It seems that every day I read something about how coin collecting has changed over the past two decades, give or take a few years. I find that an interesting observation, because I have been working on Canadian Coin News for almost 23 years. I am not taking credit, or blame, for changes in the past few decades, but I think I am uniquely positioned to recognize the differences. As I turn the mental clock back to my first few months at this job, it is easy to see how much things have changed.
The most obvious change, which I have written about before, is the number of coins issued in one year. In 1992, the Canada 125 program, which involved 13 coins over an entire year, was huge. These days it isn’t uncommon to have that many in a single catalogue, and the Royal Canadian Mint does 12 of those each year. That means the whole idea of collecting one of everything is not practical at all; it probably never was, but a generation ago we only had to accept that our collection would be missing patterns, and maybe a ’21 half and a ’16C sovereign. The truth is, if I had to pick the single most important change in the hobby, it would be the enthusiastic adoption of third-party certification.
When I first came to CCN, certified coins were put in slabs, which had a negative connotation. Collectors smirked that coins would get resubmitted until they reached the highest plausible grade. Most numismatists believed that they could grade their own coins, and frowned on the “absurd” claims of graders that a certified coin would be easier to sell. But that is exactly what happened. Collectors, who at first thought that the best grading could do was confirm their opinion, came to respect third-party graders. Today, virtually every Canadian coin of any value has been certified by at least one major service, and the practice is now extending to paper money and foreign coins.
Universally recognized grading services have enabled buyers and sellers to connect by mail and over the Internet. Buyers are more confident, and sellers find it easier to sell a coin with a recognized grade. Coin market followers have come to realize that grading services’ population reports, sorted by coin and grade, are more valuable and meaningful than original mintages. Having access to coin populations sorted by grade has made the North American market incredibly grade sensitive. The market always knew some Mint State coins were nicer than others, but today collectors can quantify that on a scale from MS-60 to MS-70.
It means that the top coins can be described not only as among the best, but can actually be ranked as best known, or second-best, or whatever. It means that for the first time, we have quantifiable evidence that in some years there are very few really great strikes, and in other years they are easier to find. That has even changed the way coins are bought and sold in terms of money. What’s more, many collectors now make only a casual effort at grading, preferring to buy the holder rather than the coin. In other words, the success of third-party grading has altered the way people buy and sell coins, and even what they pay and how they research. It’s kind of embarrassing, because back in 1990, a lot of us thought it might be just a fad.