Learning How to Grade is the Cornerstone of Collecting|
October 09, 2012
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Careful consideration must be given to the condition of a coin before arriving at its value, since a minor difference in grading can mean a substantial difference in price. There are several factors to keep in mind when attributing varying grades of preservation. Determining the condition of a coin is both an exact science and a subjective judgment call. Complete agreement on the exact qualities that constitute a grade of condition does not always occur between two individuals.
The following chart is a consensus based on the 10 most frequently encountered coins commanding premium values in circulated condition (illustrations not actual size). The descriptive grades can be applied to other issues. Qualities described are based on the standards developed and adopted by the American Numismatic Association.
MS-65 (uncirculated)—MS stands for mint state, which refers to a coin that has never been placed in circulation. An MS-65 is a superior mint-state example. It will be sharply struck with full mint luster. There will be no distracting marks in the field or on the raised areas of the design. The coin may be brilliant or naturally toned, but it must have superior “eye appeal” to qualify as an MS-65.
MS-64 (uncirculated)—May have light scattered contact marks. Luster will be at least average. MS-63 (uncirculated)—May have some distracting marks in prime focal areas with a few scattered hairlines. Coins in this grade will generally have a pleasing appearance.
MS-60 (uncirculated)—The typical quality encountered in coins struck for circulation. No wear will be evident, but a small number of bag marks, nicks, or other abrasions will be present. Surfaces could be dull or spotted.
AU-50 (about uncirculated)—Just a slight amount of wear from brief exposure to circulation or light rubbing from mishandling may be found on the elevated design areas. Those imperfections may appear as scratches or dull spots, along with bag marks or edge nicks. At least half of the original mint luster will usually be present.
EF-40 (extremely fine)—Coins must show only slight evidence of wear on the highest points of the design, particularly in the hair lines of the portrait on the obverse and the eagle’s feathers and wreath found on most U.S. coins. A trace of mint luster may show in protected areas of the coin’s surface.
VF-20 (very fine)—Coins reflect noticeable wear at the fine points in the design, though they may remain sharp overall. Although the details will be slightly smoothed, all lettering and major features must remain sharp.
Indian cent: All letters in “LIBERTY” complete but worn; headdress shows considerable flatness, with flat spots on tips of feathers.
Lincoln cent: Hair, cheek, jaw and bow-tie details will be worn but clearly separated, and wheat stalks on the reverse will be full, with no weak spots.
Buffalo nickel: High spots on hair braid and cheek will be flat but show more detail, and a full horn will remain on the buffalo.
Jefferson nickel: Well over half of the major hair detail will remain, and the pillars on Monticello will remain well defined, with triangular roof partially visible.
Mercury dime: Hair braid will show some detail, and three-quarters of the details will remain in the feathers. The two diagonal bands on the fasces will show completely, but be worn smooth at the middle, with the vertical lines sharp.
Standing Liberty quarter: Rounded contour of Liberty’s right leg will be flattened, as will high point of shield.
Walking Liberty half dollar: All lines of the skirt will show but be worn on high points, and over half of the feathers will show on eagle.
Morgan dollar: Two-thirds of hairlines from forehead to ear must show, and ear will be well defined, while feathers on eagle’s breast may be worn smooth.
Barber coins: All seven letters of “LIBERTY” on headband must stand out sharply, while head wreath will be well outlined top to bottom.
F-12 (fine)—This is the most widely collected condition. Coins show evidence of moderate to considerable but generally even wear on all high points, though all elements of the design and lettering remain bold. Where “LIBERTY” appears on the headband, it must be fully visible. The rim must be fully raised and sharp on 20th-century coins.
VG-8 (very good)—Coins show considerable wear, with most of the points of detail worn nearly smooth. At least three letters must show where “LIBERTY” appears in a headband. On 20th-century coinage, the rim is starting to merge with the lettering.
G-4 (good)—In this condition, only the basic design detail remains distinguishable in outline form, with all points of detail being worn smooth. “LIBERTY” has disappeared, and rims are nearly merging with the lettering.
About good or fair—A coin identifiable by date and mint but otherwise badly worn, with only parts of the lettering showing. Such coins are of value to collectors only as space fillers and command a significant premium only in cases of extreme scarcity.
Proof—Created as collector coins, proof specimens are struck on specially selected planchets with highly polished dies and generally display a mirrorlike finish, sometimes featuring frosted highlight areas. All individual proof valuations listed in this guide are for superb Proof-65 specimens.
Prooflike and deep-mirror prooflike—These terms describe the degree of reflectiveness and cameo contrast on well-struck Morgan dollars. A DMPL coin may appear to be a proof at first glance, and a prooflike specimen has a lesser (but still considerable) degree of flash. Bag marks are more noticeable on PL and DMPL?Morgans. Some common dates are scarce in this condition.
Collectors who want to study coin grading in greater detail should examine the Official ANA?Grading Standards for United States Coins, which provides photos of coins in grades from about good to mint state. Photograde by James F. Ruddy is a handy reference for grading circulated coins.
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