"Originality"

“Originality.” It’s one of the most overused terms in all of numismatics. And it’s one of the most misunderstood as well. Given the choice, I believe that most people would rather own an “original” coin instead of one that has clearly had its appearance changed in recent years. With the help of some good quality images, I’d like to show some of the characteristics that I equate with “originality” and offer some suggestions on how to judge if a coin is original or not. The first coin that we are going to look at is an 1844-D quarter eagle graded AU55 by NGC. (Disclosure: this coin is currently in my inventory and it is currently for sale. I am not using this coin as an example in the hope that someone will buy it as I am certain someone will and I don’t need to go to this much trouble to sell it. I am using it to illustrate this report because I believe it represents what I believe is complete originality.)

One other quick topic before we review this 1844-D quarter eagle. My definition of an “original” coin is one that appears to have never been cleaned, lightened or in any way altered. I would be quick to point out that the flaw in this definition is that, of course, there is no way to make such a comment without having had access to this particular coin at all times since 1844. There is always the possibility that, in the 1850’s or the 1860’s (or even the 1960’s), it may have been lightly cleaned. But there are some things to look for on a coin that I think gives a reasonably good assurance that it hasn’t been messed with. The most obvious is hairlines. If a coin has been improperly cleaned at one time, it is going to show hairlines. These may range from subtle to very obvious. If a coin has nice seemingly “original” color but it shows noticeable hairlines, this probably means that it was cleaned years ago and has subsequently retoned. Such a coin may have a natural appearance but, from the standpoint of semantics, it can’t truly be called “original.” You can also look for areas of cloudiness or haze. If a coin has these, the chances are good that something has been applied to the surfaces at one time.

In looking at this coin, there are a few points to note. The first is its depth of coloration. Take a look at the color on the obverse and the reverse and note how the hues in the fields are richer than in the protected areas. On coins with natural color this is generally going to be the case. On a coin that may have been dipped at one time, you are going to see the opposite; the color tends to be lighter at the centers and deeper at the peripheries. Also, note how on this 1844-D quarter eagle there is color present even on the high spots and relief detail. A coin that has been cleaned or dipped typically lacks color on these areas as they are the first places that the original color is lost. Finally, note the depth and intensity of the color. On natural coins, the color is “sharp” in hue and depth. On dipped or cleaned coins, the color tends to be “fuzzier” and less intense.

Secondly, note the patches of dirt or “crust” in the protected areas, especially on the letters in the reverse legend. On coins that have been lightened, this dirt is typically lost.

The third thing to note requires some specific knowledge of a series. This 1844-D quarter eagle has the “right” color for the issue. If you become familiar with the Dahlonega quarter eagle series, you will learn that the original color for the 1844-D tends to be either “bright yellow-gold, light orange-gold or dark coppery-gold.” (this quote is taken directly from my book on Dahlonega coinage, page 98). As you learn more about Dahlonega coins and see more examples in person, you learn what the “right” color is for each specific issue. The color for this 1844-D is as “right” as on any example that I have ever seen.

The second coin that we are going to look at is an 1840-O quarter eagle that is graded AU58 by NGC. This is another piece that is currently in my inventory and the reason that I purchased it was because I thought it had uncommonly attractive and original coloration.

On this coin, note the depth of the color. As they should be, the hues are deeper in the fields than at the borders. The color is very bold in its hue and can be seen with the same degree of intensity on the high spots as in the fields.

On page 52 of my book on New Orleans gold coinage I state that the color of the 1840-O quarter eagle is “a distinctive medium to deep yellow-gold.” The hues on this specific example are, in my opinion, more of a deep green-gold with reddish overtones. Why the discrepancy from the description in my book? This is a hard question to answer but my guess has to do with how this coin was stored. To me, it has the look of a piece that may have been housed in an old manila envelope or even in a leather pouch.

If you do not know this series well, you are probably thinking that this coin exhibits a considerable amount of wear at the centers and that this lightness may, in fact, be signs of an old cleaning. This is incorrect. Many 1840-O quarter eagles are weakly struck at the obverse and reverse center (this specific coin actually has a fairly decent overall strike) and have a slightly “sunken” look as a result. Although it is hard to tell from the image, this coin shows natural coloration even in the vertical shield lines which is another good indicator of its originality.

