[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Rick Tomaska. This information was originally published in 2002 in The Complete Guide to Franklin Half Dollars]
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Grading Proof Franklins
Portions of this section have been reprinted from “Cameo & Brilliant Proof Coinage of the 1950 to 1970 Era” by Rick Tomaska.
While superb cameo proof coinage may be one of the best numismatic values on the marketplace today, like any other purchase they are only a good value if you are actually buying what the seller claims to be selling. Just as in other areas of numismatics, there are dealers selling cameo proofs that are overgraded and/or overpriced. Often this is because the dealer/seller lacks sufficient knowledge of cameo proofs to adequately appraise the coins.
Before going any further, it is important to understand that one cannot learn how to grade any coin by reading books alone. Hands on experience is critical. Fortunately, there are several professional grading services available that will grade one’s coins for a nominal fee. This chapter outlines some of the criteria these services use when establishing a grade for proof Franklins.
While determining the proof grade is the primary consideration in assessing the value of a brilliant proof, the degree of cameo contrast must also be considered in determining the value of a cameo. Let’s tackle grading first.
FACTORS DETERMINING THE PROOF GRADE
In the author’s opinion, proofs are easier to grade than BU coins. Consideration of strike, luster, and bag marks is usually not as critical for Franklin cameo and brilliant proofs as it is with BU coinage simply because: (1) proofs are double-struck under higher pressure than BUs and they are nearly always fully struck; (2) proofs are struck from relatively fresh, highly polished dies and they typically exhibit excellent luster characteristics; (3) proof coins are individually handled and placed in their own container for protection and are usually free of bag marks.
There are exceptions to the above. Occasionally a proof may possess a slightly less than full strike (though I have never seen a Franklin proof with what I would term a weak strike). If they have been improperly stored, they may be heavily toned and may have lost much of their original luster. Usually, though, when a proof is badly impaired it is through mishandling. Bag marks are rare on proofs. The delicate surfaces of proof coins are most often damaged through harsh cleaning or abrasions with foreign objects on the high points of the coins devices.
While proof coins may be easier to grade than BUs, it is not recommended that this brief chapter be your sole source of information on the subject. The best way to learn the subtle nuances of grading is by studying as many pre-graded certified coins from a respected grading service as possible. With that in mind, the following information will be useful and will hopefully help you understand some of the factors a professional grader might consider when evaluating a coin.
For convenience sake, surface imperfections that one generally finds on a proof coin have been divided into two categories: (1) Those that occur at the mint, before or while the coin is being struck; and (2) those that occur after the coin is struck.
IMPERFECTIONS THAT OCCUR DURING MINTING
Pitting generally occurs on the high points of the proof planchet and is more common on proofs of the early 1950s. It is generally caused by inadequate metal flow into the deepest recesses of the die during striking. The proofs most commonly found with pitting are 1950 Franklin halves, 1950 Jefferson nickels and 1950 Lincoln cents.
Many other Franklin dates from the 1950s will often show some degree of minor pitting also. It occurs most frequently on the high point of Franklin’s cheekbone and on the Liberty Bell on the reverse.
Whether the pitting on a particular coin detracts from its eye appeal or lowers the grade largely depends on its degree and on how distracting it is. A beautifully frosted proof with very minor pitting can grade proof-67, or even proof-68, according to many of today’s popular grading services. However, once pitting reaches a point where it does become distracting, the grade of the coin is lowered accordingly.
II. MILK SPOTS AND GLUE SPOTS
Milk spots are most often found on the issues from 1958-1963. They can occur anywhere on the coin and can be any size. Some are as small as a pinhead. They can be extremely large and occasionally may cover 25% or more of the coin’s surface. While some small, light milk spots usually can be removed with one of today’s commercial coin dips, heavier milk spots cannot be removed without damaging the delicate proof surfaces.
There is considerable debate regarding the cause of milk spots. Some dealers believe they came from improperly prepared proof dies. If this were true, however, when milk spots are found in a run of proof sets, and the characteristics of the proofs in the run suggest that they were all struck off the same die, logic would indicate that the milk spots should occur in the same location on all the proof coins in the run. But this is never the case. The milk spotting is always random on the individual coins. This would suggest that the milk spot, or the chemical that caused it was already on the planchet when it was struck.
The opinion of several mint employees, who either worked at the mint at that time or were familiar with their production techniques, is that the spotting is from a residue left from a cleaning solution used on the planchet in preparation for striking. An Ivory soap bath was frequently used, although the mint was constantly experimenting with various other agents.
Like other coin imperfections, the degree and location of the spotting determines how it will affect a proof’s grade. Given the importance of eye appeal in determining a coin’s grade and value, a spot warrants consideration. A small, pinhead-sized spot tucked away in the lettering of the coin is not as distracting as it would be if it were located directly in front of Franklin’s nose. While coins with these different spots may technically grade the same, in reality one is less desirable and therefore less valuable.
Glue spots are a major problem that occurs on Franklin proofs minted in 1950. They are similar in color to milk spots but are not as predictably shaped as milk spots, which are usually round or oval. Glue spots are the residue from the sealant used for the mylar packets.
Hairlines are the most common problem on proof coins. They typically result from mishandling after the coin is struck. However, some hairlines are actually on the coin planchet before it is struck. These are typically referred to as striations.
