Condition: Grading

Q: "I sell rare coins on eBay. Recently I sold a coin and described it as I saw it. I looked at my description and close-up photos and compared them with other, similar coins on eBay. It matched up with Very Fine (VF). Now, I'm not a professional coin grader, but I have been collecting them for ten years, and I believe that my description was correct. Plus, there were pictures showing the coin. The buyer wants a refund because he says the coin is only in Fine Plus (F+) condition, which is slightly below Very Fine. Do I have to give him his money back?"

A: Describing the condition of an item you are selling on eBay is always tricky, but it's especially so with coins, stamps, and certain antiques that have an established hierarchy of grade levels. For example, ancient Roman and Greek coins are graded using the following scale: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, About Mint State, Mint State, and Fleur de Coin (FDC). On this scale, a coin that is listed in Good condition isn't in such great shape after all and may actually look like it went through hell before it made its way onto eBay.

Grades for American coins are even tougher, because within each of these grading categories there is a ranking from 1 to 100, depending on the level of detail that is still visible on the coin—a VF20 coin will look very different from a VF90 coin, even though both are graded Very Fine (VF).

Assigning an object to one of these grading classifications can be very tricky if you are not a recognized expert. There are grading handbooks that tell you in general terms what antiques dealers look for when assigning a grade to an object. In the case of coins, there are classification services (such as the Professional Coin Grading Service in Newport Beach, California, that assign conditions to coins and then slab them in Lucite containers to prevent further deterioration and wear. But there are dealers and professionals who will question even an expert appraisal and evaluation as being either overly conservative or overly generous, depending on their own evaluation of a particular coin.

If you are selling coins on eBay, it's a good idea to:

• Have the coin professionally graded and scabbed (encased in Lucite) by PCGS or one of the other leading third-party appraisal services, if the value of the coin warrants it.

• Have the coin evaluated by a local (reputable) dealer, and state clearly in your listing that "this coin was graded VF20 by a reputable dealer in New York City."

• Grade the coin yourself, and explain in your item description the key factors that led you to grade the coin as you did (for example, "observe specifically that the third tail feather on the Native American's headdress is clearly visible, which I felt merited grading this Indian-head penny as a VF30 rather than a VF20").

• Grade the coin as best you can, and list the coin at the grade immediately below the one you think is appropriate—that way, there is little chance a buyer will think you are inflating the grade, and there is a good chance buyers may think you are overly conservative in your grading and bid the coin up to its true value.

Whenever a buyer questions your grading of an item, as this one did, and you are convinced the buyer knows what he or she is talking about, it's a good idea to post the buyer's e-mail on the eBay listing itself, along with a short note saying, "As we all know, the grading of coins is a highly subjective matter—here are some other opinions of this coin's grade so you can make a more informed decision."

As for giving this buyer his money back, I would do it. In your future listings, don't list a condition at all but rather post several close-up photos of the item and let your buyers draw their own conclusions about condition. In my experience, most buyers will actually give your coins higher grades than a professional grading service would!

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