Because of my grading activity at International Coin Certification Service I’m often asked “Do you really use a microscope to grade coins?” This is a regularly asked question because the stereo microscope is one of the first things people see when visiting the ICCS office. To exaggerate matters, I’m usually seen studying a coin with it. Well, the answer is “No, not for normal grading activity”.
A microscope, especially the kind with a lens attachment for each eye, does have a truly useful place in the whole grading process. Obviously it allows one to examine a coin with much higher magnification than that normally afforded by a handheld loupe. But the real benefit comes from the three-dimensional vision one gets by looking at the coin through two eyes instead of the one eye approach of the standard loupe.
I have found this especially useful when grading mint state silver coins that are medium to heavily toned. Their surfaces can be somewhat, obscured because of the toning. To the naked eye a coin may look fantastic because of colourful toning. Even with a hand-held loupe of standard grading magnification (5-6X) it is sometimes quite difficult to see underneath the toning to get a good idea of the coin’s surface condition. This is particularly important with coins that are allegedly mint state or near mint state and for which little outward signs of wear actually show on the coin.
The stereoscope allows the viewer a three dimensional depth of vision not available using only one eye. In effect one has a much greater ability to look underneath the toning to see the surfaces as they really are, not as they are perceived to be (and perhaps falsely because of pretty toning). This isn’t an unfair grading practice. It’s just another way of understanding the coin for what it really is.
What are some of the things toning can hide that will trick a casual grader into thinking a coin is of a higher grade than it really is?
First, there’s rub on all of the coin’s high points. It is amazing how some kinds of toning will totally blind out this first sign of circulation. I’ve seen many expert graders fooled as well. Toning has a way of muting the impact on the grader of some quite large marks too. Somehow they aren’t that noticeable or perhaps as distracting due to the pretty toning that is really the main focus. Toning has a similar hiding capability or muting effect to hairlines on the surface, either a sign of minor circulation of maybe mishandling. Dark toning will totally mask out that halo of field marks around the monarch’s bust, another clear sign of light circulation, whether you see actual wear on the monarch’s design or not.
The stereoscope allows one to get underneath the toning and to take a real look at what’s there. Again, it’s not a cheater’s approach to grading but simply a way of properly seeing the coin for what it really is. The scope isn’t necessary in the same sense with brilliant coins because there is no toning obstruction. All of this is not to indicate that toned coins are inferior to those that are brilliant. Quite the opposite. Many collectors will pay huge price premiums for fantastically toned coins. However one also wants to have confidence in the coin itself and by this is meant, its true state as to lustre, surfaces and strike.
One example that I have seen will support the need for a grader’s access to a stereoscope. This was mind boggling. A Victorian half dollar transacted between dealer and collector and was labelled as MS-62. It was darkly toned with generally a pleasing appearance. The date was a semi key one so the transaction price was in the multi thousand dollar range. The coin looked flashy.
I saw the coin at a coin show where the lighting was less than ideal for expert grading but nevertheless was impressed with what I saw.
Later the new owner brought the coin in for ICCS certification. Using a standard loupe it seemed to me the coin wasn’t quite uncirculated. Something else bothered me but I couldn’t fix on what it was. This is a classic circumstance for which a stereoscope is handy. Immediately I was able to spot the problem, even under the lowest magnification of eight power. The coin had been played with. There were literally hundreds of fine scratchy marks over every open area of the fields, both obverse and reverse.
Under 10 and 20 power the coin looked awful. The electric deep blue toning did an outstanding job of covering all of this up. It was unlikely anyone would spot the mess using a standard handheld loupe with so-so lighting and in the rushed, frantic environment surrounding a coin show.
There are other reasons why visitors to my office might see, me hovering over a stereoscope. One of them is to detect counterfeit coins, whether they are die struck or cast. Another has to do with coin attribution, particularly whether a coin is a fantastic business strike or a specimen. Examples for each of these two areas will be covered in a future article. In conclusion, consider a stereoscope just another useful tool for consideration when trying to professionally grade coins. It is important to judge the coin for what is really is, not what it is casually perceived to be.