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An Introduction to Paper Money Grading
By Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money
January 20, 2011


Grading is the most controversial component of paper money collecting. Small differences in grade can mean significant differences in value.

To facilitate communication between sellers and buyers, it is essential that grading terms and their meanings be as standardized and as widely used as possible. The standardization should reflect common usage as much as practicable.

The grades and definitions as set forth below cannot reconcile all the various systems and grading terminology variants. Rather, the attempt is made here to try and diminish the controversy with some common-sense grades and definitions that aim to give more precise meaning to the grading language of paper money.

Grading Guide

Crisp Uncirculated (CU): A perfectly preserved note, never mishandled by the issuing authority, a bank teller, the public or a collector.

Paper is clean and firm, without discoloration. Corners are sharp and square, without any evidence of rounding. (Rounded corners are often a tell-tale sign of a cleaned or “doctored” note.) An uncirculated note will have its original, natural sheen.

About Uncirculated (AU): A virtually perfect note, with some minor handling. May show evidence of bank counting folds at a corner or one light fold through the center, but not both. An AU note cannot be creased, a crease being a hard fold which has usually “broken” the surface of the note.

Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money
Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money

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Paper is clean and bright with original sheen. Corners are not rounded.

Extremely Fine (XF): very attractive note, with light handling. May have a maximum of three light folds or one strong crease.

Paper is clean and bright with original sheen. Corners may show only the slightest evidence of rounding. There may also be the slightest sign of wear where a fold meets the edge.

Very Fine (VF): An attractive note, but with more evidence of handling and wear. May have a number of folds both vertically and horizontally.

Paper may have minimal dirt, or possible color smudging. Paper itself is still relatively crisp and not floppy.

There are no tears into the border area, although the edges do show slight wear. Corners also show wear but not full rounding.

Fine: A note which shows considerable circulation, with many folds, creases and wrinkling. Paper is not excessively dirty but may have some softness.

Edges may show much handling, with minor tears in the border area. Tears may not extend into the design. There will be no center hole because of excessive folding.

Colors are clear but not very bright. A staple hole or two would not be considered unusual wear in a Fine note. Overall appearance is still on the desirable side.

Very Good (VG): A well-used note, abused but still intact.

Corners may have much wear and rounding, tiny nicks, tears may extend into the design, some discoloration may be present, staining may have occurred, and a small hole may be seen at center from excessive folding.

Staple and pinholes are usually present, and the note itself is quite limp but no pieces of the note are missing. A note in VG condition may still have an overall not unattractive appearance. Good (G): A well-worn and heavily-used note. Normal damage from prolonged circulation will include strong multiple folds and creases, stains, pinholes and/or staple holes, dirt, discoloration, edge tears, center hole, rounded corners and an overall unattractive appearance. No large pieces of the note may be missing. Graffiti is commonly seen on notes in Good condition.

Fair: A totally limp, dirty, and very well-used note. Large pieces may be half torn off or missing besides the defects mentioned under the Good category. Tears will be larger, obscured portions of the note will be bigger. Poor: A “rag” with severe damage because of wear, staining, pieces missing, graffiti, larger holes. May have tape holding pieces of the note together. Trimming may have taken place to remove rough edges.

The above Introduction and Grading Guide is an adaptation work prepared under the guidance of the Grading Committee of the International Bank Note Society.

How To Look At A Banknote

In order to ascertain the grade of a note, it is essential to examine it out of a holder and under a good light. Move the note around so that light bounces off at different angles. Try holding it up obliquely so that the note is almost even with your eye as you look up at the light. Hard-to-see folds or slight creases will show up under such examination.

Cleaning, Washing, Pressing

Cleaning, washing or pressing paper money is generally harmful and reduces both the grade and the value of a note. At the very least, a washed or pressed note may lose its original sheen and its surface may become lifeless and dull. The defects a note has, such as folds and creases, may not necessarily be completely eliminated and their telltale marks can be detected under a good light. Carelessly washed notes may also have white streaks where the folds or creases were (or still are).

Processing of a note will automatically reduce it at least one full grade.

Other Defects

Glue, tape or pencil marks may sometimes be successfully removed. While such removal will leave a cleaned surface, it will improve the overall appearance of the note without concealing any of its defects. Under such circumstances, the grade of that note may also be improved.

The words “pinholes,” “staple holes,” “trimmed,” “writing on face... tape marks,” etc., should always be added to the description of a note.

The Term “Uncirculated”

The word “Uncirculated” is used in this grading guide only as a qualitative measurement of the appearance of a note. It has nothing at all to do with whether or not an issuer has actually released the note to circulation. Either a note is uncirculated in condition or it is not, there can be no degrees of uncirculated. Defects in color, centering and the like may be included in a description but the fact that a note is or is not in uncirculated condition should not be a disputable point.

Excerpted from Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money 28th Edition by George S. Cuhaj and William Brandimore. Order it at

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On January 21, 2011 Howard A. Daniel III said
Is the above IBNS Grading Standards?  The IBNS now has a Grading Committee and we are developing a quick reference chart.  Would that be useful to you for the SCWPM?  Jim Downey is the Chairman of the committee.

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