How Should You Examine Coins?
By F. Michael Fazzari
Each individual collector has evolved his own
method to examine coins. Let me share some
observations with you.
Would you believe that nearsighted individuals
have an advantage over other graders? They can
view a coin fairly closely without the aid of
magnification. This is an important plus because
the first step in grading should be to view the
entire coin as a whole in order to form your
Some poor souls cannot do this and their grading
skills may be compromised. I like to say that
“magnification” is the great equalizer. It
allows those with impaired vision to view a coin
closely; however, problems may arise if you
start your exam with magnification.
Those who view a coin initially with a hand lens
may not see the coin in its entirety. One
professional numismatist I know appears to be
unable to make out the date on a quarter-sized
coin held a foot from his face. He picks up a
coin and immediately views it with a powerful
loupe. There is a potential problem with this
method. Look at the drawings in Figure 1.
In Figure 1, a silver dollar-size coin can be
seen in its entirety (A) without magnification;
but it takes at least four different
observations (B) to view the same coin using 7x
magnification. This technique may compromise
your first impression. Note how the four lens
positions in “B” do not overlap so parts of the
coin may be missed initially.
Your first impression based on eye appeal should
come to you very quickly. It is based on all the
attributes of a coin that you have read about –
strike, luster, toning, marks, etc. Everyone
will get a first impression when viewing a coin;
it’s unavoidable. Depending on your knowledge
and experience, that first look may or may not
conform closely to the coin’s actual final
grade. So, when grading, your first step is to
view the coin as a whole.
Experienced professionals can do this with
barely a glance but there is a lot involved.
Let’s break down the process I go through into
small parts in no exact order and for no
specific coin. I’ll carefully pick up the coin
and hold it by its edge with my thumb and
several fingers so that I can tip and rotate it
in the light. Are its surfaces original? Is the
color of the coin usual for the alloy it is made
from? Is it toned? Is its condition low for the
type of coin or does this particular example
stir my gut to own it?
I’ll look for luster. The amount of luster is
very important for grading. If much of the
luster is present, the coin should reach a grade
of Extremely Fine or higher. Full luster puts
the coin into the Mint State range of grades.
The quality of the luster – whether it is bright
or dull – is a factor that affects the final
Is the luster original or is it impaired by
over-dipping, cleaning or polishing? Often an
impaired coin will “outshine” an original coin
but it will be less desirable to own.
Unfortunately, many folks cannot tell the
difference between the two. I’ve written about
this before. Look for rounded details and a
“halo effect” around the relief to detect many
forms of impairment.
How much design detail is present on the coin?
Are the high points of the design a different
color than the surrounding area? The color of
the coin can indicate that it is impaired in
less time than it took you to read this
Let’s consider any toning that may be present. A
majority of older silver coins are uniformly
gray. This is considered desirable especially
when there are traces of toning present.
Splotchy discoloration or areas of contrasting
shades of black or gray will hurt a coin’s eye
Brown stains that often “hug” the relief,
usually indicate that the coin was not rinsed
thoroughly after dipping. Subtle colors up to
blazing rainbows add to eye appeal, but I’ll
need to decide later if the color is natural or
While at it, I’ll be looking for evidence of
cleaning under the toning, especially parallel
Next, I’ll look for obvious imperfections on the
coin. Those that are extremely detrimental – in
prime focal areas – will jump out at me. Many
others may be hidden in the design. I’ll look
for scratches, scrapes, and edge damage that are
easy to spot.
Expert repairs can be missed at first unless you
are consciously looking for them. Small contact
marks should be expected on a majority of coins.
Their effect on a coin’s grade depends on the
number, size, severity and location. I like to
describe the amount of marks by words such as
very few, some, many, tiny, very small, etc.
Using these adjectives has allowed me to form
mental parameters for consistent grade ranges.
Guess what? All the things above were done in
just few seconds after picking up the coin. Now
it’s time for me to use some form of
magnification to confirm my first impression of
the coin’s grade.