they haven't deteriorated--that they're still in the same level of preservation as they were when you purchased them.
Incidentally, if you do find signs of new damage--say, a greenish area--on a coin, that doesn't necessarily mean the coin's grade has been permanently lowered by two points. I've found that in many cases, if you neutralize or degrease such a coin in either denatured alcohol or trichlorotrifluoroethane, you will be able to remove the environmental damage--polyvinyl chloride, perhaps--from the surface, and thereby save the coin from serious loss of grade and value. The key is to check your coins--look at them closely--on a regular basis, even if they're stored in a place that is supposedly secure.
There you have them: the 10 Top Ways to Look at Rare Coins. Follow these steps on a regular basis, and you'll find that your coins are looking better than ever.
Here's looking at you, kid--and here's looking at THEM!