The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 1
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
In the history of coin collecting in the U.S., most of the greatest all-time collections were characterized by many coins with attractive, natural toning, especially including many coins that had never been cleaned, dipped or otherwise deliberately modified. I have personally and carefully inspected a substantial percentage of the coins in the Eliasberg, Norweb, and Pittman collections. Further, I have seen a significant number of the naturally toned coins that were previously in the Garrett family and James A. Stack collections. Most of the very scarce or moderately rare coins from these collections that brought surprisingly high prices at auction, and generated the most enthusiasm among collectors, are those that have (or then had) natural toning and/or mostly original surfaces. Over a period of more than 125 years, sophisticated collectors in the U.S. have tended to strongly prefer naturally toned coins.
Currently, three of the most sophisticated collectors who are widely recognized are Dr. Steven Duckor, Stewart Blay and Jay Brahin. Considerable information regarding their collecting accomplishments is found in the PCGS registry. While Jay is more of a specialist in early 20th century gold coins, Blay and Dr. Duckor have built phenomenal collections in several areas. Not all of their coins are listed in the PCGS registry. Most sophisticated, advanced collectors have similar sentiments and a preference for natural toning. Many of them, however, wish to remain anonymous and thus will not be mentioned. Duckor, Blay and Brahin are all very much willing to share their knowledge with the coin collecting community.
Mark Hagen is another collector who is willing to share with the collecting community. He has been collecting coins for over forty years. I have seen him at many auctions. Further, he reports that he attended the Norweb, Eliasberg and Pittman auctions and ALL of the FUN and ANA Platinum night sales. Indeed, Mark has “been to over one hundred major auctions over the past twenty-five years” and he has “seen most of the classic rarities and gem type coins that have sold at public auction over that period.”
Hagen observes that “there are a lot of artificially toned coins on the market.” Further, Mark laments that “in addition to those that have been recolored, thousands of rare coins have been dipped; the number of original coins is getting smaller every year.” On this issue, Jay Brahin agrees with Hagen.
“To the eye of a true collector, originality is more important than shiny,” declares Brahin. “Natural toning is a testament to the age and natural process that the coin has gone through. What makes antiques appealing is their antiqueness, a normal aging process of the items. The natural aging of a relic attests to its authenticity. If you saw an 18th century original document that was a bright manila white, you would realize that something is wrong with it. You would expect an old document to show natural signs of aging. If you see an 18th century silver coin that is bright white, it is suspect; or if it has bright purple toning, it means something is wrong.”
Jay began collecting coins when he was six and continued until age sixteen. In 2002, Brahin started collecting coins again and he then became “completely immersed.” Over time, Brahin “found that knowledgeable collectors favored coins that had an antique look, a crusty look, with original skin. The seasoned experts understand the desirability and importance of naturally toned coins. They absolutely prefer coins that formed toning over a long time and have never been cleaned. These are much more compelling than dipped” or deliberately colored coins. Jay adds that he “bought coins because [he] loved them.”
Stewart Blay is also very fond of great coins. Blay’s absolutely incredible collection of copper coins was on display at the PCGS table during the 2008 ANA Convention in Baltimore. His collections of small cents are often regarded as the best of all time, in large part because of the originality of the coins included. Moreover, his small group of early copper and silver type coins is considered to be of tremendous importance primarily because of the originality of these. Stewart typically selects coins that have never been cleaned or dipped.
The Eliasberg-Blay 1807 quarter, which is PCGS graded MS-67, and the Naftzger-Parrino-Blay 1807/6, PCGS certified MS-66-Red large cent are legendary coins. Without any prompting from me, and without knowing that I planned to mention these two coins here, Mark Hagen praised both these coins when I interviewed him. “These two are incredible coins; the 1807/6 cent is mind boggling,” Hagen exclaims. While Blay is best known for his copper coins, he also collects naturally toned silver coins.
Blay explains that “natural toning appears on original coins through means such as [proper] album [storage] or paper envelopes” of the kinds that collectors frequently used over the last century. There were a small variety of albums used by many collectors during certain time periods, such as the “National Albums” that were popular in the middle of the 20th century.
“Original toning is preferable,” Blay asserts, “because the original skin of a coin is left intact. When one dips and [thus] strips the original skin off, the originality of the coin is diminished.” Furthermore, “only through experience,” Stewart emphasizes, “can an individual know the difference between artificial and natural toning.” Hagen concurs. “It is hard to describe what artificial toning looks like, but with years of experience you develop a feel for what coins in a particular series should look like,” Mark finds.
Blay asserts that, “when one adds color or artificially tones a coin” by placing it in a contrived setting like an oven or laboratory, he is “deceiving a buyer or grader into believing a coin is better and may be worth more money. It is usually about greed. A wonder coin is an original [high quality] old coin that has never been enhanced and upon viewing it one is mesmerized.”
