Certified Mint Error Coins: What to Know
Third party grading services are extremely popular with today’s collector. The grade, authenticity, and any “problems” on a coin are noted on the holder. In theory, most of the work is done, and all the collector has to worry about are the simply things, such as the basic eye appeal of the coin, if they want to own the coin, and if they can afford the coin. Most collectors nowadays supposedly do not need to learn much about grading, authenticity, or finding out about the potential “problems” on coins, since slabbing has presumably eliminated those worries. The reality is different. Coins do indeed get slabbed by grading services with problems, the grade is hit and miss since coin’s are often “upgraded”, and counterfeit coins are found from time to time in holders. Admittedly, grading services have done a good job of reducing these problems, but they have not and never will eliminate them, which means coin collectors have to learn these skills for themselves if they want to build a high quality collection.
When slabbing coins moved into the error coin field some 15 or so years ago, collectors embraced slabbed errors. The same benefits of grade, authenticity, and making sure the coin is problem-free all applied to errors, but additionally the error coin was described on the holder by an expert, leaving error collectors without the need to attribute their errors as to what error type they where. As with normal coins, the reality is that collectors do indeed need to learn about the coins, and not simply plunk the money down because the grading service holder says the coin is a particular grade and error type. Let’s look at the primary considerations for error collectors, and how to address potential problems.
All the services grade errors a little bit differently. The more “normal” a coin is (in other words, the more the coin’s surfaces are error-free) the more accurate the error coin’s grade will be. If you have a coin with a full brockage obverse, it is much harder to grade that coin than a 1944 steel cent would be (which for all practical purposes is a “normal” coin except for the metal being steel instead of copper.) So, grading error coins is less of a science than it is with non-error coins, and so collectors should pay less attention (than they would with a non-error coin) to what the slab says the grade is. Instead, pay much more attention to the errors overall eye-appeal, and it’s surfaces (no ugly spots, scratches, etc.)
This mercury dime off-center has a counting wheel mark
on it's reverse. Some grading services would not note it
on the holder, but some would.
Error coins are often damaged or have problems (anything that happens to a coin after it is struck is considered damage), the same as with non-error coins. Harsh cleaning, scratches, counting machine damage, graffiti, etc are all found on error coins. Grading services are generally more lenient with damage on error coins than they are with non-error coins. There are a few reasons for this. One is that graders sometimes don’t know if the “damage” is actually “damage” or if it’s simply part of the error, so they tend to let coins get through that are in fact damaged. Second, it is true that a huge percentage of error coins are damaged, and so some of the grading services will allow damaged error to get through as a matter of policy. Counting machine damage in particular is found on probably 1/4 of all error coins (wheel marks, minor scratches, small gouges on the rim, etc), and many of these coins are slabbed without noting the damage. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s something that collectors should be aware of so that they can make informed decisions about the coins they buy.
Just because a grading service says a coin is “damaged” doesn’t mean it is. I’ve purchased errors a number of times certified as “damaged” but which where not, and I was able to get reholdered as problem-free. “Damage” on an error coin’s holder usually means much less than it does for “non-error” coins.
The reputable grading services catch the counterfeit errors for the most part, but they do slip through sometimes. This is where it’s important to buy coins from dealers you trust because if a counterfeit error is found in a slab, most services say that the previous owner, not them, will be the one responsible for paying you back. It’s much easier getting your money back if you purchased from a dealer you can trust.
That said, without naming names, the best grading services will catch counterfeits 99.9% of the time, so that is one of the biggest benefits of buying an error coin already slabbed as opposed to raw. With the advent of modern computer aided die engraving equipment and the like, there are some super good counterfeits out there, so if you’re in doubt, buy the coin slabbed and also get the opinion of an expert. Also, there are old-time counterfeit from decades ago which still get slabbed sometimes.
Slabs quickly run out of room to describe
the error type. Note all the abbreviations!
What the error is should be described on the holder, but due to the size of the grading service label, descriptions are often shortened using abbreviations, and even then the entire error may no be described on the holder. What this means is that the coin may have things going on with it that aren’t being described due to a lack of room on the holder. While this isn’t usually a problem since “more errors” generally isn’t a bad thing, it’s good for the collector to know what he’s buying, which means you should carefully examine the coin and make sure of what all is going on with the coin. Also, some grading services are much better than others are attributing errors. Ask around and see who has the best reputation. It can make a big difference when you go to resale your error coins that the grading service label says everything it’s supposed to say.
In summary, the best grading services (as around to find out who they are) do a good job with the errors they slab, but they also make mistakes and you should do your own due diligence to make sure the coin is what it’s supposed to be in terms of grade, authenticity, problems, and error attribution. Not doing so will set you up to make mistakes and buy coins you’ll be unhappy with in the future.