Author Topic: Grading Coins and Collecting Tips by Mark Feld  (Read 2579 times)

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Grading Coins and Collecting Tips by Mark Feld
« on: July 11, 2011, 05:48:23 PM »
With permission from Mark Feld I am posting his tips and grading coins.

Thanks Mark!

He posted this revised edition in 2009.

"I first posted this in two parts in 2003, and have combined and revised it slightly, below. Hopefully it will be of some help to at least a few current forum members.

Disclaimer :

I have no doubt that much or all of this has been discussed previously and in some cases, in greater detail and in a more interesting fashion. But, I have received a lot of questions about pointers for examining and grading coins, so I'll try to address them in this format.

These are merely my opinions and they may differ from those of others.


Different people prefer different types of lighting. I prefer using 75 or 100 watt incandescent lighting and/or a halogen lamp, depending upon the circumstances. A halogen lamp sometimes allows me to see flaws (such as hairlines or light cleaning/wiping) that I might not otherwise see, using an incandescent lamp. At the same time, however, the halogen light can drown out the color on a coin.

There is no right or wrong in this area. I would suggest experimenting with a few different types of light sources to get a feel for what you can see with each and what you are most comfortable with. Warning - no matter what, do not look at coins in bright sunlight or under laser beams!

One thing I would stress - it is very important that whatever type of lighting you use, that it be consistent. If you go to a show and buy coins under different lighting conditions than you are used to, you might receive a very unpleasant surprise when you get home and examine your coins!

I would also caution you about lighting at coin auction viewings and shows - if the overhead lights are too bright they can drown out the light source that you are using and you might not be getting a good look at the coins. Be aware of the type of lighting in use, any time you are examining coins. You would be amazed how at different the same coin can look under different lighting conditions. Think about some of the on-line coin images you see and how two different images of the same coin can look so different and you will begin to get the picture.


BEFORE you put a glass to a coin, I would urge you to look at the coin for a few seconds without magnification - get a feel for what it looks like - look at the big picture first.

Many very expensive coins get graded and bought and sold without the use of magnification. I don't always use a magnifying glass. But I am far more likely to for very small coins like Three Cent Silvers and gold Dollars, as well as instances where I see something like a spot or flaw that I wish to examine more closely. When I do use magnification, it is most often a 5X and occasionally a 10X. I think it is important when you use a glass, that in most cases, you be able to look at a good portion of the coin and not simply one tiny area in isolation. If you look at just one area you can get a distorted view.

If you use strong enough magnification, I am convinced that just about any classic coin can look bad! And, while you might be proud of yourself for finding 17 flaws on an MS66 coin, you might be doing yourself a big disservice by passing on it, flaws and all.

Whatever magnification you use should allow you to get a good look at the coin but not to lose sight (pun intended) of what the whole coin looks like. And remember, if you have decent eye sight and have been trained to examine a coin properly (more on that later) you wont need a glass in many cases. I PROMISE YOU - SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT HE OR SHE IS DOING CAN SEE THINGS WITH THE NAKED EYE THAT MANY OTHERS WONT EVEN SEE WITH A GLASS.

I am certainly not against the use of magnifiers, but feel that they are sometimes overused and misused. Think about the whole/big picture and learn to overlook the little flaws (unless, for example, the coin is supposed to be an MS or PR 68-70) - oftentimes, they simply don't matter that much on a practical basis.

Please do not take what I have stated above to mean that I think it is OK to buy over graded coins or that imperfections and flaws don't matter with respect to grade. That is not the case at all. However, I see many non-experts engage in "micro-grading" where they focus so much on little, mostly inconsequential imperfections, that they lose perspective and can't see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.


Now it's time to discuss examining/viewing coins properly.

First, make sure you don't have your pet dog, cat (or snake) anywhere near where you will be studying your treasures.The same goes for babies and significant others - this is serious business and you need to be able to concentrate!

Lighting has already been discussed but I did neglect to mention that blinds or shades should be drawn so that your light source is not interfered with by any outside light.

If you have coins that are uncertified and completely out of any type of holder, I'd recommend that you have something soft and yielding (a towel, a felt tray, etc.) underneath where you will be holding the coins, in case you drop one (or two). The best/sharpest coin graders are not necessarily the most sure-handed!

I do recommend that you remove uncertified coins from their 2x2's, etc., to get a proper look - even the thinnest layer of plastic can mask flaws and prevent you from getting the view that you should.

Be conscious of how easy it is to put fingerprints on your beauties. I have seen a lot of people start off by holding coins at their edges, but gradually lose concentration and allow their long and or fat fingers to move from the edge to the surface of the coin.

