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The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 2

By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

In Part 1, I discussed the fact that almost all sophisticated collectors of U.S. coins have a very strong preference for natural toning, as opposed to coins that have been artificially toned, doctored, or dipped in brightening chemical solutions. As more and more rare coins are becoming subject to such deliberate, artificial modifications, this issue is crucial and needs to be urgently addressed. Although the two leading grading services have, since 2007, been rejecting a larger percentage of submitted ‘doctored’ coins, too many still become graded and encapsulated. Collectors will benefit by learning about such matters. Here in part 2, I focus on the connection between natural toning and the greatest collections, I emphasize the tradition of strongly preferring naturally toning, and I point out that naturally toned, 19th century coins are often not expensive.

Vermuele_93S_Morgan_pvgsHolderIn many instances over the years, I have mentioned the importance of naturally toned coins in the all-time greatest collections. I never claimed that my thoughts on this matter were path-breaking. Quite the contrary, I always believed that most sophisticated and knowledgeable collectors, plus advanced dealer-experts, agree that, usually, the naturalness and originality of the coins is a substantial and very important factor in determining the greatness and importance of a collection of U.S. coins.

Of course, there are other factors, such as completeness and the rarity of the coins included. Yes, collections that do not score at the highest levels in the originality category can still be excellent, such as the Harry Bass and Ed Trompeter collections. Undoubtedly, however, these collections would have been even better had more of the rare coins included been characterized by natural toning and/or original surfaces.

Certainly, natural toning and original surfaces are not the only factors to take into consideration when analyzing an individual coin. A coin may have natural toning and still have many problems. Natural toning has, though, been regarded as an extremely important factor throughout the history of coin collecting in the U.S.

Over the last half century, the Eliasberg, Norweb, Pittman, and Garrett collections are the four greatest to be auctioned. Numerous coins in these collections can be definitively traced to specific auctions that were conducted prior to 1915. Records exist of auction purchases by the Norweb and Garrett families. Moreover, most of the gem quality, 19th century silver and gold U.S. coins in the Eliasberg collection were earlier in the Clapp collection, which largely documented by the elder John Clapp. In addition to acquiring coins directly from the U.S. Mints, Clapp purchased coins at auction, possibly through or with the assistance of an agent. These had original (or at least mostly original) surfaces. Clearly, he avoided coins that were brightened with acids or artificially colored.

Jay Brahin asserts that coins with the greatest pedigrees “are very important because they came from the all-time greatest collections. Eliasberg’s collection was great mostly because of John Clapp, who bought many coins directly from the Mints. Clapp acquired original coins and he did not mess with them. Eliasberg was heavily reinforced when he bought the Clapp collection [intact in 1942]. It raised the bar for Eliasberg. He then had so many finest known coins. He then had the greatest collection of original coins. The overwhelming majority of the Eliasberg coins were original.”

Mark Hagen emphatically concurs. “The Eliasberg collection was amazing not just because of its scope but because the vast majority of the coins were original. You could throw darts at a list of lot numbers and the odds of getting a bad coin in that [Eliasberg 1997] sale were very slim.”

Hagen adds that most of the coins in the Norweb family collection were “original as well.” Although the Garrett sales were before his time (and mine), Mark finds that “everything I have ever seen out of Garrett was fantastic, too. They usually have a great, natural look,” Hagen notes. “The greatness of the Eliasberg, Garrett, and Norweb collections is due to the technical quality of the coins and their natural toning, and the fact that they were not tampered with. They started with quality specimens to begin with, did not mess with them, and let them natural tone over the years. They were stored properly and ended up incredibly special,” Hagen concludes.

Stewart Blay “will state for the most part the Eliasberg and Pittman auctions consisted of album and envelope toned coins,” which impart natural toning as these are normal and acceptable means of storing coins and were widely used during the 20th century. Stewart “attended all the Eliasberg and Pittman collection auctions of U.S. coins.” When it is pointed out that Blay, Hagen and Duckor attended many epic auctions, it should be emphasized that they each spent considerable time carefully examining large numbers of rare coins that were sold in these epic auctions.

“Eliasberg, the Clapps, Pittman and the Norwebs were true collectors,” Blay declares. “There were some dipped copper coins” in the Eliasberg and Pittman collections, but only a very small percentage. “The same is probably true of dipped silver coins. I do not remember any dipped silver coins” in the Eliasberg collection, Stewart relates.

“I absolutely believe the Eliasberg, Norweb and Pittman collections serve as benchmarks for originality,” Blay exclaims. “These collections were great because of the quality of the coins and their extensive completeness”!

The coins in the Eliasberg, Norweb, Pittman and other great collections with traceable pedigrees provide evidence to prove that, during the late 19th and early 20th century, collectors and dealers regarded naturally toned coins as being superior to those that were deliberately modified. Artificial coloring, cleaning and brightening occurred then, too. Contemporary commentators, including Ed Frossard who wrote an especially influential newsletter in the late 19th century, openly discussed negative effects of cleaning and other artificial enhancements. While such discussions were sometimes vague and are a little confusing to current collectors who use a different vocabulary, it is clear that tampering with coins was then considered dangerous and usually harmful to the coins.

“Brushing Proofs produce what is termed hay marks, and should never be adopted,” so stated in a list of “Numismatic Foundation Stones” in the February 1892 issue of The Numismatist monthly (Volume 4: Number 2). ‘Hay marks’ is an early term for hairline scratches, which are now usually called just ‘hairlines.’ The phrase ‘never be adopted’ means that it was stated, in a leading coin publication in 1892, that brushing or wiping Proofs will never be adopted as a legitimate practice. It was not allowed within the coin collecting community. If a light wiping was never permissible, and will “lower” the “sale price” [market value] according to this declaration in 1892, it was certainly implied that surgery on high grade coins and much (or all) cleaning were not permitted either. Consider remarks prominently put forth in 1913 (Vol. 26, pp. 154-55) by H. O. Granberg.

