Coin Collecting: Thoughts on Originality
By Doug Winter – RareGoldCoins.com
“Originality.” It’s one of the most overused terms in all of numismatics. And it’s one of the most misunderstood as well. Given the choice, I believe that most people would rather own an “original” coin instead of one that has clearly had its appearance changed in recent years. With the help of some good quality images, I’d like to show some of the characteristics that I equate with “originality” and offer some suggestions on how to judge if a coin is original or not.
The first coin that we are going to look at is an 1844-D quarter eagle graded AU55 by NGC. (Disclosure: this coin is currently in my inventory and it is currently for sale. I am not using this coin as an example in the hope that someone will buy it as I am certain someone will and I don’t need to go to this much trouble to sell it. I am using it to illustrate this report because I believe it represents what I believe is complete originality.)
One other quick topic before we review this 1844-D quarter eagle. My definition of an “original” coin is one that appears to have never been cleaned, lightened or in any way altered. I would be quick to point out that the flaw in this definition is that, of course, there is no way to make such a comment without having had access to this particular coin at all times since 1844.
There is always the possibility that, in the 1850’s or the 1860’s (or even the 1960’s), it may have been lightly cleaned. But there are some things to look for on a coin that I think gives a reasonably good assurance that it hasn’t been messed with. The most obvious is hairlines. If a coin has been improperly cleaned at one time, it is going to show hairlines. These may range from subtle to very obvious. If a coin has nice seemingly “original” color but it shows noticeable hairlines, this probably means that it was cleaned years ago and has subsequently retoned. Such a coin may have a natural appearance but, from the standpoint of semantics, it can’t truly be called “original.” You can also look for areas of cloudiness or haze. If a coin has these, the chances are good that something has been applied to the surfaces at one time.
In looking at this coin, there are a few points to note. The first is its depth of coloration. Take a look at the color on the obverse and the reverse and note how the hues in the fields are richer than in the protected areas. On coins with natural color this is generally going to be the case. On a coin that may have been dipped at one time, you are going to see the opposite; the color tends to be lighter at the centers and deeper at the peripheries. Also, note how on this 1844-D quarter eagle there is color present even on the high spots and relief detail. A coin that has been cleaned or dipped typically lacks color on these areas as they are the first places that the original color is lost. Finally, note the depth and intensity of the color. On natural coins, the color is “sharp” in hue and depth. On dipped or cleaned coins, the color tends to be “fuzzier” and less intense.
Secondly, note the patches of dirt or “crust” in the protected areas, especially on the letters in the reverse legend. On coins that have been lightened, this dirt is typically lost.
The third thing to note requires some specific knowledge of a series. This 1844-D quarter eagle has the “right” color for the issue. If you become familiar with the Dahlonega quarter eagle series, you will learn that the original color for the 1844-D tends to be either “bright yellow-gold, light orange-gold or dark coppery-gold.” (this quote is taken directly from my book on Dahlonega coinage, page 98). As you learn more about Dahlonega coins and see more examples in person, you learn what the “right” color is for each specific issue. The color for this 1844-D is as “right” as on any example that I have ever seen.
The second coin that we are going to look at is an 1840-O quarter eagle that is graded AU58 by NGC. This is another piece that is currently in my inventory and the reason that I purchased it was because I thought it had uncommonly attractive and original coloration.
On this coin, note the depth of the color. As they should be, the hues are deeper in the fields than at the borders. The color is very bold in its hue and can be seen with the same degree of intensity on the high spots as in the fields.
On page 52 of my book on New Orleans gold coinage I state that the color of the 1840-O quarter eagle is “a distinctive medium to deep yellow-gold.” The hues on this specific example are, in my opinion, more of a deep green-gold with reddish overtones. Why the discrepancy from the description in my book? This is a hard question to answer but my guess has to do with how this coin was stored. To me, it has the look of a piece that may have been housed in an old manila envelope or even in a leather pouch.
If you do not know this series well, you are probably thinking that this coin exhibits a considerable amount of wear at the centers and that this lightness may, in fact, be signs of an old cleaning. This is incorrect. Many 1840-O quarter eagles are weakly struck at the obverse and reverse center (this specific coin actually has a fairly decent overall strike) and have a slightly “sunken” look as a result. Although it is hard to tell from the image, this coin shows natural coloration even in the vertical shield lines which is another good indicator of its originality.
Coins that are not original often have foreign substances applied to them in an attempt to hide imperfections such as obvious marks or strong hairlines. The foreign substance(s) may not be visible at the time the coin is sent to a grading service but it usually becomes noticeable after time has passed and its chemical composition has changed. Notice on this 1840-O quarter eagle how all the marks on the surfaces are plainly visible and nothing is being “hidden.”
Let’s look at one final coin that I believe is totally original. This is an 1856-S Type Two gold dollar graded AU58 by NGC. This is an issue that is very hard to find with original color and surfaces, especially in higher grades. There is strong motivation to make a properly graded AU58 magically become an MS60 or an MS61 as evidenced by the fact that Trends jumps from $6,500 in AU58 to $12,000 in MS60.
The first thing to note about this 1856-S gold dollar is the depth and evenness of the coloration. There isn’t a coin doctor alive who has figured out (at least yet…) how to make color on a 150+ year old gold coin look 150+ years old. Notice the warmth and the depth of the color that this coin has–that’s something that just can’t be faked. Notice also that there is a good deal of luster peeking out through the depth of the aforementioned coloration. This luster can be seen most easily in the image from around 9:00 to 12:00 on the obverse border, alongside the portrait, at the left reverse and inside the wreath. Notice as well how consistent the coloration is on the obverse and reverse. Often times when someone has recolored a coin, they are lazy and only enhance one side or if they do both sides, one is done better than the other.
If you are not familiar with the strike of 1856-S Type Two dollars, you are probably wondering why the hair around the face appears so flat. This has to do with the design of the Type Two gold dollar and it is the exact reason why this design was discontinued in 1856. The highest spot on the obverse was exactly opposite the highest spot on the reverse and this made it nearly impossible for Type Two gold dollars to be well struck. In fact, this 1856-S is actually very well struck by the standards of the date and the variety and it lacks the pronounced central weakness and heavy clashmarks that are so often seen on examples of this short-lived type.
One last point before I close. I have mentioned time and time again that you can not accurately grade a coin based on an image. But I do think you can get a good idea if a coin is original or not, provided that the quality of the image is as good as the ones on my website or on a few other dealer and auction websites. Please note that this article was NOT intended to try and teach you how to grade. It was intended to give you an idea of what I believe are very original coins and how such coins should look.
Editor: This article by Doug was originally posted on CoinLink in 2008, but the thoughts and insights are as relevant today as they were two years ago.