Luster Pros and Cons

Luster - Pros and Cons - Gold coins basically come with three types of luster: satiny, frosty and prooflike. In this blog, I’m going to discuss these three “looks” and the pros/cons of each. I’ll also add an illustration of each look. And away we go... The most common luster seen on United States gold coins, especially those from the 19th century, is frosty in texture. Frosty luster can be extremely attractive. I would describe it to the new collector as having a “hard” look and it is most associated, in my experience, with coins produced at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints.


Frosty luster is considered a “plus” by most collectors. Unfortunately, this sort of luster is becoming harder to find as more and more gold coins are chemically treated. Coins with original frosty luster have what I call a “wagon wheel” effect where the luster flows clockwise and appears to almost radiate out from the center of the coin.

Some of the series that are famous for having above-average frosty luster include the Fat Head quarter eagles and half eagles from the 1820’s and 1830’s, Classic Head gold, No Motto Philadelphia issues and Three Dollar gold pieces.

Another type of luster seen on United States gold coins is satiny in texture. Satiny luster tends to be less attractive than frosty luster but it can be very appealing. I would describe it to the new collector as having a “soft” look and it is often seen on branch mint coins from the 19th century and on San Francisco issues from the 20th century.

For the new collector, satiny luster is more difficult to understand and appreciate than frosty luster. This is due to the fact that it is more subtle in its appearance. As an example, the luster on the coin shown above is excellent in-hand and shows very few breaks in the fields. But most collectors would think this coin has a considerable amount of wear; due to its subtle luster and, obviously, the weakness of strike at the centers.

In my experience, satiny luster is more often seen on New Orleans issues, Civil War era gold and some of the Reconstruction era Philadelphia issues.

The third and final major type of luster is prooflike. When dies are readied for production they are polished and/or rubbed with a cloth in order to make them appear bright and “new.” This polish fades rather quickly and certain issues are almost never seen with mirror-like reflectiveness. As an example, I have seen very few Prooflike coins from Charlotte and Dahlonega and only a handful from New Orleans.

Generally speaking, 19th century gold coins with very low original mintage figures tend to have prooflike surfaces more often than not. As an example, the 1890 quarter eagle pictured above is an issue with a mintage of only 8,720 and it is often found with reflective surfaces. Some of the other types of coins that are sometimes seen with prooflike surfaces include Philadelphia Type Three gold dollars, Philadelphia quarter eagles from the 1870’s and 1880’s, Three Dollar gold pieces and Liberty Head double eagles from the 1890’s.

I personally have mixed emotions about prooflike gold coins. Due to the fact that gold is a soft metal, the surfaces tend to easily pick up marks, nicks and scratches and these tend to be strongly amplified by deep, reflective fields. Unless a Prooflike gold coin is a Gem, it tends to have a “scruffy” appearance and may have compromised eye appeal as a result.

There are two interesting subtypes of prooflike coins that the collector should be aware of. The first are coins that are Deep Mirror Prooflike. These are coins with especially reflective surfaces and a look that can be deceptively similar to that of a Proof. As an example, there are certain gold dollars from the 1880’s that are extremely hard to tell apart from Proofs. Generally speaking, many of the gold coins that are designated as Deep Mirror Prooflike by NGC command strong premiums, especially for issues that are generally seen with frosty or satiny surfaces.

The other subtype is semi-prooflike. A semi-prooflike coin, as one might guess, is a coin that has a blend of mirror-like reflectiveness along with either satiny or frosty luster.

As a gold coin collector becomes more sophisticated and sees more coins, he is likely to see pieces that have a wide variety of luster types. By becoming more familiar with these various types of luster, he will become a better coin buyer and better able to purchase coins that are choice and original.

What Constitutes Originality?

