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From the PCGS Grading Room

By Kyle Clifford Knapp - June 13, 2022

What would you grade this 1807 Draped Bust Half Dollar?

Differentiating as-minted striking incompleteness from circulation-induced wear has long been a source of frustration and debate among numismatists at all levels. While this is unlikely to change anytime soon, there are some analytical tools that can make the distinction more comprehensible.

Start with physical evidence. The radiant “cartwheel” luster that first draws so many collectors to silver dollars and other brilliant uncirculated coins is not present on the washer-like blanks fresh from being punched out of the rolled metal strip. This dazzling “life” is brought to the coin’s surface only at the moment of striking, as the compressed metal of the planchet rushes along the surface of the finely polished die and adopts its contours both artistic and microscopic. Thus, portions of the coin that do not come into complete contact with the die due to a local insufficiency of metal will not only be missing the fine detail in the affected area but also the luster.

Consider the following PCGS MS65+ 1921 Peace Dollar. Its high-relief design, with both obverse and reverse motives deepest around the coin’s center, make it vulnerable to striking incompleteness. The slight dullness in the incompletely struck region of the hair just to the right of its juncture with the cheek on the imaged coin is typical of this effect. On the corresponding portion of the reverse design, note the lack of wing detail just above the intersection with the leg, even though the upper wings and neck are sharply rendered. Aside from this small central area, the coin’s luster is unmitigated, its eye appeal exceptional, and it still garners a lofty grade.

1921 Peace Dollar, PCGS MS65+. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

In the example above, note the competition for planchet metal during striking is greatest at the point(s) on the coin where the cumulative depth of the obverse and reverse design is greatest (and therefore the vertical distance between the die surfaces the farthest). The first traces of externally inflicted wear, by contrast, will show up on the highest topographic points of each side, independent of their alignment with the opposing motif.

Next, let’s examine a fully struck but lightly circulated piece. Note the subtle blending of design detail and loss of reflectivity on the eagle’s neck, the upper-right portions of the wing, and the strands of hair above and behind liberty’s forehead on the AU58 specimen. These are areas with trace amounts of circulation, even though the central portion is more fully struck than on the preceding coin.

1921 Peace Dollar, PCGS AU58. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

Finally, experience and study will bring some issue-specific familiarity useful in interpreting the most idiosyncratic of pieces. Though some of the central reverse detail on the following 1807 Draped Bust Half Dollar is incomplete, most noticeably the eagle’s head, specialists will quickly recognize this as the characteristic striking weakness of Overton-109a. An examination of the peripheral regions shows ample luster and still-crisp detail, supporting the PCGS AU55 grade. (The piece illustrated at the beginning of the article is from the same die pair, and grades PCGS VF25.)

1807 Draped Bust Half Dollar Overton-109a, PCGS AU55. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.
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