On visiting coin fairs and dealers' shops in the UK these days you will usually find at least a smattering of coins for sale which are held in officially authenticated plastic holders. The same is true of internet auction sites. In the US, many dealers sell only these so called 'slabbed' coins. Hopefully, this short guide will give the reader an introduction to slabbing.
So exactly what is a slabbed coin ? Well, the process starts when the owner submits his/her coin to a coin grading company. There are at least 15 to choose from and nearly all are in the USA ( see below). One or more 'expert numismatists' will microscopically scrutinise the coin, assign it a grade and then fix it into a plastic holder along with a label giving the denomination and grading details.
The American system, devised by William Sheldon, is used and encompasses a 1 to 70 point scale, where 1 is a coin so worn that only its identity and denomination can be determined, through to 70 which represents an absolutely perfect, fully struck specimen.
The full grading is 1 = Poor, 2 = Fair, 3 = About Good, 4 and 6 = Good, 8 and 10 = Very Good, 12 and 15 = Fine, 20, 25, 30 and 35 = Very Fine, 40 and 45 = Extremely Fine, 50, 53, 55 and 58 = About Uncirculated and then each number from 60 to 70 representing increasingly better examples of coins with no wear, Mint State ( MS ), or PF if the coin is a proof.
The British system uses similar descriptive words, but here the first problem arises. A coin graded EF45 would be given a Very Fine classification in the UK. Likewise an AU58 coin may well not attain even an EF grade in Britain. This point should be taken on board when buying a slabbed coin. Conversely, if you are thinking of sending your coins across the Atlantic to have them slabbed, you could very well be pleased by the designated grades upon their return.
There is much debate, even acrimony over allotting a coin a particular grade. Sellers often tend to over-grade their stock and so expert verification through coin slabbing would appear a very attractive proposition. However, the fact is that there are still wide grading discrepancies, not only beween the various companies examining the coins ( SEE IMAGES BELOW ), but also within a grading-house itself. There are pressures for them to grade high and thus attract more business and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that submitters, disgruntled with the grades assigned, have returned their coins to the graders and then received them back one or even two grades higher.
There are individuals in the US who buy slabbed coins they consider under-graded, break them out and then have them re-slabbed elsewhere at a higher grade. These ' slab-crackers' can make big money, particularly in the Morgan dollar series, where the difference between MS64 and MS66 can amount to many hundreds of dollars.
Don't assume that because a coin is held behind plastic it is fully protected. There have been a number of cases where coins, particularly copper ones, have developed unsightly verdigris spots AFTER having been slabbed. This can occur when humid / polluted air is trapped in the holder along with the coin.
So, it's swings and roundabouts. When your coins are slabbed, you at least get some satisfaction that they have been officially 'checked over' and graded by people who should know what they are talking about. It could well add value to your collection, particularly to the high grade coins, and heighten their desirability in the eyes of a prospective buyer. However, be aware of the differences between the American and British grading systems and don't treat the assigned grade as gospel.
At the end of the day, there is nothing like actually holding a William and Mary 5 guinea piece in the palm of your hand, rather than having it 'sanitised' behind a layer of plastic.
If you are thinking about slabbing, the principal grading companies fall into 3 distinct tiers :-
PRIMARY ( those with the best reputation for grading consistency ) = PCGS and NGC. ( It is recognised that PCGS-graded coins fetch a premium over those graded by other firms )
SECONDARY ( those regarded as average for grading consistency ) = ANACS and ICG.
TERTIARY ( those regarded the least consistent in their grading ) = SEGS, NTC, SGS, PCI and basically everybody else.
Recently, a coin grading company ( CGS-UK ) has started operations in Britain, using a 100 point scale. Five major grading categories are given :- Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine and Uncirculated, where each grade covers a range of 20, i.e. UNC= 80-100. Time will tell how popular this new scale will be with collectors.