The term “original” gets thrown around a lot these days. I should know; I probably use (and overuse) this term as much as anyone. But as much as this term is used, I think there is considerable confusion and disagreement over what original actually means. As it applies to 18th and 19th century United States gold, the concept of originality fits just a small percentage of actual coins. Unless you can trace a complete history of a coin, it is essentially impossible to state with certainty that it is truly original—i.e., it has never been cleaned or in anyway enhanced.

So what exactly do I think constitutes originality? I think it’s easier to explain what “isn’t original” than what “is original.”

A coin that is original has the right color for the issue. On rare gold coins, a give-away that a coin has “bad” color is when it is a bright orange or intense reddish-gold hue. This bad color tends to be artificially applied and it is generally done in an attempt to hide hairlines or surface problems. Original color tends to be a medium to deep green-gold or rose-gold hue. In all of the books that I’ve written, I’ve mentioned the color(s) that I’ve observed on specific gold issues. I highly suggest that you read these books when you are making a purchasing decision.

An original coin has surfaces that lack obtrusive hairlines. When a coin is cleaned, it tends to show hairlines. But here’s where a sticky subject comes up: what about a coin that was cleaned 75 or even 100 years ago and which has now naturally retoned in deep hues atop these hairlines. Is it original? Strictly speaking, no. Is it desirable? If the coloration is attractive and the hairlines are not too dense, absolutely. One has to operate under the assumption that virtually all 18th and 19th century United States gold coins have been cleaned at one time and light, unobtrusive hairlines can’t be considered as a detriment when calling a coin “original.”

An original coin also has luster that has not been significantly impaired (assuming, of course, that it does not have enough wear that the luster has been lost). When a coin is cleaned or processed, the luster is changed. Non-impaired luster has a circular or “cartwheel” pattern. When it is disturbed, the luster no longer rotates in a circular pattern. It becomes irregular and it appears to “jump” as opposed to spinning.

A coin that is original also does not have any sort of putty or “gunk” that has been applied to the surfaces in an attempt to hide imperfections. This can usually be determined by the presence of dull or whitish areas that can be seen when a coin is viewed in a good light source.

In summary, a coin that is original is none of the following:

    It has not been recolored.

    It is not unduly bright or shiny.

    It does not have an abundance of hairlines, especially on both sides.

It does not have any foreign substances on the surfaces that were applied in an attempt to hide imperfections.

Given the fact that so few coins meet these stringent criteria, can the collector who favors original coins actually ever expect to find anything for his collection? I would say that the answer is yes.

There are still a decent number of coins that are either original or which have an “original appearance.” (Perhaps this last term is actually more accurate, given the fact that no one can state with absolute certainty that a 150 year old coin has or hasn’t been completely untouched in its long and winding road through numismatics and/or commerce).

Coins that have a good provenance tend to have an original appearance more often that coins that just happen to show up on Ebay. I think we can state with relative certainty that collectors like Mrs. Norweb and Louis Eliasberg were not sitting at home doctoring their gold coins.

Is original always best? That’s an interesting subjective question. There are gold coins with coloration that I refer to as “Euro” which have very dark hues caused by years and years of sitting undisturbed in bags in European vaults. This color is clearly natural but it can be pretty ugly; even to a purist like me who loves coloration on coins. In the case of a coin with dark Euro-grime on it, I could certainly see washing it in soap and water to remove the top layer of dirt. Once this is done, is the coin technically “original?” Or has it been processed? A smart dealer I know once told me that if a coin has been processed in a solution that isn’t lethal to humans upon drinking it is still natural. As you can see, this becomes a matter of semantics that is very difficult to answer.

The bottom line is that there IS clearly a “look” that coins that are perceived to be original do have. This look is appealing to sophisticated collectors and dealers and few coins display it.

