By Louis Golino for CoinWeek
A quarter century after the establishment of the first professional coin grading companies, many coin collectors remain skeptical of the benefits of third party grading. For many of them buying raw, ungraded coins is a kind of badge of honor that shows they have not succumbed to the mania for plastic holders. They rely on their own ability to grade coins and believe third party grading is a waste of money.
There is no question that the grading companies are not perfect. Sometimes they make mistakes, giving a grade that is clearly too high or too low for a coin. But overall, they perform useful functions by authenticating coins, protecting consumers from subjectively graded coins, adding market value in many cases, and generally facilitating the buying and selling of coins.
The grading of modern U.S. Mint coins has become a huge cottage industry for the grading companies and a major source of revenue for them, especially with all the large bulk orders they receive from dealers. But the grading of these coins continues to be especially controversial for a number of reasons. Some collectors feel slabbing reduces the value of coins, no matter what grade they receive. They think slabs are like caskets and prefer to be able to view the coin more closely. Others are convinced their coins are mishandled during the grading process, or that Mint capsules offer better protection than slabs. I am doubtful of both propositions.
In addition, the labeling of coins delivered to third party grading companies within 30 days of their release as “first strikes” or “early releases” remains controversial. There is no way to prove those coins were actually struck first. But some coins were hard to obtain within 30 days of their release because of delays in processing Mint orders, such as the 2009 Ultra High Relief double eagle, and UHR’s with the first strike or early release labels do bring higher premiums than coins without the label.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a growing preference among collectors and dealers for modern coins in their original government packaging (OGP) over the same coin in a slab of any grade or grading service. Some people view modern coins which are graded MS69 or below as “damaged goods.”
Modern coins which receive the top grade of MS70 are viewed with skepticism by some collectors and dealers. That is because the Mint tends to produce collector coins to very high standards, for the most part, and virtually any coin submitted for grading will receive either MS or PF69 or 70, although once in a while one gets a coin back with a 68 grade or lower. There are some exceptions to this general rule. The bullion versions of the five ounce America the Beautiful coins, for example, have not received grades higher than MS69 from PCGS and NGC, but the collector versions have produced plenty of MS70 coins.
The main problem with modern MS70 coins is that their market value is largely a function of the population numbers for the coin in question in the top grade, and those numbers change all the time as more coins are submitted and come back as 70’s. A lot of collectors of modern U.S. coins make the mistake of paying a high premium for a 70-graded coin when it is relatively new to the marketplace, and over time the value of their coin declines substantially as the population numbers in that grade continue to increase because more people submit their coins.
So the first recommendation I would make is if you are not submitting coins yourself which come back as 70’s, and you are buying previously-graded coins which received the top grade, wait until the coin is no longer new to the market. Track how the premium for that coin in 70 evolves over time before purchasing one. There is no set amount of time, and clearly one can wait too long, but it is a good rule of thumb with modern coins not to get too caught up in the hype that tends to surround recent releases.
In addition, shop around. There are times when one can purchase 70’s for a very small premium over raw coins. For example, last year I was able to purchase a 70 of a certain precious metal coin for virtually the same price the Mint charged for a raw coin. In this case, I acted sooner rather than later because I knew the coin was a great deal. Today it carries a nice premium.
Third, if you collect top-graded modern coins, I would suggest avoiding those from companies other than NGC and PCGS. There are certainly other grading companies which are reputable such as ANACS and ICG, but they tend to use different standards when assigning grades to modern coins than do the two top companies.
Fourth, even experienced collectors and dealers have difficulty telling the difference between a 69 and a 70. Examine your coin from the Mint for possible flaws, and if possible obtain the opinion of a local dealer who has more than likely seen a lot more coins than you have. Grading fees, especially at NGC and PCGS, are costly, especially if you add fees for first strike coins, and in most cases, if you do not receive a 70, you will have overpaid. Dealers send in lots of coins at once and can be assured of getting some 70’s that will recoup a lot of their grading fees, but most collectors are not submitting large numbers of coins at once, so it is a gamble. In addition, the competition for registry sets sometimes drives the prices of very common coins in perfect grades to levels that do not make any sense such as MS70 Lincoln pennies that have sold for more than $10,000.
Finally, the market for MS70 coins as opposed to those in OGP is evolving. I recently attended the Baltimore Expo and had the opportunity to discuss this issue with John Robinson of Edgewood coin store in Florida. He told me that his company pays more for modern coins in their OGP than for slabbed versions, including MS-70’s, which surprised me. In his view thirty party grading is really only suitable for classic coins.
But remember that some coins graded MS70 are worth a lot more than raw or MS69 examples. A case in point is the rare, proof-only 1995-W silver eagle, which has a value in MS70 that is ten times its value in OGP or MS69. In addition, if you are trying to get a good price for an MS70 coin, sell it to a company that specializes in modern coins such as John Maben’s Modern Coin Mart.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. He writes a bi-weekly column for Coin Week called “The Coin Analyst.” He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.