Granberg was very influential and he was an extremely accomplished collector. When selections from his collection were displayed or consigned for sale, the events were widely publicized. He owned an 1804 dollar, an 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece, an 1854-S Quarter Eagle, an 1815 Half Eagle, an 1885 Trade Dollar and the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Dime, plus other Great Rarities. Moreover, Granberg served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the ANA. While he served as chairman, he formally stated “A Scheme for a Uniform Standard of Classifying the Condition of Coins,” in which he declared that “Coins brightened by chemicals should not be called bright, but should be termed ‘cleaned’”!

conserved_1893S_Norweb_dollarHe was not, in this statement, referring to ‘coin doctoring’; he was referring to brightening with acids, which is a practice that is now called ‘dipping.’ Granberg asserted, in Feb. 1913, that a coin that has been “brightened” has been harmed. After all, he emphasizes that it would be misleading to refer to such bright coins as being “bright”! I strongly believe that Granberg’s views were consistent with the overwhelming majority of knowledgeable collectors during his era.

The offerings in many coin auctions conducted from 1904 to 1921 are documented in the form of original catalogues with photographic plates. Several of the all-time greatest collections were auctioned during this period. Plus, major coin auctions that were conducted from 1879 to the early 1900s were often catalogued with full-tone pictures that were of higher quality than most all illustrations in coin auction catalogues during the second half of the 20th century. Many coins in great collections, and thousands of others, can be definitively traced to specific collections that were auctioned before 1925. Indisputably, those who built the greatest collections preferred coins with natural toning and/or mostly original surfaces.

The auctions of the Parmelee (1890), Stickney (1907), and Earle (1912) collections come to mind. These are among the top ten U.S. coin collections ever auctioned. Each of these collections had an amazing number of Great Rarities. An important point, which directly relates to natural toning, is that Parmelee, Stickney and Earle each had many, scarce or moderately rare 19th century silver and gold coins that have been or would be fairly graded from 66 to 68 (on a scale from 01 to 70) in terms of current grading definitions.

The leading collectors of the 19th century, however, placed relatively greater emphasis on naturalness than do current graders at the two leading grading services, the PCGS and the NGC. Stewart Blay suggests that a major reason why “people dip coins is to [try to] get a higher grade from the services. This is a shame.”

In fairness to the PCGS and the NGC, I (this writer) assert that these two services have, since 2007, been placing relatively greater weight on originality when calculating grades of rare coins and have more effectively filtered out ‘doctored’ coins. During the decade from 1997 to 2006, thousands of ‘doctored’ pre-1934 U.S. coins were graded and encapsulated.

Invariably, the grading services will make errors. I believe that grading personnel should be putting a little more time and effort into scrutinizing submissions. The work of ‘coin doctors’ can be very deceptive. Sometimes, high-magnification, varying sources of light, and several opinions are needed to understand what has been done to a particular coin. To ensure a healthy coin collecting community, it is necessary for collectors to learn at least a little about the matters of natural toning and ‘coin doctoring.’

Almost all collectors can afford pre-1934 U.S. coins that are characterized by pleasing, natural toning. Though a large percentage of the more valuable coins in the Eliasberg, Norweb and Pittman collections have been graded 65 or higher by the PCGS or the NGC, coins with natural toning need not be gems of 65 or higher grade. Indeed, most 19th century coins that grade Good-04 or even AG-03 have natural toning. Each individual collector should choose series and grades that are appropriate for him or her. Not only do collecting budgets vary, individual tastes and preferences vary as well.

The vast majority of collectors should not feel excluded from scarce or rare coins that are great in this respect. A collection of rare and/or significant scarce coins with natural toning and/or mostly original surfaces commands respect among experts, has historical and cultural significance, and is satisfying to a knowledgeable owner. For example, an appealing, naturally toned Barber Dime in Fine-12 condition can be acquired for less than six dollars.

Naturally toned circulated coins often cost the same as corresponding coins that have been artificially modified. Usually, it is not a good idea for a collector to attempt to become an expert grader, as such an effort could be painful and frustrating. The happiest collectors are not always the best graders. Instead, collectors should learn more than a little about natural toning, should find out which sellers to trust, and should meet enthusiastic experts who will share knowledge.

Coin collecting in the U.S. has a culture all its own and naturally toned coins are part of the core of this culture. Even so, I hold that there is more to a preference for naturally toned coins than the following of a tradition. In part 3, I put forth logical reasons for choosing coins with natural toning and/or mostly original surfaces, and for strongly discouraging dipping, cleaning, and doctoring.

©2009 Greg Reynolds
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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

Related posts:

  1. The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 1
  2. The Basis for Collecting and Appreciating Naturally Toned Coins, Part 3
  3. Collecting Strategies – Collecting Key Date Coins in All Series
  4. COLLECTING COINS IN DIFFICULT ECONOMIC TIMES
  5. Collecting U.S. Coins on a Budget
  6. Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Collecting Modern Coins
  7. Collecting $10 Liberty Head Gold Coins
  8. “Spectacular” Rainbow-Toned Morgans Highlight PCGS’ FUN Display
  9. Thematic Collecting of US Silver Commemorative Coins
  10. Collecting U.S. Gold Coins On A Limited Budget

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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