Prooflike Gold Coins

Are Prooflike gold coins an interesting future collecting trend or are they yet another piece of clever marketing hype? Yes and possibly yes. Business strike gold coins are usually frosty or satiny in texture. Occasionally, a group of coins are struck from newly-polished dies and they show reflective surfaces. Such coins are termed as “prooflike” by collectors. There are certain issues, such as gold dollars from the 1870’s and 1880’s and three dollar gold pieces from the same era that are frequently encountered with prooflike surfaces. This is due to the fact that these issues have low mintage figures and most were struck from fresh, new dies.

In the case where most examples of a specific date come prooflike, a coin designated as “prooflike” is, in my opinion, not interesting nor is it worth a premium. The one exception might be in the case where a coin has a very reflective or “deep mirror” surfaces.

Other issues are rarely seen with prooflike surfaces. As an example, a small number of New Orleans eagles from the 1840’s are found with very reflective surfaces.

In the case where only a fraction of examples of a certain date come prooflike, a coin designated as “prooflike” is, in my opinion worth a premium. It can be worth a significant premium if the prooflike surfaces add considerably to the coin’s overall eye appeal.

What about very common coins like 1904 double eagles that are sometimes seen with Prooflike surfaces? In my opinion, if a 1904 double eagle is slightly prooflike or reflective only on one side it is worth no premium. If the coin is very reflective and actually resembles a Proof, then it is worth a premium. This begs the question: exactly how much of a premium? At this point it is hard to say. No one really knows how rare Prooflike coins are, on a relative and absolute basis. As the grading services collect more data from submissions of prooflike gold coins, perhaps it will be possible to know the answer.

My advice on Prooflike gold is to go ahead and buy pieces with very reflective mirror surfaces but just don’t get caught up and pay huge premiums in a market for which value levels are still highly speculative.

Grading Early United States Gold Coins

For a variety of reasons, early gold coins are among the most difficult United States issues to grade. There is often discrepancy in grading these coins, even between experts. While it is impossible to teach a collector how to grade based on digital images, I thought it might be a good idea to display a few pre-1834 gold coins here and analyze them as to why they grade the way they do. Before looking at these specific coins, there are a few things to consider. First are the reasons why these issues are more difficult to grade than 20th century pieces. The basic reason is the pre-1834 United States gold coins are, for the most part, hand-produced items made on old-fashioned screw presses while later-date issues are mass-produced items that were struck using more modern steam presses.

As I have discussed in other articles about grading, there are five components that experts take into consideration when examining an early gold coin: strike, surface preservation, coloration, luster and eye appeal.

Strike is a relatively important factor in grading early gold but it does require a good degree of attendant knowledge. As an example, it would be incorrect for someone to penalize an issue such as an 1806/4 quarter eagle for being weakly struck at the center as all known examples exhibit weakness in this area. Conversely, an issue such an 1812 half eagle which is generally seen with a good strike might be properly penalized if an example had a very weak strike.

Surface preservation is very important when determining the grade of an early gold coin. If a coin has deep marks in key focal points (i.e., on the face of Liberty or in the left obverse field) this will certainly cause a deduction in grade. One confusing area in relation to early issues is adjustment marks. These are parallel scratches that were intentionally placed on overweight coins in an attempt to get them to conform to then-current weight standards. Generally speaking, unobtrusive adjustment marks do not cause a coin's grade to be lowered. Marks that are positioned in prime focal areas are considered negatives and may cause the grade to be lowered.

Since so few early gold coins show original coloration, this is no longer a critical factor in determining grade. If a coin that has the detail of an About Uncirculated-50 has very pretty original color, it is almost certain to be bumped up to at least an About Uncirculated-55 grade if not higher. Lack of color will not be a penalizing factor but the presence of good color is certainly a big plus for any early gold issue.

Luster is an extremely important factor in determining the grade of an early gold coin. Given the fact that so many pieces are poorly struck, show heavy marks or possess mint-made faults, the amount of luster that is present is a tangible fact that does not require great expertise to determine. In other words, an early gold coin either has luster or it doesn't and the amount that is present is a great aid in determining how much--if any--wear the piece has.

