Recently I sold some 50-odd coins from my collection, pooled my savings, and won at auction a wished-for dream coin, an 1836 Gobrecht dollar owned by Dr. Henry Janes, chief surgeon for the Union Army at Gettysburg. After winning the lot, I wanted to ensure that the coin, offered raw by Thomas Hirchak company, was encapsulated to prevent damage.
That’s when a curious odyssey began concerning NGC proof details labels. Details about condition are important, especially for expensive coins in years that lack business strikes, such as the 1836 Gobrecht dollar and the 1856 Flying Eagle cent.
As viewers of this column know, almost all of my coins are slabbed by PCGS, primarily in response to NGC’s ill-thought decision not to consider crossover submissions from ANACS, ICG, PCI or any other company … besides PCGS. (I have written about that extensively here, questioning why NGC asks submitters [mostly just club members] to crack out those holdered coins and risk damaging them.) I decided to send this coin to NGC because my older Flowing Hair and Draped Bust dollars are holdered by the company, all safely tucked away in my bank box, because of their high values.
My NGC submission came back “Proof Details Improperly Cleaned.”
I was disappointed. Not about the details, but about the lack of a grade. I knew the coin was uncirculated and wanted to understand why “Unc.” wasn’t on the NGC label. After all, I had looked to NGC to supply a grade and all its label provided was a minting process and a condition. I was flummoxed. In researching Gobrecht dollars, I assumed I would get a grade, because the company provides them for circulated proofs with condition issues. You can easily find them online by typing “NGC Gobrecht Details.” Here’s an example of an improperly cleaned Gobrecht with a VF Details label.
This label “Proof Details Improperly Cleaned” must be an oversight, I thought. Soon I learned it was NGC policy. It assigned detailed grades up through “almost uncirculated.” For uncirculated, the label simply states “Proof” (as opposed to “Impaired Proof”). These designations in part date back to a time before details grading, which NGC began offering in September 2009. In its announcement, the company clearly stated what I had long forgotten:
- “Coins that have no wear but still display a problem surface condition will be labeled as UNC DETAILS or, in the case of Proof coins, simply PROOF. Following the details grade will be a description of the noteworthy surface condition, including, for example, Improperly Cleaned, Artificial Color, Environmental Damage and Tooled.”
Nevertheless I complained to the company, challenging NGC to explain why my stance–desiring a grade in addition to a minting process and condition–was wrong from a numismatic perspective. Although I had no intention of doing it, I said, theoretically I could contact my credit card company and withhold payment because I was promised a details grade … but didn’t get one.
More to the point, it is more well-known in the numismatic community that “proof” is a minting process, not a grade. As numismatic author and dealer Rick Tomaska notes in his Guidebook of Franklin and Kennedy Half Dollars, on page 1 no less: “The word Proof is sometimes misconstrued as indicating a grade or a level of quality; but it does not–it merely describes the method of manufacture.”
Well, not exactly.
Before continuing my story (it’s an odyssey, remember?), I want to make something very clear: I admire NGC graders. In the past I have praised the company and its services. I especially appreciate its exemplary customer service, among the best in the business. But as viewers here know, I call them as I see them and then let you affirm, amend or reject my numismatic stance in the comments section. Thus, in the past, I have questioned NGC on its crossover decision; on its redundant “First Releases®” and “Early Releases®” labels; and now on its “Proof Details” label.
A company spokesperson wrote me that making the kind of change I wanted–“Proof Details Unc.”–was numismatically inappropriate. Historically, I was told, “the term Proof was used to describe a coin of proof manufacture that did not show signs of circulation. Impaired Proof was used to describe circulated proofs. Before details certification, these terms were commonly used for proof-only issues, like 1879-1880 Trade dollars, Gobrecht dollars and 1856 Flying Eagle cents. It is well understood that a coin described as Proof shows no sign of circulation unless otherwise noted. Making the change that you suggest created an odd redundancy and potentially invites more confusion to those familiar with the long-standing application of these terms.”
Further, I was informed, the NGC designation “Proof Details” was well-known in the marketplace.
As a journalist, I was curious about that remark. How well-known was it in an age of online estate auctions, eBay and other mobile venues? (How many of you reading now knew this, by the way?) And even if well-known, would consignment directors–especially ones at major houses such as Heritage or GreatCollections, which have holdering agreements for raw coins with NGC and PCGS–prefer the use of PCGS’s “PR Unc. Details” as opposed to NGC’s “Proof Details.”
