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Appreciating the Beauty of Naturally Toned Coins Beautiful Toning: The Guarantee of Originality

NSDR Journal

VOL. XII, No. 1

February 1995


Appreciating the Beauty of Naturally Toned Coins

Beautiful Toning:  The Guarantee of Originality

By Andrew W. Kimmel


The numismatic witch-hunt ends here.  Several hostile articles criticizing naturally toned coins have appeared in the numismatic press within the last few months.  Now it is time to set the record straight.  Whether you like toned or white coins, this article is relevant for all collectors.

Information disseminated in articles written by Weimar White and Kenneth Bressett clearly equate toning with damage.  Indeed, the headline in the PNG Journal insert in the October 10, 1994 issue of Coin World read, “Rainbow colors sign of damage.”  Speaking for myself and for thousands of toning enthusiasts around the United States, allow me to respond to this statement in a word:  Hogwash!  In the following article we will discuss toning’s impact on a coin’s surface in a real-world, sensible manner – not in the sterile laboratory terms overstated in these apocalyptic hell-and-brimstone articles.

Simply stated, bright toning appeals to many collectors.  Like it or not, this is a fact.  The guarantee of originality that accompanies naturally toned coins allows thousands of collectors to sleep at night knowing that their coins are uncleaned, undipped, and undoctored.  Let’s face the facts, you cannot change a toned coin’s surface without leaving some telltale signs of alteration; even the lightest contact cleaning or tampering usually interrupts or distorts a natural patina.

Defining natural and artificial toning is a hot topic of numismatic debate.  For years I have defined artificial toning as any rapid, chemical, electrical, or unorthodox process that produces or induces coloration.  Conversely, natural toning forms in predictable chromatic patterns as a result of storage over an extended period of time.  Differentiating between ‘rapid’ and ‘extended’ is the trick; how long should toning take in order to be considered natural – two days, two months, or two years?  Likewise, what about coins placed in conditions favorable for the development of toning (a.k.a. intentional toning)?  As you can see, there are no easy answers, as virtually any definition leaves loopholes for others to criticize.  So, where do we go from here?

Fortunately there is an easy answer to these puzzling questions.  Education!  If you arm yourself with an excellent numismatic education, then you will be able to arrive at your own definitions about artificial, natural, damaging, or beautiful toning.  The only way to learn about toning is to examine coins firsthand at conventions, auctions lot viewings, or at your local coin shop.  Do not take my word for it – look at coins for yourself and determine your own numismatic guidelines.  No article, lecture, textbook, or slide show will ever equip you with the education necessary to make informed decisions about what your collecting goals should be.  The burden is on you, the collector, to decide what is best.  So, let us move on.  You might like to consider this article as a basic introduction to the pros and cons of toning.  Just remember, you must look at as many coins as possible before arriving at your own conclusions.

For an excellent description of toning and its related optical and chemical qualities, you may wish to consult Wayne Miller’s Morgan and Peace Dollar Textbook, pages 38-48.  Wayne’s succinct description says it all, so my restatement of his facts is unnecessary.  Since I am not a chemist by trade, I cannot profess to have a detailed knowledge of the precise chemical reaction known as toning.  Furthermore, some will debate my exact numismatic semantics.  However, after examining countless toned coins over the years, I can differentiate between artificial and naturally toned coins.  Believe me, it is not that difficult.  Those who complain about the difficulty in identifying artificially toned (AT) coins simply have not memorized natural color patterns.  Once you know which colors form naturally, you solve the toning riddle.  Of course, one cannot learn the colors without inspecting coins, so that is your job!  However, we can discuss the sources of naturally toned coins and their resulting characteristic color patterns.

The five main sources of toning are original U.S. Mint canvas mint bags (for dollars), paper rolls, albums, envelopes, and government-issued cards (for commemoratives).  Each produces instantly identifiable colors and/or patterns that allow you to make an easy chromatic decision as to the toning’s veracity.  Mint bags produce rainbows (like you see in the sky), monochromatic toning, crescents, textile patterns (toning that duplicates the weave of the canvas bags), and smooth multicolored toning.  Coins stored for decades in old-time paper rolls often show vivid geometric toning on the two end coins – this results from the folded roll paper irregularly touching one side of the coin.  Old-time albums with acetate slides and punchout circles often elicit two-sided target toning.  In this case the colors begin at the edge (where the cardboard touched the coin) and slowly creep toward the center as years pass.  Long-term storage within paper envelopes commonly causes hazy toning to form, as the firm contact with the paper elicits a strong chemical reaction.  Finally, since the government enclosed commemoratives issued from 1892-1954 in sulfur-impregnated cardboard holders (with a punchout and/or suspension ring to hold the coin place), numerous coins display superb toning.  Although the exact holder varied from issue to issue, many specimens of the same design show similar toning patterns.  Of course, the color patterns and intensity are never quite the same on any two coins, but the overall hues and arrangements remain standard.

