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Vol 04 No. 05 May 1990

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About This File

In last month's issue, we presented an enlightening survey about Renaissance medals and their patronage by Dr. Stephen K. Scher. Dr. Scher is President of Scher Chemicals in Clifton, New Jersey and enjoys a distinguished background in the fields of an and numismatics. Among his many credits are former Chairman of the Art Department of Brown University; Fellow of the American Numismatic Society; Guest Curator and Fellow of the Frick Collection; and contributor to a wide variety of major art publications internationally. We failed to point out that Dr. Scher originally delivered this paper as the Stack Memorial Lecturer in 1988. It was generously shared with us by Dr. Scher through the ANS.

It never ceases to amaze me when the mail arrives a week after publication, and I discover which current topic has prompted reaction. Well, this month it was the note by Lyn Wilson about chemically toning coins.

Some dealers and collectors are of the opinion that coin cleaning and toning is akin to debauchery. We disagree. If I may parallel the automobile analogy (see letters to the editor, page XXXlIII), a re-chromed hood ornament on a 1950 Studebaker doesn't exactly make the car worthless.

Ancient coins usually come out of the ground in less than pristine condition. Silver, for example, oxidizes and turns an ugly black. Most collectors don't like ugly black silver coins, so dealers don't buy ugly black silver coins. Guess what happens in every little hamlet where coins are found in the ground? Now, the dealer has a handful of nice shiny silver coins· but some collectors don't like nice shiny silver coins. They like coins with "old cabinet" toning or "iridescent" toning. What to do? You guessed it!

There are a couple dealers in this country that professionally clean and tone coins. They are not looked upon by the fraternity as "defilers" but rather, are highly respected for their talent and in fact are usually backlogged with work. Some "big ticket" coins sold at public auction in the past year have come through their hands.

The question is not really whether a coin should be cleaned or treated, but when a coin should be treated. When bronze statues are retrieved from the sea, they are virtually unrecognizable and certainly not admirable as works of an. Every major museum has a staff of restorers who regularly work miracles on these nearly obliterated artifacts. In fact, The British Museum has developed an effective process for repatinating bronze and uses it, when necessary, on coins. Bronze coins are often badly corroded or terribly encrusted with mineral deposits and verdigree. If the coin is a mess, leaving it untouched is hardly a blessing.

It is certainly unethical for a dealer (or collector) to enhance a coin. by Obscuring its flaws, and then pass it off as unblemished. Still, sooner or later, a "doctored" coin may innocently find its way into the market. An experienced dealer will note that it is not original and discount it appropriately. An experienced collector will also note the ft enhancements" and pay more or less accordingly. What about the inexperienced collector? If a collector is capable of being misled or poorly advised, due to inexperience, there is little to prevent that from happening except dealer integrity. Without that integrity, I'm afraid that cleaned and toned coins are the least of the poor soul's problems.

I have purchased coins that I knew beyond a doubt were toned artificially. I received no warning or advice from the dealer. Was I deceived? I don't think so. Now, if I unknowingly bought a coin that was plugged or epoxied, and went home and discovered the repairs, I would be rather upset and would expect a refund or appropriate discount. One can see that there is a fine line of distinction between the two conditions.

That leads us to another question worth considering. It is reported that certain "hoards" of bronze coins have been completely retoned or repatinated (literally thousands of them). They are extraordinarily beautiful. Is the whole · hoard one big deception? I suppose it depends upon your point of view. Personally, I think not. and am happy to own a few of these gems.

We have repeatedly urged caution in the use of any cleaning or toning process. We especially urge extreme caution in using unfamiliar chemicals, since proper controls are necessary to ensure safety. Cleaning and toning is highly specialized field, and the results are often unpredictable. We never recommend altering a coin which you cannot afford to throwaway if the results are negative.

As for deception, it takes more than a laundry list of chemicals to become a master of the art of deceit.

We will be at the CNB in San Francisco April 27 - 28; The Greater NY show in Manhattan on May 4-5; and the Rare Coin Expo in St. Paul on May 5- 6. Make a point of saying hello, and of course we'll interested in hearing your point of view.


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