Slabbed = Safe??
By Josh Moran, WINS#62
When purchasing certified coins, numismatic pundits will always tell you, "Buy the coin, not the slab." In their own abbreviated way, they are basically advising that one should purchase a coin based on its merits, not based on what the third party grading service says those merits are. Now that the slabbing craze is making its way into the field of ancient numismatics, this philosophy has never been more accurate.
Much criticism towards third party grading services that slab ancient coins has arisen from students of ancient numismatics. One such criticism is the attempted application of the Sheldon 70 point scale of grading to ancient coins. The scale was designed for U.S. Large Cents and later applied to all U.S. coins. Ancient coins have historically been graded on the European grading scale with grades ranging from Poor to FDC (Fleur-de-coin). In the middle range of the scale, grades such as About Fine and Good-Very Fine are appropriate and common. The U.S. 70 point scale is based on the assumption that coins released from the mint exhibited limited variation in size, weight, shape, design and quality. This assumption cannot be made for ancient coins. Flans were crudely cast and then individually hand struck from hand made dies. Each coin made by any given mint worker on any given day would all be different from each other in very obvious ways.
Another common criticism is the lack of expertise possessed by those who are grading and authenticating these ancient coins. A number of instances of certified coins attributed to the wrong emperor have surfaced since the practice began. Additionally, well known fakes have also been "certified" as genuine. Even the most basic and inexpensive references should prevent 99% of these mistakes. It is readily apparent that the certification services either do not have or do not correctly use these references.
This lack of expertise also prevents grading companies from catching altered and repaired coins. Problems such as tooling, smoothing and replaced metal are alterations to look for when evaluating an ancient coin. The following link will open up a composite picture of an ancient Greek coin that was certified and encapsulated by a well known professional grading service.
The coin was certified as "Greek Sicily: Pre 413 B.C.: Agrigentum in Sicily: AR Tetradrachm: VF30." In this case there is no problem with the attribution. However, there were a number of alterations to this coin that the certification service failed to observe and note on the holder (numbers correspond to the magnified areas).
These alterations were immediately visible to an experienced collector with the unaided eye. Mention of these problems was surely omitted due to oversight or ignorance on the part of the grading company.
Advanced collectors are well aware of these problems and are often able to protect themselves when buying. However, to a beginner who is just starting out, certified ancients may seem like a good idea due to fear of counterfeits or inability to discern quality on their own. These beginning collectors should educate themselves through personal research and experience. They should take advantage of dealers who are willing to educate collectors and show them the difference between a genuine problem free coin and those that are forged or altered. Buying from those dealers with a good reputation and known expertise is also recommended. In the end, there are never any guarantees, but a reputable dealer with a lifetime assurance of authenticity and a liberal return policy is a far safer bet than any certification service.
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