Coins that are not original often have foreign substances applied to them in an attempt to hide imperfections such as obvious marks or strong hairlines. The foreign substance(s) may not be visible at the time the coin is sent to a grading service but it usually becomes noticeable after time has passed and its chemical composition has changed. Notice on this 1840-O quarter eagle how all the marks on the surfaces are plainly visible and nothing is being “hidden.”

Let’s look at one final coin that I believe is totally original. This is an 1856-S Type Two gold dollar graded AU58 by NGC. This is an issue that is very hard to find with original color and surfaces, especially in higher grades. There is strong motivation to make a properly graded AU58 magically become an MS60 or an MS61 as evidenced by the fact that Trends jumps from $6,500 in AU58 to $12,000 in MS60.

The first thing to note about this 1856-S gold dollar is the depth and evenness of the coloration. There isn’t a coin doctor alive who has figured out (at least yet...) how to make color on a 150+ year old gold coin look 150+ years old. Notice the warmth and the depth of the color that this coin has--that’s something that just can’t be faked. Notice also that there is a good deal of luster peeking out through the depth of the aforementioned coloration. This luster can be seen most easily in the image from around 9:00 to 12:00 on the obverse border, alongside the portrait, at the left reverse and inside the wreath. Notice as well how consistent the coloration is on the obverse and reverse. Often times when someone has recolored a coin, they are lazy and only enhance one side or if they do both sides, one is done better than the other.

If you are not familiar with the strike of 1856-S Type Two dollars, you are probably wondering why the hair around the face appears so flat. This has to do with the design of the Type Two gold dollar and it is the exact reason why this design was discontinued in 1856. The highest spot on the obverse was exactly opposite the highest spot on the reverse and this made it nearly impossible for Type Two gold dollars to be well struck. In fact, this 1856-S is actually very well struck by the standards of the date and the variety and it lacks the pronounced central weakness and heavy clashmarks that are so often seen on examples of this short-lived type.

One last point before I close. I have mentioned time and time again that you can not accurately grade a coin based on an image. But I do think you can get a good idea if a coin is original or not, provided that the quality of the image is as good as the ones on my website or on a few other dealer and auction websites. Please note that this article was NOT intended to try and teach you how to grade. It was intended to give you an idea of what I believe are very original coins and how such coins should look.

Misc. Reader Questions

was recently asked a few interesting questions by a reader and thought it might be interesting to answer them. In no order, here they are: Q: In auction catalog descriptions, are there certain giveaways that lead you to think the cataloger doesn’t like the coin?

A: A good auction cataloger is like a good journalist: impartial and able to state facts without imposing personal prejudices. That said, catalogers are only human and it is possible to “read between the lines” and figure out subtle hints that catalogers don’t like the coins they are describing. I’ve always thought a good clue was when the cataloger talks about every possible thing except the coin itself. In other words, he mentions the coin’s rarity, its history and its contextual significance but “forgets” to mention what the coin itself looks like. There are other little clues like describing a circulated coin as “bright” or referring to coloration as “unusual” or “smoky” or “hazy.” I’d also beware of instances when a readily visible mark isn’t mentioned. If a mark is mentioned, it generally isn’t that bad. If it is “overlooked” than it is often so bad that the cataloger can’t find a way to nicely mention it.

Q: Why are different gold coins different colors?

A: There are actually two different answers to this question: the classic, “old school” answer and the “today’s market” answer. In the classic sense, a gold coin is a certain color because of the alloy used in its production. As an example, early Charlotte and Dahlonega gold often used Appalachian gold which had a considerable amount of silver included in the alloy. As a result, these coins often display a green-gold color. San Francisco coins used gold from California which had a high copper content which gave the gold a reddish or rose-gold tint. Unfortunately, few circulated gold coins remain that have not been dipped or which have not been recolored. Today’s color gradations are often more a result of the chemical that was used in recoloring the surfaces. As an example, many gold coins are seen with an unnatural tangerine-orange hue which is the result of a certain type of chemical used to recolor the surfaces.