For any coin, the overall level of eye appeal is the single key element in determining grade (and value). When an expert grader looks at an early gold coin, the first thing he considers is the "look" of the coin. Is it attractive or unattractive? How does it compare to other examples of this date or type that he has seen?

Included below are good quality digital images of a few early gold coins that I have recently sold. After you view each image, I suggest you apply each of the five grading components I just discussed. Then, read my comments as they relate to the coin's strike, surface preservation, luster, coloration and eye appeal. I am going to list the actual grade for each coin at the end of this article so don't cheat and look at the grades before trying to determine what you think they grade!

1. 1801 Eagle

My first impression is that this is a fresh, original and attractive coin. It shows some weakness of strike at the stars on the right obverse but the rest of the detail is very sharp.

The surfaces are relatively well preserved. There are some scuffmarks in the obverse fields which are not overly detracting. The only significant abrasion is a reeding mark on Liberty's face. There is no rub on the cheek or signs of wear on the high spots, which means that this is an Uncirculated piece.

The luster is excellent. The obverse is very frosty while the reverse is more prooflike. Even if I had never seen another Eagle of this date or type, I would assume that the luster is decidedly above-average.

The coloration is a rich orange-gold hue which, from the image, looks original due to its evenness. Again, this is a very big plus and I would assume that not many 1801 eagles show this lovely coloration.

The overall eye appeal is very high. With the exception of the mark on the cheek of Liberty, I see no negatives about this coin. It is unquestionably "new" and it seems to be choice, based on its sharpness, luster and color.

2. 1803/2 Half Eagle

My first impression of this coin is that is has superb color and is about as original as one could hope for. It shows some light, even wear but is as attractive a circulated early gold coin as one might hope to find.

The surfaces of this coin are exceptional. Other than some light friction in the fields (which can be distinguished from weakness of strike by the difference of color between these areas and the high spots) there are no readily noticeable marks.

The luster is mostly obscured by the depth of the coloration. If the viewer looks at the protected areas (i.e., within the stars and around the date) he can see some traces of luster which would be more clear if the coin were lightened.

The best feature of this coin is its stunning deep reddish-gold color. This is what a 200 year old gold coin that is totally original should look like and it adds at least three (if not five) points to the overall grade. No more than 5% of all early gold coins show original color and just a smaller number have this lovely (and desirable) reddish-gold hue.

This is a very attractive, nearly flawless coin with just a bit of light wear noted. Its nice color, clean surfaces and originality give it a very strong degree of eye appeal.

3. 1830 Quarter Eagle

With the advent of new technology in the late 1820's, the quality of strike improved on United States gold coins. The reduced sized Capped Head Left quarter eagle was produced from 1829 to 1834 and it is generally found with good detail and a much better "look" than the quarter eagles produced from 1796 to 1808. This type did not circulate much and when available, survivors tend to come in relatively high grades.

My first impression about this coin is that it is very fresh and bright. It shows some marks in the fields but its vibrancy is enough to make these marks seem unimportant. It is important to remember on a coin like this that the number of marks that are present is not as important as their severity. In other words, a number of small scuffmarks in the obverse fields (as on this coin) are not as important as a few deep, detracting marks in similar areas.

This coin has excellent luster that is more suggestive of a late 19th century issue than one from 1830. From the image, it appears that the luster is very frosty in its texture with some slight reflectiveness in the fields. It appears to be unbroken and relatively undisturbed, leading the viewer to believe that this is an Uncirculated piece.

The coloration is an even medium to deep yellow and green-gold. It is attractive and even if the viewer has never seen another example of this date, this hue should appear to be well above-average.

The overall level of eye appeal is excellent. This is clearly an unworn coin that has a good strike, pleasing surfaces, great luster and nice color.

4. 1807 Bust Right Half Eagle

So how have you done so far? Getting more comfortable grading these early coins? Well don't get too comfortable because I've saved the hardest coin for last.