To get the best possible look at a coin it is imperative that you tilt and gradually rotate it so that the light bounces off of it from as many angles as possible. A coin can look completely different, if looked at head-on, vs. from an angle. Light reflects differently and colors and luster can look different, as well. You might see hairlines, cleaning, wipes or other problems from one angle that you wont see from another angle. Look at a coin from all angles, top to bottom, right side up, sideways and upside down, etc. This is a simple concept but you'd be surprised at the number of people who don't do it right.

I know some graders who start off looking at the reverses of coins first just to get a different perspective. I know others who begin, looking at coins sideways instead of up and down, for the same reason. I don't usually do those things but it's probably a good idea to try it once in a while, just for a change in your routine.

When you take your first look at a coin, do so without a glass/magnifier. Eyeball it for a few seconds on each side to get a general first impression - to see how it hits you. Don't worry, initially, about looking for flaws and problems - get a feel for the big picture and the eye-appeal or lack thereof.


I cannot over-emphasize the fact, that in many cases, the first, split second look of a coin is extremely important. It will either grab your attention or not. If it doesn't, it might not be so special and it might not impress the next viewer, either. If it is special looking and grabs your attention right away, it very well might have the same effect on the next person. Many buying decisions regarding many valuable coins are made in a matter of seconds, based on that all-important first impression.

Look at the focal points - the main design elements (the cheek on a Morgan dollar, Ms. Liberty on a Walking Liberty Half dollar, the Indian on Indian gold coinage, etc.) If you have questions about the most important areas for grading for a given type of coin, please feel free to ask.

Next, look at the other areas, toward the borders. As you are doing this, you should be slowly and gradually rotating the coin and tilting it back and forth (as mentioned previously) at the same time - try to get the light to reflect off of the surface from as many angles as possible.

Now, for those of you who are dying to do so, it is OK to pick up your magnifiers - go for it, but don't forget about how the coin first struck you, when you looked with your naked eye.

And now for some collecting tips

Following, in no particular order of subject matter or importance, are my unsolicited comments and advice about coin collecting for collectors - please feel free to contact me at any time if you'd like to discuss any of these topics.

Buy/collect what YOU like. But keep in mind that when it comes time to sell, not everyone else will necessarily like what you did/do.

Examine as many coins as you can which have been certified/graded by the most highly respected grading companies. This can be done at coin shows and in auctions and is a great way to improve upon your grading skills.

The best way to improve your grading ability is to find someone who is highly qualified AND willing to spend time reviewing coins with you. That person can be a dealer or collector, but he needs to be more than just a friend - he needs to be a teacher. Many individuals are "qualified" OR "willing to spend the time", but few are BOTH.

Don't keep buying coins without ever selling any of them - learn what it's like to try to sell, too. Once in a while you should offer one or two of your coins back to the dealers you acquired them from. See how they deal with that type of situation and whether they want to re-acquire those "gems" they sold to you.

Don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask lots of questions. You and just about everyone else can learn a great deal that way.

Be aware of privacy and security concerns. It might not be fun to do so, but it's extremely important.

It's always good to get a second opinion. Doing so doesn't make you less knowledgeable, worthy or confident - it simply makes good sense.

Don't try to get bargains at the expense of quality and desirability for the coins you're buying, or you'll likely end up with sub-par coins which aren't bargains, anyway.

Generally, I advise against "investing" in coins. Even if you are very well informed, based upon buy/sell spreads and other factors, the odds are against your success. That said, I understand that many collectors end up spending significant sums of money on their collections and can't/shouldn't ignore the financial implications.

If you are going to "invest", I'd suggest diversification - not putting too much of your money into one coin or one coin type. I'd also recommend staying away from especially esoteric and/or illiquid and/or currently "hot" items.

While it is not a pleasant mindset to engage in, think about and plan for how your coins should be disposed of if/when something happens to you. Make your spouse and/or family and/or friends and/or an attorney aware of your wishes. If you have a particular dealer or coin/auction company that should be contacted, have that information recorded, along with costs, sources, purchase dates, etc., of your coins.

Eye-appeal is hard to ignore, but technical quality shouldn't be over-looked/compromised.

If you participate in auctions, whether over the Internet or in person, set your price/bidding limits in advance and stick to them. Auction fever hits many bidders, and almost always to their detriment.

Find time for other activities that don't have anything to do with coin collecting. Don't make coins your whole life - life is too short for that.

If you are going to stretch to buy a coin, do it for a coin which is truly special and/or virtually irreplaceable, not on an ordinary one. There are far more of the latter than of the former, and there will almost always be other opportunities.

Don't talk yourself into buying a coin. If something about it bothers you now, there is an excellent chance it will bother you as much or more later.

Don't be lulled or suckered into a false/unrealistic sense of security by the strength of many areas of the market that we have experienced for several years now. There are good markets, and, while some current participants might not have experienced them yet, there are bad markets too - I promise.

Do not buy rare coins on a sight-unseen basis, regardless of the seller or the images.

Enjoy our hobby.

I repeat, enjoy our hobby.