Q: Why are NGC gold coin populations so much higher than PCGS populations?

A: I think there are two answers. The first and more politically correct is that NGC simply grades more rare date gold coins than PCGS does. Many of the major submitters of these coins send the majority of their coins to NGC and, thus, more have been graded. This is especially true with Liberty Head issues. For 20th century gold coinage, PCGS has actually graded a fairly comparable number of coins and, in the case of certain generic issues, they have actually graded more than NGC. I notice a huge difference between populations on rare dates in AU58. I think the reason for this is the combination of the fact that NGC is looser with this grade than PCGS and PCGS has done a better job, especially of late, in cleaning up their population report.

Do you have any interesting questions? Please send me an email and, if possible, I will answer them at some point in the future.

Coloration and United States Gold Coins

In my article entitled "Five Components of Grading" (November 2001), I touched upon coloration and the role it plays in determining the grade of a gold coin. In this brief article, we'll look at the natural coloration found on gold coins from each of the seven mints that produced gold issues in the 18th and 19th century. Carson City

Carson City gold coins can be neatly packaged into three distinct eras: those struck during the 1870's, the 1880's and the 1890's. Some of the gold used to make these coins was from local Nevada mines and it displays a distinctive natural hue.

The coins from the 1870's are usually seen with extremely heavy wear. Half eagles and eagles from this decade often have a dark green-gold or slightly coppery hue. The coins from the 1880's tend to have richer green-gold or orange-gold color. The coins from the 1890's often have very nice shadings with rich green-gold or orange-gold hues. On a few issues, the borders may show a ring of deeper color that nicely contrasts the lighter shades seen in the center.

It is much easier to find coins from the 1890's with pleasing original color than on issues from the other two decades. Many half eagles and eagles from the 1870's are essentially unknown with fully original color. Issues such as the 1891-CC half eagle and the 1891-CC eagle are relatively easy to find with nice color.

Double eagles tend to be the easiest denomination from this mint to locate with good color. This is primarily due to the fact that more relatively high grade examples of this denomination are known than half eagles or eagles.

Due to the popularity of Carson City gold coinage with collectors, good coloration is an important consideration in determining grade and value.

Charlotte

Much of the gold used at the Charlotte mint was mined in western North Carolina. The natural composition of this gold was rich in copper ore. Thus, many Charlotte gold coins (especially those struck before 1850) have a distinctive orange-gold or reddish-gold coloration. On later issues, this color tends to be a more green-gold in hue. This is due to the fact that more gold from California (with a higher silver content) was used.

For some reason, the Charlotte coins with the best coloration are the Type One gold dollars (1849-1853) and the half eagles produced during the early part of the 1840's. It is very hard to locate any of the quarter eagles from the 1850's with attractive, even coloration.

Well over 75% of all Charlotte gold coins have been cleaned or dipped and no longer show any hint of original color. Charlotte gold coins with attractive original color are beginning to command a premium, although not as much so as their counterparts from Dahlonega.

Dahlonega

The gold that was used to make Dahlonega gold coins from 1838 until the early 1850's had a high amount of silver within its natural composition. This provided many of the coins from this era with a distinctive green-gold hue. On issues struck after 1850, more gold from the western deposits was employed and the color tends to show more of a reddish-gold hue.

As with the Charlotte gold coins, Type One Dahlonega gold dollars (1849-1854) and certain half eagles from the 1840's (and even into the 1850's) are more likely to be seen with good color than the other issues from this mint. With a few exceptions (such as the 1857-D), quarter eagles from this mint are very hard to locate with nice color. The same holds true for Type Two Dahlonega gold dollars and three dollar gold pieces. As a rule of thumb, the rarer and more popular a certain date is from this mint, the more likely it is to be found without original color.

Well over 75% of all Dahlonega coins have been cleaned or dipped and no longer show original color. This is a very popular series with collectors and their level of sophistication tends to be higher than other branch mint specialists. Dahlonega coins with pleasing natural color currently command high premiums; more so than from any other branch mint.

