Coin News

Volume 36, Number 4, April 1999

Care and Condition

Volume 36, Number 4, April 1999

It never ceases to amaze us how often we come across coins and medals which have palpably suffered at the hands of their owners. We have incontrovertible proof of this, in many collectors' coins which we know to have passed straight from the mint to the customer. Knowing how very meticulous the staff of the Royal Mint and the Pobjoy Mint, for example, are in the careful handling and packaging of coins destined for the collector market, and that much of this material is despatched by mail order direct to the customer, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that some collectors spend their money solely on the acquisition of their treasures, leaving nothing for the accessories and equipment necessary for their care and maintenance. We are constantly receiving enquiries on the subject, from people seeking advice on the proper care of coins, and therefore we propose to devote a series of articles to this thorny subject over the coming months. At the same time, however, we will be taking a long, hard look at the even more contentious issue of grading and describing the condition of coins. When it comes to current issues, in de luxe or proof versions for the most part, distributed in cased sets or chemically inert plastic capsules, one expects that such coins will be in as pure a mint state as humanly possible. In the secondary market, however, this is not a matter which can be taken for granted. When it comes to older material, there are so many variable and imponderable factors governing the condition of a coin that one has perforce to rely on the descriptions furnished by dealers and auctioneers when advertising or describing material offered for sale. The fundamental problem is that any description of a coin must, to a large extent, be subjective, and interpretations of the terms in common use may vary widely from one dealer to another, or between vendor and purchaser. Furthermore, in our experience of the coin trade going back to the early 1960s, we have observed that there is a tendency for the terms to become debased over the years. There must have been a time when "Good" actually meant good - and not pretty awful! When dealers preface standard terms such as EF and VF with such adverbs as "almost" , "nearly" or "about" we are forcefully reminded of the girl who stoutly maintained that she was almost a virgin. Imperceptible shades of meaning may start out well, but inevitably give rise to imprecise understanding. One reader has counted more than 20 grades of condition in the advertisements in past issues of COIN NEWS and makes a plea for a sort of "British Standard" for the numismatic industry. In the United States coins are graded by a number of commercial bodies made up of experts and are then encapsulated in plastic holders. This is popularly known as "slabbing", but this removes the joy of ever being able to handle the coin. In the stamp world expertising committees identify and grade stamps and issue certificates bearing a sealed photograph. But in the coin hobby the grading is inevitably left to the vendor with the purchaser having no recourse other than his own experience. It might be a good idea if, say, representatives of the Royal Mint, the British Museum, the British Numismatics Trade Association and other relevant trade and saleroom bodies could get together and thrash out a set of criteria and appropriate terms that everyone could abide by; but we fear that, in this imperfect world, a universal code of this sort would be wellnigh impossible to devise, let alone enforce.

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