PCGS Hires a New Grader and Some Thoughts on Third-Party Grading

I’ve used this forum in the past as a venue to criticize the grading services. So, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due and congratulate PCGS on their new hire as a grader, Charlie Browne. I’ve known Charlie for the better part of two decades. He was last employed by Certified Asset Management, a wholesale firm and market maker of high-end US coins.

Charlie is an old school New England coin dealer; one of the last of the “smart and fair” guys (along with Warren Mills from RCNH and a few others) that used to include such now-retired luminaries as Ed Leventhal, Russ Vaughn, Chris Tracey and Jay Miller.

Here’s what I’ve always admired about Charlie. He’s a guy who gets by with a great eye for coins; not an ability to bake/putty/smoke/laser them. I’ve always liked doing business with Charlie: he’s a square shooter, he paid-up for nice coins and his inventory always had more choice, original pieces than most dealers. He’s going to make a great addition to the PCGS staff.

For the most part, I’m pretty impressed by PCGS and NGC’s ability to get it right when it comes to grading. But I’ve always had two basic complaints when it comes to the whole concept of third-party certification. The first is that graders are continually looking at coins that are out of their comfort zone. I think that I can grade 18th and 19th century gold as well as anyone but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to series like Buffalo Nickels and Walkers. How can PCGS and NGC expect their graders to be experts, simultaneously, in Indian Cents and Pattern silver dollars?

My second issue has to do with real-world experience. I love the fact that in Charlie Browne, PCGS now has a world-class grader on staff who has spent the last few decades buying and selling coins. You can read about grading, you can take grading classes, you can set yourself up as an expert on grading in chat rooms, etc. But there’s only one way to really, truly learn how to grade: you have to buy and sell coins and you have to do it in a situation where mistakes are going to hit you directly in the pocketbook.

Looking back over my two+ decade career as a professional dealer, my most vivid and memorable grading experiences haven’t been the big hits. They’ve been the situations where I made a titanic mistake; one that cost me financially. Trust me, there is nothing more humbling and more experiential than buying an early half eagle, paying MS63 money for it, having it come back a grade or two lower and, after much consternation, regrading and grumbling, selling it for a $10,000 loss. Unless you have absolutely no conscience, these mistakes teach you a lot!

Getting back to Charlie Browne and PCGS, what I really like about this hire is the “fresh eyes” that he will bring to the PCGS grading room. The more I think about it, the more I wish that both PCGS and NGC would bring in “guest graders” every few months. Guys like Charlie know the current market standards for most series, they know when the services are being too tight or too loose and they know that “look” that has the most commercial appeal.

When they coin market was in great shape a few years ago, I would imagine that the pool of potential graders that PCGS and NGC had to pick from was pretty unimpressive (or the impressive guys were probably pricing themselves at levels about two or three times their true market value...). Now that the market has contracted and some of the high-flyers are, shall we say “grounded,” the talent pool is probably a lot more impressive. For a variety of reasons, PCGS can now hire a world-class guy like Charlie Browne and I wouldn’t be surprised if NGC is in negotiation with their own impressive guy(s).

So, here’s to the Charlie Browne/PCGS situation working out well for everyone involved. I know that I’m excited about this announcement and I think Charlie will be a great addition to the PCGS staff.