This is an important question, especially since PCGS offers full details grading, which we applauded in 2011. After all, the intent of sending coins like Gobrecht dollars is to authenticate grade and condition and not only preserve the coin but also its value. It only seems logical that consignors to any auction would like their raw coins with conditions like mine to bear labels stating “Unc.”–informing those who don’t know or have forgotten NGC’s policy and practice.
Say what you will about labels–or PCGS and NGC, for that matter–but in my opinion, in light of the ever-expanding online auction market, the difference in noting or omitting “uncirculated” can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the rarity of the coin.
So I surveyed a dozen sources–consignment directors and top numismatists–asking which label they preferred for an uncirculated proof coin with conditions: “Proof Details” by NGC or “PR Unc. Details” by PCGS. Several just provided an answer and requested anonymity, not wishing to state publicly what they knew was going to be a contentious debate.
Contentious? We’re talking about a grading process!
Concerning process, I asked PCGS President Don Willis about how his company grades proof coins with details.
“You make an excellent point,” he wrote. “Let me explain our logic. We first determine the process used to make the coin. Was it created as a Proof, Specimen or Regular strike? Second we determine the condition of the coin outside of the problem (cleaning, damage, artificial toning, etc.), namely, has the coin seen wear and, if so, how much? For example was the coin in VF condition or AU before it was cleaned?
“We use our grading standards to determine the amount of wear that the coin exhibits and that is what we use in the Details grade. Simply stating ‘Proof’ details does not indicate the extent of wear that the coin has seen. We already know it was struck as a Proof. ‘Unc’ obviously indicates that the coin has seen no wear regardless of how it was made. The various details grade conditions that we print on our holders are intended to help the owner, or prospective owner, judge the condition of the coin and it’s relative value.”
Willis articulated everything I wanted NGC to acknowledge, namely: I already knew my coin was struck as a Proof. I wanted “Unc.” on the label because it indicates that the coin has seen no wear regardless of how it was made.
Willis wasn’t the only who felt this way.
Only one anonymous consignment director of a major auction house preferred NGC’s label, affirming it was known in select circles where such coins as Gobrecht dollars might be offered.
Ian Russell, owner of GreatCollections, went on record, noting that PCGS offered the best of both worlds. “You can opt for the grade or not on details coins.”
Kurt R. Krueger, well-known auctioneer, cataloger and show organizer, acknowledged that “both services have their talking points … but the PCGS label as presented in the holder hits the target closer to the general understanding of the terminology in my opinion!”
Brad Lisembee of Capitol Coin Auctions in Evansville, Ind.–one of the major auctioneers on the Proxibid portal–stated: “If it has ‘Unc. details,’ the holder should mention that, even if it is somehow impaired.”
John Leonard, owner of Leonard Auction and a noted numismatist, said, “My thought is that the PCGS method is clearer and holds standard with the rest of their grade terminology so I would prefer their method.”
Another numismatist who heads a large hobbyist association said NGC label is confusing for consumers.
Two of the top numismatists who serve with me on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee agreed with that assessment. (Note: They were interviewed as numismatists, not CCAC members, as this discussion has nothing to do ethically with the US Mint but practices in the business sector.)
Mike Moran, an award-winning literary numismatic writer and author of the 2008 book, Striking Change, wrote: “I agree that NGC needs to modify its terminology. Your suggestion is not redundant. It is a clarification.”
Erik Jansen, who represents the interests of the general public in the coinage of the United States, wrote that “there is absolutely no presumption here that the NGC label ‘Proof Details’ is implicitly Unc. How many circulation ‘escapes’ of the classic PROOF-ONLY TYPES (the not-unheard of 1856 Flying Eagle Cent being an arch typical case) come slabbed as impaired by cleaning, scratches, surface damage, etc. AND ARE NOT UNC!
“The sight unseen market (sight-seen for that matter as well!) needs as much information as possible – not rating house dogma or stiffness in its procedures. Standard processes are essential for standard market practices [ensuring] confidence, but this argument feels more like the former respected slabbers wanting to ‘have it their way, consumers be damned.’”
Other sources who requested anonymity agreed that the PCGS “Unc. Details” designation makes sense but believed that only pressure from major submitters to NGC would force a change.
I have no illusions: This column will not force a change. However, factor this: Upon receiving my slabbed coin from NGC, I immediately submitted it (ironically as a crossover, not wanting to crack out and damage the coin!) to PCGS. In the interim between my NGC and PCGS submissions, I was able to do detailed research to establish the provenance of the coin. Please disregard that on the PCGS label and focus only on the two designations: “”Proof Details Improperly Cleaned” and “PR Unc. Cleaned” on the PCGS label.
Look at both labels. Which one would you prefer?