Grading Circulated U.S. Coins
Dealers today generally use either the ANA guide or Photograde when grading circulated coins for their inventories. (Brown and Dunn is now out of print.) Many local coin shops sell both books. Advertisers in Numismatic News and Coins magazine must indicate which standards they are using in grading their coins. If the standards are not listed, they must conform to ANA standards. Following are some general guidelines, accompanied by photos, for grading circulated U.S. coins. Grading even circulated pieces can be subjective, particularly when attempting to draw the fine line between, for example, AU55 and AU-58. Two longtime collectors or dealers can disagree in such a case. But by studying some combination of the following guidelines, the ANA guide, and Photograde, and by looking at a lot of coins at shops and shows, collectors can gain enough grading knowledge to buy circulated coins confidently from dealers and other collectors. The more you study, the more knowledge and confidence you will gain. When you decide which series of coins you want to collect, focus on the guidelines for that particular series. Read them, reread them, and then refer back to them again and again.
AU-50 (about uncirculated): Just a slight trace of wear, result of brief exposure to circulation or light rubbing from mishandling, may be evident on elevated design areas. These imperfections may appear as scratches or dull spots, along with bag marks or edge nicks. At least half of the original mint luster generally is still evident.
XF-40 (extremely fine): The coin 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. The same may be said for the eagle’s feathers and wreath leaves on the reverse of most U.S. coins. A trace of mint luster may still show in protected areas of the coin’s surface.
VF-20 (very fine): The coin will show light wear at the fine points in the design, though they may remain sharp overall. Although the details may be slightly smoothed, all lettering and major features must remain sharp.
Indian cent: All letters in “Liberty” are complete but worn. Headdress shows considerable flatness, with flat spots on the tips of the 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 some 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 the triangular roof partially visible.
Mercury dime: Hair braid will show some detail, and three-quarters of the detail will remain in the feathers. The two diagonal bands on the fasces will show completely but will 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 the high point of the shield.
Washington quarter: There will be considerable wear on the hair curls, with feathers on the right and left of the eagle’s breast showing clearly
Walking Liberty half dollar: All lines of the skirt will show but will be worn on the high points. Over half the feathers on the eagle will show.
Morgan dollar: Two-thirds of the hair lines from the forehead to the ear must show. Ear should be well defined. Feathers on the eagle’s breast may be worn smooth.
Barber coins: All seven letters of “Liberty” on the headband must stand out sharply. Head wreath will be well outlined from top to bottom.
F-12 (fine): 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 the word “Liberty” appears in a headband, it must be fully visible. On 20th century coins, the rim must be fully raised and sharp.
VG-8 (very good): The coin will show considerable wear, with most detail points worn nearly smooth. Where the word “Liberty” appears in a headband, at least three letters must show. On 20th century coins, the rim will start to merge with the lettering.
G-4 (good): Only the basic design remains distinguishable in outline form, will all points of detail worn smooth. The word “Liberty” has disappeared, and the rims are almost merging with the lettering.
About good or fair: The coin will be identifiable by date and mint but otherwise badly worn, with only parts of the lettering showing. Such coins are of value only as fillers in a collection until a better example of the date and mintmark can be obtained. The only exceptions would be rare coins.