Denver

The Denver mint produced gold coins from 1906 to 1931, with the majority of the production occurring in the 1910's and the 1920's. They struck half eagles, eagles and double eagles. For the most part, these coins have a fairly consistent natural coloration. Medium to deep yellow gold shadings with pale rose and orange-gold undertones are most often seen on high grade, original pieces.

The Denver issues that tend to show especially nice color include the 1906-D and 1907-D Liberty Head double eagles and the St. Gaudens double eagles from the 1920's. The half eagles and eagles from the 1910's often have a naturally grainy type of luster and their coloration is slightly more subdued.

It is still reasonably easy to locate Denver gold coins with attractive natural color. There are some exceptions, like the 1911-D eagle, which is an issue that is often found cleaned or dipped. At this point, very few people specialize in Denver gold, so there are no real premiums accorded to coins with superb original color.

New Orleans

Unlike its southern counterparts from Charlotte and Dahlonega, this mint had a very long period of operation (1838-1909). New Orleans coins from fall into two neat categories: Without Motto (struck at this mint from 1840-1861) and With Motto (1879-1904).

Without Motto coins are usually seen well worn and have often been cleaned. Coins with original color often have a distinctive deep green-gold hue. Some issues, such as the 1847-O eagle, are found with bright yellow-gold color while others, such as the 1854-O eagle, have a more orange-gold appearance.

With Motto coins from New Orleans are found with less wear than their Without Motto counterparts. Eagles from the 1892-1904 era are sometimes seen with attractive deep natural color, including medium orange-gold and deeper green-gold.

It is very hard to locate New Orleans gold coins with original attractive, especially those struck prior to 1890. When available, these coins tend to bring premiums among knowledgeable collectors.

Philadelphia

Due to better quality control and more consistent bullion sources, there is less variation seen in the coloration of Philadelphia gold coins than on the branch mint issues.

All early gold coinage (i.e., those issues made before 1834) were struck exclusively at this mint. Early gold is very hard to find with original color as the majority of pieces have been cleaned or dipped. Coins that are original tend to show medium to deep orange-gold hues. They often trade for strong premiums among specialists and type collectors.

Liberty Head issues from Philadelphia are divided into Without Motto (1838-1865) and With Motto (1866-1907) types. The Without Motto coins are more difficult to locate with original color. When available they tend to show green-gold or light orange hues.

Due to larger mintage figures and hoarding, many With Motto issues from this mint are relatively available in higher grades. There are some extremely attractive Philadelphia gold coins from this era and they show hues ranging from green-gold to rose and light orange.

Collectors tend to be more focused on specific rarities or types from this mint as opposed to putting together date sets. On certain rare, low mintage issues such as the 1881 quarter eagle or the 1863 eagle, coloration is important. On other more common issues, coloration is not as significant factor in determining grade and value.

San Francisco

Despite the publicity of the S.S. Central America and Brother Jonathan shipwrecks, both of which contained thousands of San Francisco double eagles, gold coins from this mint are not as popular as those from the southern mints. This is somewhat ironic, given the fact that the quality of the coins from San Francisco far exceeds those from Charlotte, New Orleans, or Dahlonega.

San Francisco gold coins from the 1850's and the 1860's (with the exception of certain double eagles) are usually seen in lower grades and have often been cleaned. The issues from the late 1870's though the early 1900's are seen more often in higher grades. The natural color on these coins is often outstanding. Hues of rose-gold, green-gold and medium orange are often present.

Indian Head gold from this mint also displays a wide range of color. Half eagles and eagles from San Francisco tend to have granular luster which subsequently shows somewhat subdued color. St. Gaudens double eagles, especially those struck in the 1920's, often have rich frosty luster and attractive vibrant rose and orange-gold hues.

Due to a relative lack of collector support, there is not currently a strong demand for San Francisco gold coins with attractive natural hues. Many of the earlier issues from this mint are exceptionally hard to find with nice color and may command a premium in the future.