The 1807 Bust Right half eagle is the final year of issue for this type. It is found with a number of varieties as well as many different looks. This example is a late die state with a "sunken" look noted on the obverse.

But is the weakness at the center strike-related or is it wear? The answer lies in the fact that the luster on this coin is full with no breaks noted in the fields or on the high spots.

I stated earlier in this article that strike is the least important factor when grading an early gold coin. This is true but in the case of this piece, where the important central detail on the obverse has been partially obscured, it is likely that a grader will deduct some points from this coin's overall grade.

In addition, the surfaces show a number of marks. It is likely that this coin was transported loose in a bag from bank to bank in the early 19th century and in the process it picked-up some noticeable marks.

Not everything about this coin, however, is a negative. It has great luster and the coloration is lovely with rich green-gold and lemon hues strongly suggesting that it has never been cleaned or dipped.

While not everyone will agree with me, I happen to like this coin quite a bit. I am a stickler for originality and I would personally rather own a weakly struck, somewhat "baggy" early half eagle than one which was sharper and less marked-up but which was washed-out from having been overzealously dipped.

Early gold is an area where gaining knowledge will give the collector a decided advantage when making purchases. Given the fact that these are expensive coins, I would suggest that careful study is in order. For more information on grading early gold coins or on early gold in general please feel free to email me at

The grades of the coins listed above are as follows:

    1801 Eagle: PCGS Mint State-63

    1803/2 Half Eagle: NGC About Uncirculated-55

    1830 Quarter Eagle: PCGS Mint State-63

    1807 Bust Right Half Eagle: NGC Mint State-61

The Five Components of Coin Grading

A "grade" is a shorthand devised by numismatists to indicate the appearance of a coin. In other words, if one collector tells another that he has an About Uncirculated-50 Charlotte half eagle, both collectors should have an expectation of what the coin should look like, even if one has never seen it, due to the implications of its grade. For many years, there were a relatively small number of adjectival grades. Grading became more "scientific" in the 1940's when the numerical grading scale was invented by Dr. William Sheldon. This scale, which ranged from 1 to 70, was originally devised to ascertain values of 1793-1814 Large Cents by ascribing a basal value to each variety and multiplying this value by the grade in order to determine a price.

The Sheldon grading scale is now used by most numismatists. Newcomers tend to complain that there are "too many grades" but experienced graders appreciate that there can be a huge range in quality between specific ranges.

To better understand coin grading, it is important to study the major components of grade. When I grade a coin, I employ five important individual components which, when taken into consideration as a whole, help me determine my opinion of a coin's grade. These individual components are strike, surface preservation, luster, coloration and eye appeal.

Strike: The strike of a coin refers to the process of stamping a design onto a planchet or a blank. A coin can have either a strong or a weak strike. Much of this depends on a coin's design. As an example, certain designs (such as the Type II gold dollar) have the highest relief element on the obverse directly aligned with the highest relief element on the reverse. This means that weakly struck coins are the rule for these designs. Other designs (such as the Indian Head quarter eagle) may be found with sharp strikes on certain issues and weak strikes on others.

Generally speaking, strike is not a major element in determining the grade of a coin unless it is in a series in which value is related to strike. In a series such as Mercury Dimes, where a PCGS MS-66 1945 dime is worth $15 and the same coin with a full strike (designated in this series as "Full Bands") is worth $7,500, strike is a huge element. In all but a handful of circumstances, strike does not play a critical role in determining the value or United States gold coins.

Surface Preservation: The number of marks on a coin and their placement are important factors in determining grade. There is no set formula that says "X" number of marks on a coin's surface means that it grades "Y." But there are some fairly normalized standards in terms of the importance of an abrasion's location.

If a very nice coin has a deep mark that it is well-hidden on the reverse, it tends not to be severely penalized. But if the exact same mark was located in a prominent focal point on the obverse (the cheek on a Liberty Head double eagle, as an example) it would be penalized considerably more.