Examining large original coin lots remains the best way to investigate the gamut of natural colors resulting from a given toning source.  For example, if your local dealer acquires an original mint bag of Morgan dollars, ask him/her if you may see the toned coins.  Likewise, look through collections stored in old-time Wayte Raymond, National, or Meghrig albums – they routinely produce brightly toned coins.  If you collect commemoratives, locate original government-issued cards still containing the coins.  Eventually you will see patterns among coins stored in similar surroundings – this will make toning identification much easier.  The ultimate goal is to be able to look at a coin and instantly identify its toning source.  When you reach this point you will never have to worry about artificial toning again, for if you are unsure about a coin’s chromatic origin, simply do not buy the coin!

Critics of toning maintain that polychromatic coins are damaged by the chemical process that produces toning and/or by the toning itself.  Virtually any numismatist recognizes that a toned coin’s surfaces have changed – this goes without saying!  Just a quick glance reveals a coin’s metamorphosis.  Admittedly, heavily toned, dull black, gray, hazy, spotted, streaked, or badly fingerprinted coins are damaged, for the sulfur sulfide eats into the top metallic layer and impairs the surfaces.  However, since damaged coins are ugly, most people never buy them in the first place – a point ignored by the critics!  Still, critics point out that even beautifully toned coins experience some metal loss and luster impairment; they even prove the concept by dipping attractively toned coins and quantifying the resulting metal loss according to given colors!

While their numbers appear to be technically correct, critics again seem to be missing an important idea:  people who buy beautifully toned coins never dip them!  Moreover, who really cares if a spectacular full obverse rainbow toned dollar has one-billionth of a milligram of metal missing?  None of my customers care.  None of the people who bought beautifully toned coins out of the Norweb, Garrett, Boy’s Town, or Heifeitz collections care.  Could you even conceive of labeling the classic rarities in the King of Siam set as damaged?   Of course not!  If surface impairment concerns you, never buy ugly, dark, hazy or problem toned coins.  Clearly though, critics’ hell-fire and brimstone warnings about beautiful toning remain foolishly ludicrous.

Now let us discuss the concept of originality.  As previously stated, critics affirm that untoned coins better their colorful brethren because they lack the surface etching caused by vivid toning.  Agreement with this concept might lead some numismatists to carefully dip their coins to remove the color and reveal the underlying whiteness.  Yet, ask yourself one question:  which is more detrimental – a beautifully toned coin’s ridiculously insignificant metal loss or the total elimination of a coin’s patina and the corresponding metallic stripping associated with dipping?  This question leads us to another point missed by toning critics:  dipped coins lack originality while toned coins define the term original.  Allow me to illustrate this point win an analogous situation:  If you have a priceless Monet painting hanging in your house for decades, the chances are good that it will acquire a light layer of grime and the colors will mellow slightly.  Now then, would you use a wire brush to strip away decades of mellowing in an effort to reveal the underlying painted brilliance?  Of course not – you would want to retain the originality of the painting, since removing the dirt would also take along some of the paint.  Even using special chemicals to wash the painting affects the originality.  Experts debated this precise issue several years ago when artists laboriously cleansed and restored Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes:  the paintings appeared to be brighter, but did they really retain originality?

As you might guess, there are no correct answers to the toning question.  In the strictest sense, dipped coins lack originality, while undipped white coins define originality to the same degree as beautiful toning.  With this in mind, original toned coins are no better than original white coins – just different.  A quick look at Jack Lee’s incredible silver dollar collection will convince you that original white coins are equally rare and desirable as beautifully toned specimens.  Whether you wish to collect toned or white coins is purely your own choice.  Just make sure that you acquire original, undipped white coins or beautiful naturally toned specimens.  Never buy obviously dipped, artificially toned, or detrimentally toned coins, as you will almost always lose money.  Moreover, selling problem coins routinely proves to be an impossibility.

Beautifully toned coins can be a challenge to grade.  Critics rightfully point out that toning hides subtle flaws such as ticks, hairlines, and other small problems.  Moreover, some beautifully toned coins occasionally receive an extra point (or two) at the grading services because of the bright colors.  Are the grading services missing contact marks because of the toning, or are they awarding points for originality?  Sometimes it is difficult to tell, but I suspect that PCGS and NGC appreciate original coins.  If overgraded beautifully toned coins disturb you, do not buy them!  It is your money, and no one ever forces you to acquire unacceptable coins.  I routinely encounter overgraded beautifully toned coins, but I simply pass them by.  On the other hand, if you enjoy grading, toned coins are about the best challenge there is!  Peering through toning for small ticks, lines or flaws will do wonders for your grading skills.  If you can accurately evaluate deeply toned specimens, then grading white coins is easy.  Acquire a small group of miscellaneous toned coins and test your skills!

Discrediting toned coins and the dealers who sell them earns no respect in the numismatic community.  If you dislike toning or worry about minor changes which result from the colors, do not collect toned coins.  However, making an accurate judgment requires years of nonstop daily numismatic exposure – that is why most full-time professional dealers like toning.  We appreciate originality when we see it!  Consequently, evaluating the viability of beautifully toned coins remains a simple task for the educated, experienced numismatist.  Your numismatic destiny is in your own hands, so make decisions based on your personal feelings – not on Weimar White’s, Kenneth Bressett’s, or even my own.  Enjoy your coins, learn about their history, and appreciate your holdings for the sheer pleasure of collecting.

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