As an experienced online coin buyer, I understand how numismatic photography can be unintentionally or, on occasion, intentionally misleading. It is my responsibility, however, to know the condition, grading, and tricks of light.
I consider myself an expert grader, as my previous articles might attest. Here is one of my first columns in Coin Update, a 2009 post about grading skills.
If at a coin shop or show, or in person at an auction, I can tell upon seeing a raw coin whether it will grade at PCGS or NGC and, if so, how high, within a point or so on the 70-point Sheldon Scale.
But despite my prowess, I know that what I see online on eBay, Proxibid, HiBid, and other venues, might not be what I get if I win a coin.
Thus, if you don’t know how to grade or are inexperienced in numismatic skills, bid on coins holdered by PCGS, NGC, ANACS, or ICG. Avoid the lower-tiered slabs or just consider the coins within as raw.
In a 2012 Coin Update post, frustrated by inferior internet photos of coins, I graded image samples from A to F and shared these basics, which still hold today:
- Never purchase coins from an online seller who only photographs one side of a coin. The obverse might be deep-mirror Prooflike, or DMPL, and the reverse dull and tooled.
- Always ask a seller or auctioneer about any flaws you suspect omitted from the official description, such as whether a coin was once part of jewelry or whether a scratch is on the coin or the holder.
- Always read reviews of the seller or auctioneer to see what other buyers have experienced.
- Think twice before patronizing a seller or auctioneer who hypes descriptions of coins or inflates their values, such as quoting Red Book values on self-slabbed coins.
The problem now is not inferior photos, as the quality of numismatic photography has evolved with Adobe Photoshop and other software. The issue now is an image that elevates the condition of a coin by obscuring flaws or inflating luster and eye appeal.
If I suspect that a photo has been enhanced, usually by manipulating exposure or lighting, I do not bid, especially on eBay, unless the seller allows returns. Here are two recent experiences.
I purchased several coins from a seller with an outstanding 100% positive rating. As I viewed each coin, I took advantage of eBay’s magnifier by holding the computer cursor over the entire surface of a coin. I could see some flaws that were obscured by lighting but decided to go with the seller’s descriptions, at least in part.
Several of his coins were outstanding, and I kept those. But I did return a few, including this 1903 Morgan dollar:
When I received the coin, I was disappointed, not with the cartwheel (although luster wasn’t as good as depicted here), but with the flaws that the lighting had hidden:
My own camera has a faint yellow tint, so dismiss that. But look at the severe marks by the nose and cheek. Unacceptable.
Another coin depicted an outstanding 1891 toned quarter dollar, and the rainbow was accurately captured.
I defy you to find the flaw by Lady Liberty’s shoe on the lower-right field of the coin.
Here’s what I found when I received the coin:
As the top photo shows, there was a pin scratch that would prevent this coin from earning a PCGS grade. Instead, it was getting a details scratch label. Unacceptable.
Keep in mind that I did keep several coins from this seller, a top-notch professional. I probably will buy coins again from him. He graciously accepted the returns and provided a mailing label. That’s ever so important these days. I avoid sellers who do not accept returns, and I only return coins when flaws are obscured somehow by digital photography.
Lighting also plays a key role in questionable online photos. Here’s one from another seller who describes the coin as “ultra cameo! huge DCAM!” And it certainly seems so:
The coin I received had a slight cameo and didn’t look at all as in the above photo. However, because I won the coin close to silver melt, I decided to keep it. Here’s a snapshot:
To show how lighting can recreate cameo, watch this video concerning the above coin and be especially careful on what you bid on and why. You might not get what you paid for: