(And it’s about time!)
As regular readers of the Error World message boards know, I have a problem with third party grading services. My problem is, quite simply put, the lack of standards that abound, and have abounded for 30 years, among grading services.
Now I don’t condemn all grading services, as that would be throwing the baby out with the wash. There are some very good services and there are some very poor ones. Lets look at a little history to see where I am coming from.
I started collecting coins around 1960 when, by today’s standards, there was a bonanza of coins in circulation. One could find (almost) all of the wheat cents, and occasional Indian Cent, Buffalo Nickels, Mercury Dimes, Standing Liberty Quarters and Walking Liberty Halves in circulation. If you asked nice you could even get Morgan and Peace dollars at the bank at face value! Times were good! Most collectors, then and now, tried to assemble sets of coins in circulated condition although we would occasionally run across a nice shiny “uncirculated” example in change that made a nice addition to our album(s). The grade of coins in those days were ag, good, very good, fine, very fine, extra fine, average uncirculated, uncirculated and brilliantly uncirculated. Grading was fairly straightforward and standards could easily be found in the Red Book or other sources.
About 10 years later, it was decided for the collector by the industry that those grades were not sufficient to describe all the degrees to which an uncirculated coin could aspire. The numismatic industry became convinced that we needed 11 degrees (MS60 – MS70) to adequately describe the different qualities of uncirculated coins.
This presented a problem for the average collector, as there were very few people around who could tell the difference between these grades on the 11-point scale. We all knew that MS60 was what we commonly called Uncirculated, MS65 was Brilliantly Uncirculated and MS70 was perfection (to be yearned for but never achieved). As for the intermediate grades, the average collector didn’t have a clue.
Every problem has a solution waiting in the wings and it didn’t take long before a group of folks came along and said, “Send your coins to us and we will grade them for you and everyone forever after will accept our grading and everyone will know the grade of your coin because we are professional graders”. This seemed like a panacea for the collectors of uncirculated coins. And there was peace in the land.
That is until other Grading Groups came along and promised to do the same thing. And then came another and another and another until, as of today, there have been in excess of 73 Grading Companies (most of which have come and gone) all promising to bestow upon your coin the absolute golden grade that would be accepted by all, far and wide, forever and ever.
The problem with this was (is) that there were no standards. There were no criteria by which one became a “Grader”. Because there were no objective criteria to becoming a “grader”, one company's MS65 was another company's MS63 and another company's MS60. It became a practice that you could submit a coin to a company for grading and slabbing and if you thought it came back with a grade that was to low you simply cracked the slab, removed the coin and submitted it to someone else with the hope that it would come back graded higher, which it often did.
The problem was not solved. Instead of having an absolute answer as to the grade of our coins we now had a hierarchy of grading services. Certain grading companies became known as “easy graders” and others were “tough graders.” You had to know your grading companies as well as how to grade your coins. Thus came the phrase, “Buy the coin, not the slab.” This is totally contradictory to the way Grading Services were sold to the public.
After 30 years of collector frustration, an attempt at correcting this problem may be at hand. In the April 7, 2003 issue of Coin World, the front-page headlines shout, “ANA to certify professional graders due to disparity among services.”
The article goes on to state that the ANA (American Numismatic Association) feels that, “...certification of professional graders is the best way to address the wide disparity in third party grading services.” I have felt that this has been needed for a very long time and feel vindicated that it is finally being addressed by such an august entity as ANA.
This is a welcome sign in the forest of Grading Services. As stated by the ANA in the article, “the problem … is that anyone, regardless of knowledge and qualifications, can open a third-party grading service and hold himself or herself out to be experts.” They further go on to state, “all grading services are not equal, but the public doesn’t know that.” This is the understatement of the ages and has only taken 30 years to see the light of day.
The ANA, thus proposes to offer, “classes and seminars on grading through the ANA’s Education Department to be taught by nationally recognized grading professionals. The curriculum would be developed and approved by the ANA.” Once a grader has completed this course of study he would be required to pass a certification exam administered by the ANA. There would also be periodic retesting to assure the retention of standards.
Once graders achieve certification, then standards can prevail. If they fail to uphold these standards, “they could face the loss of certification and possibly financial penalties.”
Finally someone is listening to the plaintive voice of the collector, who ultimately supports this industry. I feel that this is possibly the greatest step forward that I have seen in this industry in the last 30 years. Kudos to the ANA. Respect will return to the Grading Services.