Grading Coins is the process of determining the grade or condition of a coin. A "grade" is described as a shorthand designed by coin experts (numismatists) to reveal a coin’s appearance. Simply put, if a certain coin collector tells another collector that he owns an uncirculated Charlotte 50 half eagle, both should already have a concept of the coins appearance without even seeing it, because of the claim of its grade. Some disclose that designating a grade to rank or categorize a coin is more of an art rather than science, since often it is extremely subjective or biased; this applies particularly when working on “Mint State” coins where little differences, in terms of grade, make so much difference in the price.
Grading coins is an art. Grading coins can be a difficult subject for the beginning collector. Grading can be learned, studied and applied with a predictable and known outcome that eventually depends on judgment, not feelings. Like any language, science, sport, or research, it is best to learn and understand coin grading one component at a time, through serious study and experience. Today, most numismatists use the “Sheldon grading scale”. While there are those that complain of "too many grades", most experienced coin graders recognize and appreciate the fact that there is a wide range in features between ranges. Grading coins accurately is one of the most valuable skills a coin collector can learn.
This is the method of stamping or imprinting a drawing or a symbol onto a blank. Depending on the coin’s design, it can either have weak or strong strike. An example of this would be the “Type II gold dollar” on which both sides (front and back) have the highest strike that is perfectly aligned, meaning, these designs require weak strikes. Generally the strike is not a key factor in establishing the coin’s grade except when it is included in a series where the value is connected to strike.
Preservation of the coin’s surface
The number of coin marks as well as where they are placed is a significant element in establishing the grade. While there is no fixed formula on the number of coin marks that sets its grade, there are several regulated standards regarding the significance of the location or positioning of a scratch. For instance, a coin having a deep scratch that it is not easily visible on its reverse (back) side will not be strictly penalized. However, if the same scratch was positioned on a noticeable or obvious central point on the front, such as the cheek on the Statue of Liberty, it would be penalized much more.
Patina or luster
A coin can have a variation of textures on the surface, influenced by design, the metal that was used and the “mint of origin”. Textures can include frosty, satiny, proof-like and semi-proof-like. When examining the coin’s surface in terms of grade, two things should be looked at; the quantity, or what is left of the original skin (has to be intact), and the location and amount of marks. Luster is important especially when determining whether a coin is either circulated or uncirculated. A coin in Mint State technically; is free of abrasion and wear and must not have significant breaks in its luster.
This is a very subjective element in determining coin grade. For instance, a “gold coin” showing dark green-gold pigmentation may be unattractive to one collector and attractive to another. As gold is moderately an inert metal, it is not prone to much color variance as copper or silver. Although wide ranging colors may exist in gold coins. Almost all of US gold coins had been dipped or cleaned, therefore not anymore displaying their original color. As coin collectors become knowledgeable, most of them are attracted and fascinated to coins having their natural color. In most coin series, it is nearly impossible to discover original coin pieces.
Eye attraction or appeal
Color, luster, strike and surface marks come together, comprises “eye appeal”. Note that a coin having superior “eye appeal” can be strong in one aspect, such as possessing exceptional luster but not quite as strong in another aspect, such as not so good color. A coin that is undesirable in one aspect yet good enough in all the other aspects can still be distinguished as “below average” in “eye appeal”.
Knowing how to grade a coin is very important so that one can have an idea of the value or price of the coin that he is buying or selling. When new to coin collecting, be sure to ask the help of an experienced collector or dealer when buying or exchanging your coins. Below is the U.S. standard.
General Grading Coins Standards for U.S. Coins
Good (G) - Coin will be heavily worn, but the main design and legend will be visible. Lettering may be worn smooth. May be dull or faded areas.
Very Good (VG) - Still well worn but more of the rim will be evident. Design and legend will be clear but worn flat. Lacks specific details.
Fine (F) - Medium to heavy wear but even overall. The design becomes clearer and details begin to appear. Some letters within the design will be apparent.
Very Fine (VF) - A visibly nicer coin. High spots will show light, even wear. Various major features are visible. Lettering is all readable.
Extra Fine (XF) - Slight wear will show on the highest points of the main devices. Words are sharp and easily readable. All details are clearly defined.
AU 50 - Slight traces of wear on the highest points of the coin; may be dull with some evidence of luster under any toning.
AU 53 - Just slightly better than an AU 50 with a little more luster visible. Eye appeal begins to make a difference between the AU grades.
AU 55 - An obviously nicer coin than an AU 50 with no major difficulties. More luster shines through the surfaces.
AU 58 - This is oftentimes called a slider as it will appear to many observers to be uncirculated. Just the faintest wear on the highest points of the coin. Luster should be quite evident, although some toning can be apparent. Usually coins with poor eye appeal will not make the AU 58 grade.
MS 60 - Mint State indicates a coin that has no wear and is uncirculated. It may have numerous bagmarks and/or be toned. MS 60 is the lowest quality of an uncirculated coin.
MS 61 - An uncirculated coin that is just slightly better than MS 60. However, no question that it is uncirculated. Whereas, some may debate over the merits of a coin being MS60 because of the excessive bagmarks, the MS61 should be more desirable.
MS 62 - This coin should be a much cleaner specimen than an MS 60, yet, just slightly better than an MS 61. There should be fewer bagmarks as the coin takes on more attractive features.
MS 63 - This is the grade that many collectors feel is the most collectible in numismatics. Prices are typically reasonable compared to higher grades and the coin should have at least an average strike and eye appeal, with minimal distracting marks.
MS 64 - This is the grade where prices in many series begin to increase dramatically. For this reason the coin will begin to show fewer marks and the strike will be the strongest yet. No primary distractions that will draw your eye. A near-gem coin with just a few tiny marks or weakness in strike to keep it from a higher grade.
MS 65 - This is the gem category. Coin should be fully struck with eye appeal. Either brilliant or toned but there should not be any unsightly marks or color that negates eye appeal. Any marks should be very minor in appearance. Prices spread out even further.
MS 66 - A coin that just jumps out at you as being nicer than an MS 65. The main devices on either side should have no more than very minor ticks and the fields should be cleaner than that of an MS 65.
MS 67 - A superior coin that has no major distractions to speak of. The fields should be near flawless with just the slightest contact on the main device. This coin should emit a look of satisfaction from the viewer. Prices increase further especially for coins with short supplies and strong demand.
MS 68 - A difficult grade to determine by most experts. When does a coin become MS 68 but is not quite MS69 or 70? A very superior coin with maybe just a minor tick on either side keeping it from perfection.
MS 69 - This is a coin that should create a gasp when viewed. There should be no imperfections to the naked eye. With a magnifying glass a minor mark or impediment may be visible.
MS 70 - A perfect coin with no imperfections seen with a magnifying glass. There should be no marks whatsoever; the coin must look like it just left the Mint. Very unusual in early coins as the mint did not have the quality they do today. Modern coins have been given this exalted grade although there is debate whether coins can be perfect.
As we proceed to higher grades, there should be a noticeable difference in each grade and an improvement in quality, strike, and eye appeal. However, since grading is subjective, it will still be difficult for most numismatists to see a distinct difference from one grade to the next. This is especially so in grades of MS67 and higher.
Any kind of damage or cleaning will downgrade the potential value of a coin.