Have we backed ourselves into a corner by establishing grading standards for coins? You begin to wonder after dealing with hundreds of letters every month asking the same question: "What is my coin worth?"
Obviously (at least to experienced collectors and dealers) you can't put an accurate value on a coin without seeing it. There are two principal reasons. The first, and perhaps most important, is to determine whether or not the coin is genuine. If it isn't genuine then the second question, the grade, or amount of wear, is moot.
If we read the responses to this question that appear in various places on the Internet, there is a very dangerous trend toward "dumbing down" the answers by equating "condition" with grade. This is something you cannot do. "Good" condition does not mean "good" grade, and probably never will. To the general public, if you can identify the piece as being round, with evidence of a design on one or both sides, it's a coin and it's in "good" condition.
That the piece in question may be a token or medal goes almost without saying. That the person's definition of "good" condition is at best vague is a certainty. Non-collectors have no concept of our grading standards and, lacking experience, are usually unable to understand why their simple, "I have a coin, so what's it worth?" question can't be instantly answered, sight unseen.
Why then, do we substitute a reworked 70-point grading scale for the tried and true "new" or "used?" Either a coin is new, or it is worn, and thus used. This simplicity is bordered on by grading standards in some other countries. Don't misunderstand what I am writing here. I don't like the numeric grading scale, but do think that it's a vast improvement over verbal grading systems.
It's just that we have imposed yet another barrier between our hobby and the public. We already have a secret language that has to be learned before a novice can become a smart collector. Adding the steep learning curve of numeric grading makes coin collecting just that much harder to participate in. It becomes an even more staggering obstacle for the collector who wants to get into foreign coins.
Unless you specialize in one particular country, the collector is faced with "local" grading standards for almost every country in the world. What reference material that is available almost invariably translates or converts foreign grading terms into U.S. verbal grades, not the numeric system. Since there is little agreement on verbal to numeric grading, the world collector has a dilemma.
This is not to say that the coin collecting hobby is unique in having a language of its own and a complicated grading system. Just look at stamp collecting, where the presence or absence of a mounting hinge can cause a major swing in the value, or a mangled or torn perforation can sharply reduce the collector value. There are many parallels between antique collecting and coin collecting, but the standards for one don't usually fit the other.
Alan Herbert retired as editor of Coins Magazine in 1994. He is now a contributing editor for Coins and three other Krause Publications periodicals. Known throughout the Internet as "Answerman," Herbert writes four question-and-answer columns in the KP numismatic magazines and newspapers, a job he started in 1968.