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Grading United States Coinage

The condition of a coin is commonly summarized by a grade. Because the value of collectible coins often varies dramatically with grade and overly generous grading is not uncommon, reasonable grading proficiency is an important skill for collectors. The material presented here is intended only as an introduction to the subject. Grading is a skill that can only be developed over time through referrals to grading guides, consultation with experienced collectors and dealers, and lots of practice.

Published standards set objective criteria for grading, yet some amount of subjectivity is inevitable -- even expert graders will often assign slightly different grades to the same coin. While you can often ask an experienced grader for an opinion, being able to make your own reasonable assessment of grade is your best protection.

The remaining material in this section is based on American Numismatic Association standards, which are widely used in the U.S. but not the only system used. Much of the rest of the world uses the grades Fair, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, Uncirculated and Fleur-de-coin.

Numerals used in coin grades have been taken from the Sheldon scale.

Uncirculated Coins. Coins with no wear at all are referred to as uncirculated or in mint state (MS). Grades from MS-60 to MS-70 in one point increments are used for mint state coins. Criteria include luster; the number, size and location of contact marks; the quality of the strike and overall eye appeal. An MS-60 coin may have dull luster and numerous contact marks in prime focal areas, as long as there is no wear. To merit MS-65, a coin must have brilliant cartwheel luster (attractive toning is permissible), at most a few inconspicuous contact marks, and a fairly complete or better strike. Grades from MS-61 to MS-64 cover intermediate parts of this range. Truly exceptional coins may be graded MS-66, MS-67 or, if absolutely flawless, as high as MS-70.

Terms such as brilliant uncirculated (BU), choice BU, gem BU, select BU and premium BU are commonly used by dealers, auctioneers and others. There is no generally reliable correlation between these terms and the numeric MS grades. In fact, the potential buyer is still advised to verify that the coin is actually uncirculated.

Circulated Coins. For circulated coins the grade is primarily an indication of how much wear has occurred and generally does not take into account the presence or absence of dings, scratches, toning, dirt and other foreign substances.

ANA grading standards recognize 11 grades for circulated coins (listed here with brief, generic descriptions):

  • AU-58, Very Choice, About Uncirculated - Just traces of wear on a coin with nearly full luster and no major detracting contact marks.
  • AU-55, Choice, About Uncirculated - Small traces of wear visible on the highest points.
  • AU-50, About Uncirculated - Very light wear on the highest points; still has at least half of the original mint luster.
  • EF-45 or XF-45, Choice, Extremely Fine - All design details are sharp; some mint luster remains, though perhaps only in "protected areas".
  • >EF-40 or XF-40, Extremely Fine - Slightly more wear than a "45"; traces of mint luster may show.
  • VF-30, Choice, Very Fine - Light even wear on high points, all lettering and design details are sharp.
  • VF-20, Very Fine - Most details are still well defined; high points are smooth.
  • F-12, Fine - Major elements are still clear but details are worn away.
  • VG-8, Very Good - Major design elements, letters and numerals are worn but clear.
  • G-4, Good - Major design elements are outlined but details are gone; for some series the date may not be sharp and the rim may not be complete.
  • AG-3, About Good - Heavily worn; date may be barely discernable.

While coins more worn than AG are rarely collected, two additional grades are nevertheless used to characterize them:

  • F-2, Fair - Very heavily worn; major portions may be completely smooth.
  • P-1, Poor, Filler or Cull - Barely recognizable.

While not included in the ANA standards, intermediate grades like AU-53, VF-35, F-15 and G-6 are used by some dealers and grading services. When a grader believes a coin is better than the minimum requirements but not nice enough for the next higher grade "+" or "PQ" may be included (e.g. MS64PQ or VG+) or a range may be given (e.g. F-VF).

Split Grades. When there are significant differences between the obverse and reverse sides, a split grade may be assigned. Split grades are denoted by a "/". For example, "F/VF" means that the obverse is F and the reverse is VF. The overall grade is normally determined by the obverse, but an intermediate value may be appropriate when the difference is significant, especially if the reverse is lower. A coin graded MS-60/61 would be considered to have an overall grade of MS-60, and another at MS-65/63 could be considered to have an overall grade of MS-64.

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