See how today's achievement is only tomorrow's confusion." - William Dean Howells
Perhaps the toughest part of the process of grading involves distinguishing between a mint state coin and a top grade Almost Uncirculated (A.U.) coin. Detail is not the only criteria. Sometimes an A.U. coin (or even an Extremely Fine coin) will have better detail than an uncirculated coin. This, of course, is due to the fact that some coins are struck with more detail than others.
Once you know that a coin cannot be graded solely based on detail, you can begin the process of learning how to distinguish wear. Throughout this book, I will use the Morgan Silver Dollar as an example of each grading technique. Toward the end of the book, you will learn how to apply these techniques to other coins.
Below are photographs of the obverse and reverse of a fully struck Morgan dollar. Accented in red are the high points of the design. These are the areas where the wear from circulation is most likely to appear first. Unfortunately, these are also areas which tend to lack detail if the coin is weakly struck or if it was struck from worn dies.
The best way to learn to tell if a coin has wear is through actual experience. Compare a coin which you know is uncirculated to a slightly circulated (AU) coin with equal detail. Observe the coins carefully, tilting them back and forth to see how the lustre flows, especially over the high points. Look closely at the high points. You will notice a difference in the lustre. On the uncirculated coin, the full lustre will roll over the high points. On the A.U. coin, the lustre will be visibly broken, and this break will be noticeable without magnification. Thus, even to a somewhat inexperienced eye, it will convey the visual impact of slight wear (i.e.. displacement of metal).
It is important to note, however, that many mint state coins will have slight "friction" on the high points or in the fields, resulting from coins rubbing against-each other in rolls or bags. If the metal itself is not disturbed, and the lustre is intact (with perhaps just the slightest disturbance, usually from very tiny hairlines), the coin is probably still mint state.
This exercise is best performed, at first, using coins which have no toning. Once you have mastered untoned coins, you can try the same thing using toned coins. just try to look "through" the toning as if it were never there. But I warn you that toned coins are many times trickier than untoned coins.
Now, here's an interesting question: If you remove the toning from a coin, all other things being equal, can that alone change the grade from almost uncirculated to fully mint state, or vice-versa?
The answer, surprisingly, is yes! Even though technically the removal of toning should not (and really does not) affect the presence of wear, it does affect the visual impact of wear. Until coins are graded by computer, and possibly even after that, visual impact will be the single most important factor in grading a coin. Sometimes toning will sufficiently hide wear from even the most experienced eye. In some cases, toning will create the illusion of wear to even the most experienced eye. In these rare cases, the illusion becomes the reality, because the market will value those coins based on their visual impact.
The goal, therefore, is not to know exactly how the coin would look if the toning were removed. It is impossible to do that. Even the top experts don't always know what lurks beneath the toning of a coin. The goal is to assess the visual impact of wear on the coin, as accurately as possible.
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