Coins that have a very open, uncluttered design tend to show marks more obviously than those with tight, compact designs. For this reason, the intensity of the marks on a Liberty double eagle play a greater role in determining grade than on a Type Three gold dollar.

Certain types of coins are known for showing greater concentrations of marks than others. As an example, the quarter eagles struck from 1821 to 1834 did not see ready circulation. They tend to have reasonably clean surfaces. Indian Head quarter eagles, on the other hand, saw a greater degree of circulation. It is much harder to find examples that do not have the marks, scratches and scuffmarks associated with circulation and/or poor handling.

On United States gold coins, surface preservation is very important in determining grade.

Luster: Depending on the design, mint of origin and the metal used a coin may have a variety of surface textures. These include satiny, frosty, semi-prooflike and prooflike. When analyzing the surface of a coin in regards to grade, there are two things to look for: the amount of the original surface (or "skin") that is intact and the amount (and location) of marks.

There is really not one type of surface that is "better" than another. In certain series, such as Morgan dollars, premiums are paid for pieces with mirror-like surfaces. In most other series, prooflike coins may be regarded as interesting but not necessarily worth a premium.

On 19th century United States gold coins, I am most fond of a frosty texture. This texture can be found on issues from all mints but it is most closely associated with Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Luster is especially important in determining if a coin is Uncirculated or not. A Mint State coin is, technically, free of wear and should not have major breaks in the luster. However, this is often not the case for coins graded Mint State-60 and Mint State-61. These coins will typically show breaks in the luster; perhaps as a result of a light cleaning or "rub" that occurs from improper storage in an album. A coin that is not Uncirculated will show a greater amount of breaks in the luster and, obviously, a smaller amount of luster.

Luster is another very important component in determining the grade of a United States gold coin.

Coloration: Color is the most subjective factor in determining grade. A coin is either well struck or it's not well struck; this is not open to debate. But a gold coin that shows deep green-gold color may be attractive to one viewer and unattractive to another. In my opinion, attractive original coloration greatly enhances the appearance of a coin.

Gold is a relatively inert metal and not subject to as much variance in coloration as silver or copper. However, a wide range of colors may be present on gold coins.

Coins from the Charlotte and Dahlonega mints have very distinctive coloration as a result of the amount of silver or copper that was part of the gold found in these sources. Philadelphia and San Francisco pieces have much different coloration.

The majority of United States gold coins have been cleaned or dipped at one time. As a result, they no longer display original coloration. As collectors become more savvy, they are often attracted to coins with pleasing natural color. In many series, it is almost impossible to find original pieces. In the near future, it is likely that totally original pieces will be accorded a strong premium over "typical" examples.

Color is not as important a factor in determining the grade of a gold coin as it is on a silver or copper coin.

Eye Appeal: The four individual components listed above, when combined, form an all-encompassing component that is called "eye appeal." This is a fairly self-explanatory term. A coin that has good eye appeal may be very strong in one area (excellent luster, for example) and good in another (nice but not great color). If a coin is negative in one area (very heavy marks, for example) but acceptable in all others, it is still likely to be noted as having below-average eye appeal.

The concept of eye appeal seems subjective but it is really not. Most sophisticated coin buyers will agree that a certain coin has good or bad eye appeal. But it does require a certain level of knowledge to make this determination.

There are some specific dates or types that almost always come with poor eye appeal and a coin that is somewhat attractive may be considered to have good eye appeal "for the date." As an example, all known 1870-CC double eagles have heavily abraded surfaces. A coin that has typical marks but none located in very prime focal points may be looked at as having good eye appeal for the issue. But if this were any other date, the exact same coin might be regarded as having poor eye appeal. It takes in-depth knowledge of a specific series to make this determination.

Grading is an important subject and this article could easily have been two or three times longer. If you have any questions regarding the five components of coin grading, please feel free to email me at and I will do my best to answer them.