More and more I find myself buying and selling gold coins based on the images on my website and on other websites. Is this a good thing? I am a very strong advocate of the adage that there is absolutely no way that you can accurately grade a coin based on an image. But in today’s Internet-driven numismatic market many collectors and dealers have to make important and potentially expensive decisions based on images.
The reason that I hesitate to make certain decisions based on images is that, frankly, most of them are not very good. The large coin companies, who often handle hundreds if not thousands of coins at a time, are not able to take the time on each coin image that is required for them to be accurate.
There are a few things that I like about coin images. For one, they make nice, original coins look better than the typical coins offered for sale. In the past few years, I have become very “image conscious” when I buy coins. If a coin is overly bright or has funky color, it will not image well and will be a hard coin to sell. If a coin is crusty with dark, natural color and nice surfaces it will image well and, hopefully, be easier to sell.
Coin imaging is still unable to accurately capture a coin’s luster—which is best sensed in three dimensions, with the coin being spun back and forth. That’s one major reason why I am always very hesitant to buy a high grade Uncirculated or Proof coin without seeing it in person. Lower grade coins are different. I feel fairly comfortable buying circulated coins (up to AU50 or so) based on images because on these pieces luster is not an essential characteristic in determining grade.
There are other things to keep in mind when looking at coin images. Many people forget that the typical plastic slab has lots of wear and tear and this often makes the surfaces of coins look scuffy and scratched when they aren’t. In my experience, gold coins in PCGS holders photograph better than those in NGC holders. While I can’t offer scientific explanations as to why this is, my guess is that since coins are jammed tightly into white holders, this makes them a much more difficult subject to image than PCGS coins which float more loosely in clear holders.
As you become more familiar with certain rare coin firms, you learn more about their imaging. All of DWN’s images are taken using natural light and no coins are enhanced with Photoshop or other imaging software. But I can think of at least one major retail firm that blatantly uses Photoshop to make their Proof gold coins seem virtually flawless and an auction company who so totally enhances their color images that the coins in person look absolutely nothing like they do in the catalog.
There is still no substitute for buying coins based on seeing them in person but coin images are clearly getting better all the time and are becoming a huge factor in retail and auction sales. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years, as digital cameras get better and better and new technology emerges that will enable websites to contain three dimension reproductions of coins and other flat objects.