By Todd Hafer
“I consider it outright fraud,” said the Miami, Fla., attorney who filed a class-action lawsuit against Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and Professional Coin Grading Service alleging that the third-party grading services are deceiving eventual buyers by labeling coins as first strikes.
Attorney Charles Lipcon, of Lipcon, Marqulies and Alsina, representing plaintiff Thomas Francisco and “others similarly situated,” said the practice by NGC violates Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices law and PCGS is violating California’s Unfair Practices Act.
The suit, filed Nov. 7 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, Miami Division, states that NGC graded more than 100,000 gold and silver coins in 2005 and 2006 that were given the special designation of “first strikes.” PCGS gave the first-strike label to more than 50,000 gold and silver coins in the same time period.
“This designation has been and is currently being used by sellers of coins as a promotional tool in order to promote and sell these coins as being special or different, when in fact they are not special or different,” the civil complaint states.
It continues, “In the world of coins, the designation ‘first strike’ has a meaning that a particular coin is one of the first coins struck from a certain die set. Normally, these coins are considered more valuable and more desirable because of being one of the first coins of that particular issue to be struck.”
The complaint states that the companies are using the first-strike designation “not for the first coins struck by the U.S. Mint, but rather for coins that are shipped by the Mint during the first month after the coin is issued.”
It says that NGC and PCGS are aware that promoters and sellers of first-strike coins “are incorrectly informing the coin-buying public that the designation on these coins means that these coins are among the first coins struck by the United States Mint and therefore are worth more money than other identical coins without the designation of “First Strikes.”
The lawsuit states that designating the coins as first strikes is unfair and deceptive because the term is being used not to show that the coins are the first coins struck by the U.S. Mint, but rather for coins that are shipped by the Mint during the first month after the coin is shipped.
The complaint said the companies profited “as that allows its customers to use the designation as a marketing tool and as a means to charge more money to the public and to the plaintiff.”
Lipcon said dealers are selling the coins for as much as four times what they are really worth based on the first strike label.
“The term is being b*stardized in order to create a product to sell,” he said.
The U.S. Mint issued an advisory earlier this year saying that it does not track the order or date of the coins it mints and that by the release dates, about 50 percent of the coins have already been minted. The advisory said that the date on the box they are shipped in represents the date that the box was packed, which does not correlate with the date of manufacture.
“If you look at the numbers, there can’t be tens of thousands of first-strike coins,” Lipcon said.
“It depends on your definition of first strike,” said PCGS CEO Michael Haynes. He said the PCGS definition is coins that are released in the first month of production.
Haynes said a value is always placed on coins that are struck earlier in the process. The less wear on the die, the sharper the strike usually is.
Haynes said the free market holds sway in the process.
“Buyers can buy or not buy and sellers can submit or not submit,” he said. “We are not in the business side of coins — we do not buy or sell them.”
NGC officials were not available for comment as of the Numismatic News deadline.
Lipcon said that PCGS filed to trademark the first-strike designation. He said earlier this year, NGC filed to have the trademark withdrawn.
“What’s interesting is that both filings contained the correct description of “first strike” as the first official coin off the press,” Lipcon said.
The complaint also quotes John Albanese, the founder of NGC, but who is no longer associated with the company, “… coin dealers and grading services must stop calling the bullion coins first strikes or risk losing credibility with collectors … It’s flat-out wrong. It’s really just a marketing gimmick.”
The lawsuit asks for compensatory damages, including the difference between the cost of buying a coin labeled “first strike” and a similar coin without the label, ordering the companies to give up all funds it wrongfully collected for putting the labels on coins, attorney’s fees, costs and expenses of filing the civil action and the placement of an injunction against the companies to continue applying the first-strike label.
Neither NGC or PCGS had been served papers on the lawsuit. They have 20 days after they receive the complaint to file a response.