Hairlines from mishandling usually appear in the center portions of the fields, where the fields are least protected by the raised devices of the coin. Striations typically run to the very edge of the raised portions of the coin. The planchet typically would acquire such lines during the annealing process, when it was sliding through the retort tube, or during burnishing. All but the deepest of these lines would generally be struck out under the intense pressure of the press. Both types of lines usually can be seen only under the best lighting conditions, as they are extremely fine and light when compared with other imperfections such as bag marks.
Since it was critical that proof dies remain as clean as possible, it was the responsibility of the die operator to clean the dies every 20-30 strikes. As noted in the previous chapter (“Press Operation and Die Maintenance”), cotton dipped in alcohol was usually used for this purpose. Occasionally, a small strand of cotton would break off and remain on the die during striking. The result would be a proof coin with a small scratch-like inscription on its surface where the strand had laid before striking. Close inspection with a magnifying glass is generally necessary to distinguish between this form of die line and an actual scratch.
IMPERFECTIONS THAT OCCUR AFTER MINTING
There are several types of imperfections that can accumulate on a proof coin after it is made.
As previously mentioned, hairlines are the most common problem, particularly on proofs released from the mint before the development of the flat pack in mid-1955. A proof that is mishandled will usually exhibit hairlines in the least protected central portions of the fields. The vast majority of proof Franklins and virtually all of the 1950-1953 proof Franklins have hairlines and/or striations.
II. BAG MARKS
Bag marks are not a common problem on proofs, but they do occur. Some are obvious, such as the dings and scratches one would expect to find on BU coinage. Since most proofs are fairly carefully handled, the most common form of surface contact is what some call “roll rub,” where the high points of the devices, usually the cheekbone of Franklin, has experienced some friction against another object. This friction could have been due to another coin stacking on it, or it could have been from a holder the coin was encased in at one time.
III. TONING AND DISCOLORATION
There is attractive, colorful toning, which can enhance the value of a proof, and then there is discoloration and dull or dark, unattractive toning. A proof with heavy dull brown or black toning over its surfaces is not considered desirable by most collectors.
Occasionally, coins are artificially toned to enhance their eye-appeal or hide other imperfections. This decreases the coin’s value. The experience of viewing thousands of naturally lustrous and toned coins and comparing them with examples known to be artificially enhanced is the best way to learn how to distinguish artificial color from the genuine article.
IV. CARBON SPOTS
Carbon spots are small black spots on the coin’s surface. On silver proofs these spots are usually caused by an impurity in the metal, by a foreign object or chemical such as saliva, or even a speck of dust that finds its way onto the surface of the coin. If allowed to remain on the coin the spot frequently continues to grow in size until it is quite distracting. The delicate surfaces of mirrored proof coins and copper coinage are especially susceptible to spotting.
GRADING THE COIN
Now that you are familiar with the cause and the nature of the most common imperfections that occur, it is time to try to establish a numerical grade for the coin. The following information should provide you with some general guidelines.
First of all, proper lighting is critical when appraising any coin. Two incandescent, 75-watt bulbs located three to four feet overhead will give you good lighting conditions. If you can find one and are willing to pay a little bit extra, halogen lights are the best of all. Fluorescent lighting or direct sunlight should be avoided. Fluorescent lighting is much too soft and may mask certain flaws, causing the coin to look nicer than it really is. Sunlight generally has the opposite effect. Being very harsh, it tends to exaggerate the most minor flaws that may not even be noticeable under normal lighting, making them look much worse than they really are.
Once you have set up the proper lighting conditions you are ready to examine the coin. While many collectors insist on using a magnifying glass it is not always necessary, particularly when viewing larger coinage such as the Franklin half. On occasion, it may be necessary to use a 4x, 8x, or 16x glass when studying a surface irregularity but, for the most part, a good lighting source and a good eye will work just fine.
In today’s grading, the proof grades range from a low of proof-60, which would be a badly mishandled, generally ugly coin with many obvious flaws, to a high of proof-70, which would be a perfect coin. In reality, there is no such thing as a perfect coin, so the highest grades even the finest proofs can aspire to are usually between proof-67 and proof-69. A fully gem proof would be at least proof-65.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE FOR A COIN TO GRADE PROOF 65?
Grading is somewhat subjective, but as a broad, general rule, a gem proof could best be described as a coin with excellent overall eye appeal and no obvious, distracting imperfections. Note the word obvious. Regarding proofs, a proof-65 coin, since it is not proof-70 (or perfect) will have imperfections, but these should be relatively minor in nature and not disturb the overall visual impact of the coin. If you look at your 1963 proof half dollar and the first thing you see is an impression of Benjamin Franklin surrounded by scratch-like lines running through the surrounding fields, the coin you are holding is probably not gem quality. If you look at it and immediately notice a 1/8” milk spot in front of Franklin’s nose, or several smaller spots in the same area, it is not gem quality. A brilliant or cameo half dollar with a few light hairlines that can be seen only when the coin is tilted at certain angles, and maybe having a pinhead-sized milk spot or two located near the rim, where they are not readily discernible, might be classified as proof-65. A proof-65+ cameo or brilliant proof would be virtually flawless. It may have a small, light milk spot or two or scattering of a few short, light hairlines in the field, but that would be all. These very minor imperfections would be noticeable only under close study of the coin. Of course, a coin without any of these minor imperfections could be considered at least proof-67. However, the distinctions between a proof-66, proof-67, and proof-68-69 coins are very subtle. The best recommendation would be to purchase several certified proofs in grades ranging from proof-64 to proof-68 or -69 (if you can afford them) and study the subtle differences that distinguish the different grades.