By Jesse Robitaille
Tributes have poured in for numismatic icon Brian Cornwell, who nearly 40 years ago revolutionized the Canadian hobby by co-founding the country’s first third-party grading service, following his death this fall.
A long-time collector, Cornwell teamed up with two well-known dealers, Bill Cross and Ingrid Smith, to launch the International Coin Certification Service (ICCS) in Toronto in November 1986. The firm quickly followed in the footsteps of the U.S.-based Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), founded in the same year, to improve market confidence and bolster the hobby in Canada. Smith eventually left ICCS before Cross sold his shares to Cornwell, who ran the business for about two decades before his death on Nov. 21 at age 82.
“Brian was the driving force behind ICCS, and he was a giant in the industry,” said dealer Sandy Campbell, the owner of Proof Positive Coins in Baddeck, N.S., who met Cornwell in 1982.
Aside from the Internet, “nothing even comes close” to the significant positive influence third-party grading had on the hobby in the modern era, Campbell added.
“The Internet definitely changed how things are marketed, but third-party grading solidified the industry and allowed it to expand to a broader market base.”
Cornwell leaves a twofold legacy in Canadian numismatics, according to Campbell.
“He revolutionized the grading process, especially for higher-end Mint-State coins, and he developed a methodology to determine market values with a combination of grade and eye-appeal.”
Through his work, Cornwell also encouraged collectors to approach numismatic items “almost as pieces of art,” Campbell added.
“You could have two items that were the same grade, but one of them had totally different merits because of eye-appeal and overall desirability. He shed a lot of light on that through his 40-plus years in the industry, and that’s really his lasting legacy: ICCS became the watchdog in Canada for grading, and it created a safe third-party opinion for people to buy and sell coins.”
Born in Vancouver on Oct. 14, 1940, Cornwell moved east to attend the University of Toronto.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 1962 followed by his master’s in electrical engineering a year later. In 1964, he became a registered professional engineer in Ontario and quickly found work with International Business Machines (IBM), a multinational technology corporation that opened its Toronto plant nearly half a century earlier.
“At that time, when you graduated as an engineer, you either went into the space program or the computer business,” Scott Cornwell said of his father’s career, which would follow the computer path until his retirement in 1981.
Cornwell stayed with IBM until the late 1960s before moving to a pair of start-up firms, including Systems Dimensions Limited, a computer consulting company, and SHL Systemhouse, a systems integration business.
He returned to his childhood hobby of numismatics in the 1970s, forming relationships with fellow numismatists Jim Charlton, who began publishing his namesake catalogues in the early 1950s, and Chet Krause, who founded CCN’s predecessor Canada Coin News in 1963.
“It was his second love apart from being married,” said son Scott, who has managed ICCS for the past four years. “He became interested in coins as a kid, as most collectors do, but when he retired from the computer business at age 40, he found himself bored with little to do, so he picked up his hobby again. He gravitated towards the finest, the rarest, the best that he could get. Beautiful coins are always in the eye of the beholder, but that was his passion.”
Owing to his education and ensuing career in the early days of the computer business, Cornwell “was more or less like a scientist,” according to his son.
“He had a very analytical mind, and when it came to grading coins, it was from that perspective he was able to detach himself from the greed factor and analyze coins for wear, lustre, surface strikes and everything else. He liked the analysis of grading coins.”
While the 70-point grading scale originated in 1949, Cornwell applied that concept to Canadian coins for the first time.