PCGS Secure Plus Debuts
"the big one"
On March 24th, PCGS pulled back the curtain to reveal "The Big One". After months of buildup, we now know that "The Big One" is a new service offered by PCGS, "PCGS Secure Plus".
PCGS Secure Plus (PCGS/SP) is actually two new services. The first, the "Secure" half, introduces a digital imaging and laser mapping database system to identify each individual coin by its digital "fingerprint". If a coin that has been graded through PCGS/SP is later removed from its holder and resubmitted through PCGS/SP, the PCGS database will flag the coin as a resubmission. PCGS graders will grade the coin much like they have in the past, without any knowledge that it is a resubmission. However, at the finalizer stage, the PCGS finalizer will be alerted to the matching record in the PCGS database. If the coin has changed between submissions by the additional of artificial toning, putty, or other unnatural substance in an effort to fraudulently achieve a higher grade, the finalizer will be able to compare the photos from the current and prior submission in order to detect these changes.
The "Plus" half of PCGS's new service is fairly simple. Most of us know that there can be a wide variance in quality between coins of the same certified grade. Toning can be positive, neutral, or negative. The strike can be sharp, average, or weak. Luster varies from full and original to subdued from dipping, and contact marks can range from the minimum to the maximum tolerated for a given grade. Knowing all of these variables, it should be easy to see the number of combinations of toning, strike, luster, and surface marks that may exist within the continuum of a given grade. Coins that score highly in each of these categories yet not quite high enough to push into the next numerical grade are often called "A" coins. PCGS/SP will now designate these premium grade coins with a "+". (Currently available for grades XF45 through MS68, not including MS60 and MS61).
The notion of "A" coins is not new. For many years, both collectors and dealers had regularly called these coins "premium quality" or "PQ". Unfortunately, the PQ term has been over-applied to coins that are simply average or even below average for the certified grade. For example, multicolored toning, whether natural or artificial, often led to a PQ note in a coin's description as long as the color was vivid.
In late 2007, a group of coin dealers lead by John Albanese formed Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC). CAC began tagging coins with a green oval sticker to denote what they considered to be premium quality. Later on, CAC changed the definition of which coins would be approved by them to "solid for the grade", reflecting their inclusion of both "A" and "B" coins. I have supported CAC's efforts, and will continue to do so, as I believe that John is sincere in his desire to affect positive change in the rare coin market. Unfortunately, CAC has not been widely adopted, with strong support coming only from a few dealers who are also CAC owners.
My expectation is that PCGS Secure Plus will develop wider support. As a one-stop service it will save both grading time and shipping expense. "Plus" grades will count in the PCGS Registry, widening the audience and increasing the competition for the best coins. Most importantly, the PCGS "Secure" database is a bold step toward greater consumer protection, and should prove to be a solid deterrent against the fraud of coin doctoring.
However, I also expect some growing pains. There will certainly be coins that receive a "+" grade that don't deserve it, while other truly exceptional coins will sit at their base grades without further recognition (I'm thinking here of a widely applauded 1898 Barber 50c PR67 owned by another dealer that didn't receive a well deserved "+".) If a coin is undergraded by PCGS/SP the first time through, it may be harder to have that grade corrected as PCGS has stated that the "grade of a matched coin will probably not change but there is a chance for reconsideration". Conversely, a liberally graded or even a doctored coin may slip through PCGS/SP on its first submission. However, I expect that PCGS will be more vigilant on submissions through PCGS/SP. Finally, keep in mind that PCGS Secure Plus is an optional service for all but the most expensive coins. For coins valued at $100,000 or less, the regular PCGS grading submission track can still be used, avoiding the extra scrutiny of PCGS/SP, and leaving a lot of open range for coin doctors.