In my view, more than experience is required to identify artificial toning. Attaining advanced knowledge of toning characteristics usually requires enthusiasm, a natural aptitude for coins, and some assistance from experts.
Since the 1970s, Dr. Steven Duckor has been acquiring coins that never been cleaned, dipped, or artificially toned. Dr. Duckor’s collecting accomplishments are too vast to even begin to list here. Mark Hagen remarks that “Duckor is the consummate collector.”
Recently, I wrote an article that previewed the auction of Duckor’s Barber Quarters, which, though wonderful, is probably the weakest of his collections. His Barber Halves and Saint Gaudens Double Eagles ($20 coins) are amazing. In March 2007, his 1920-S Eagle ($10 gold coin) was auctioned for $1,725,000. The most another 1920-S Eagle has ever realized is $431,250, much less than one-third as much.
Duckor prefers “original, crusty coins, the more original the better!” Duckor relates that, “once a coin is dipped or ‘doctored,’ it loses its original ‘skin’ and I don’t want it in my collection. A coin is irreparably damaged when it’s artificially toned!”
Even among Great Rarities, natural toning and mostly original surfaces are often of paramount importance. Though there exist just five 1885 Trade Dollars, the Eliasberg piece is worth more than twice as much as any of the other four largely because its surfaces are the most natural of any of the five. Likewise, the James A. Stack, Norweb and Eliasberg 1870-S silver dollars are each worth dramatically more than any of the other six known 1870-S dollars largely (though not entirely) because these score much higher in the category of originality.
Dr. Duckor points out that coins that truly grade “Mint State 65 to 67 are that way because they are as minted, not altered.” Duckor is probably saying that there is an original luster and sheen that will remain intact if a coin is never dipped, cleaned, or doctored. The dealer, and noted connoisseur, Joe O’Connor stresses that “even a light dipping will impair the original luster of a coin.” An important part of the Mint’s creation is being taken away.
“For almost all silver coins, dipping them is harmful.” remarks Mark Hagen. “There are some strictly original coins that are very dark and ugly. Dipping may make them look better. But, ugly original coins are seldom seen, and it is impossible to know before the dipping what is underneath the toning. Even if a coin has black toning, dipping might make the coin worse.”
Hagen is more concerned about coins with moderate toning that are definitely harmed by being dipped. “Hundred year old coins should not be all white,” Mark asserts. “I typically do not even look at white, dipped silver coins. I am looking for originally toned silver type coins. A coin must have some originality or else I will not even consider buying it. Naturally toned coins are much more desirable and much more important.”
Hagen adds, “most of the collectors I know have similar preferences. I am impressed by the naturally toned coins in the famous collections of Sunnywood and TradeDollarNut.”
The collector who calls himself TradeDollarNut assembled the “Legend” collections in the PCGS registry. His set of Liberty Seated Dollars is probably the all-time finest business strike set of this type. Put in another way, TradeDollarNut’s set of business strike Liberty Seated Dollars is not just the recipient of the highest score in the PCGS registry, it is probably superior to all such sets that have been assembled by collectors since the U.S. Mint ceased production of Liberty Seated Dollars in 1873. Plus, his former collections of Trade Dollars are certainly among the finest of all time. For a while, he owned both the Eliasberg 1884 and 1885 Trade Dollars.
TradeDollarNut has made it clear that he prefers naturally toned coins with mostly original surfaces, and has been outspoken against artificial toning and doctoring. His attitude towards dipping is generally negative.
Stewart Blay has been seriously collecting coins for more than twenty years, and has attended innumerable major auctions and conventions. He is enthusiastic and talkative, and has “gotten to know” many collectors. Blay finds that “all collectors who have been seriously collecting coins prefer naturally toned coins.”
All of the collectors mentioned above are very knowledgeable about coins, are competent graders, have a sophisticated approach to collecting, and have spent significant funds on coins. Less affluent collectors, however, can obtain naturally toned scarce coins, with mostly original surfaces. Uncirculated and Proof coins of some 19th century types are relatively affordable, including Three Cent Nickels, Liberty Nickels, Indian cents, and relatively less scarce Barbers. More importantly, collector with modest budgets can collect circulated, 19th century U.S. coins, many of which are not expensive. Consider circulated, naturally toned large cents, Three Cent Nickels, Shield Nickels, Twenty Cent pieces, Liberty Seated Quarters, and Capped Bust halves, plus Liberty Head Quarter Eagles and Eagles. For small sums, collectors can acquire naturally toned coins that have cultural and historical significance, and are a pleasure to own.
Here in part 1, it is demonstrated that sophisticated collectors tend to view naturally toned coins as superior to coins that have been deliberately modified and consider natural toning to be an extremely important factor in evaluating coins. In part 2, I discuss the relationship between natural toning and the greatest all-time collections, with some commentary from sophisticated collectors. In part 3, I will put forth logical arguments of my own.
©2009 Greg Reynolds
Links to Naturally Toned Coins Series
The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 1
The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 2
The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 3
About the Author
Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.
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