How PCGS grade your coins

One of the 6,835 emails I got a few weeks back mentioned a series of webcasts recently recorded by PCGS called “Learn to Grade Coins”. I filed it away to read “when I got time”, which of course meant I didn’t get to it until much later.

Now that I have taken some time to check the videos over, I’m pleased I did.

Reason being, information on the systematic approach required to “grade" coins is incredibly hard to come by in any form

That is the case whether you like the idea of independent grading or not, or whether you rate PCGS as a grading company or not, or whether you think our coins should be sent to the USA or not!

PCGS did publish a book back in 1997 on this subject - "The Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection: Professional Coin Grading Service”. I bought the second (and current) edition of that about 5 years ago when it became pretty clear independent grading was going to be a part of the Australian numismatic landscape, and to be honest, I wish I’d had access to it back when I’d started out in numismatics 15 years earlier. I don’t know that it would have had me aspiring to own only MS70 coins 100% of the time, however I do believe it would have helped me develop some positive habits earlier.

My copy has a lot of underlined lines, highlighted lines and commentary in the margins, all an indication of keen study. Although collecting is an activity that should be relaxed and enjoyable, certain aspects of it require discipline - discipline that shows itself in a systematic approach to identification, authentication and grading.

One of the reasons many collectors take so long to get going when it comes to collecting coins is due to the perceived risks that are involved. That isn’t an imprudent approach to take either, there are considerable risks at play when we're buying coins, the quicker we learn to mitigate those risks, the better.

In my opinion, a successful coin collector will always have discipline and a systematic approach to grading their coins, and I believe the new videos that PCGS has released are an excellent way of starting on that path.

Notice that I’ve said starting on that path - it’d be incredibly naive for us to think that we can master a skill such as coin grading by simply watching a few videos, however I don't think it is unreasonable at all for a collector to get an idea of the areas that need to be considered when grading a coin by reviewing these videos.

Grading coins is developed by experiential learning - a term that Wikipedia defines as being "the process of learning through experience”. We learn many things experientially - riding a bicycle is the most obvious of them. We learn to ride a bicycle by riding a bicycle, and we learn to grade coins by looking at a whole heap of coins. 

These videos give a clear introduction to the main areas to be considered when grading coins (as defined by PCGS), so have the potential to save the novice collector a whole lot of time in their learning process. Knowing what we’re supposed to be making decisions about when assessing coins is a lot further down the track than not knowing the first thing about grading.

I think it’s important to post a few caveats to my endorsement however:

1. The videos are US-centric. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, PCGS is a US-based company after all. The coins used in each video are US coins, so may take something for the average Australian collector to extrapolate what they need from these videos when it comes to Australian coins. That isn’t impossible at all to do however.

2. The videos are a not-too-subtle reminder of the apparent importance of original surfaces and quality when it comes to collecting coins. This might seem to be stating the bleeding obvious, however not all collectors agree that original surfaces and quality are the most important factors to take into account when assessing potential acquisitions. Back in 1989, a national debate was conducted in on this subject in the US, just a few short years after PCGS was established in 1986. A very well-known collector of US coins, John Ford, argued that independent grading was not a positive force in the numismatic industry, and was rather forthright in saying so! You can view video footage of the debate on YouTube via this link - it’s well worth watching if you have even a passing interest in collecting coins. Despite the many valid points that John Ford made in that debate, it would be foolish to ignore the impact that independent grading and PCGS have on the Australian numismatic market now.

There is less than an hour of footage all up, so it isn’t an impossible amount of time to find, particularly if you’re keen on getting started or more knowledgable as a coin collector.

If you’ve watched the videos and have an opinion of them, I’m keen to hear what you think.