by Ken Camilleis

Grading of copper coinage is quite a challenge, especially with the added dimen-sion of color figured into the equation. Presently, mint-state copper and copper-based coins are color-graded Red (RD), Red-Brown (RB) or Brown (BN), in addition to the “MS” designation from 60 to 70. As a coin collector since 1961, having entered the hobby via the Lincoln cent Whitman folder route, I have studied thousands of bronze small cents for color analysis. In the past 15 years I’ve focused on the true copper coins - the large cents and half cents of 1793-1857, which are made of pure copper. I have compiled interesting data on the color changes in copper and bronze U.S. coins.

I won’t say much about the copper-plated zinc cents coined since 1982, other than an observation that toning progressions differ greatly from those of the bronze and copper coins and that ubiquitous mintages and miniscule collector value would render a numismatic analysis trivial. Of late I’ve not been studying small cents (or the bronze 2-cent piece) but have focused heavily on the progression of color on coppers. Mint-state large cents and half cents are relatively scarce, but are reasonably available on today’s coin market in Brown (BN) color and also seen in Red-Brown (RB) in the middle to late dates (half cents 1825-57 and large cents 1816-57). However, coppers are very scarce in Red (RD) color grade and RD coins prior to 1850 are downright rare with the excep-tion of a few small hoards known here and there.

It appears there was a time (perhaps as recently as the 1960s) when the “AU” grade, especially as applicable to copper or bronze coins, meant just that – About Uncir-culated. Not “Almost” Uncirculated as mistakenly construed and evidenced by the major-ity of large cents and half cents that are in AU slabs today.  A copper or bronze coin that had major tarnish disruptions (other than a few carbon spots) to the original Mint color or breaks in luster was not called UNC but AU. The national specialty group known as Early American Coppers (EAC) has recently developed a “net-grading” system for copp-ers which takes color and other factors into consideration and reduces the grade of a slabbed mint-state copper to a mere numerical grade. The EAC grade is always lower than the slab grade for BN and RB coins and usually equal to the slab grade for RD coins. By EAC standards, a BN coin would not grade MS65 because it would be consid-ered oxymoronic, and a RB coin wouldn’t likely 65 either. Furthermore, BN coins slabbed as MS60 and better often would EAC-grade in the AU range, or possibly even XF!

Based on my intense studies of mint-state coppers, I have developed my own system of net-grading coppers based not only on whether they are RD, RB or BN but how strong their luster is. I have frequently seen coppers graded BN that are not brown at all but fully lustrous, evenly-toned olive/green or bluish or many shades of red, tan or multicolor mixes that are very attractive, and often with little or no carbon spotting or staining. I have adopted a seven-point system of color-grading called a Color Grading Index (CGI) which takes such features into account. If these “BN” coins with full, unbroken original luster (as opposed to tarnish) were translated from the CGI into RD/RB/BN, I would grade them at least RB if not RD! By comparison, most slabbed mint-state coppers are BN, and at that, I would question whether they are truly uncir-culated rather than AU.                          (continued next month)