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How United States Coins are Graded

How United States Coins are Graded

The condition or state of wear of a coin, termed its "grade," is one of the main determining factors of a coin's value. Learning how to grade coins is essential for making sensible decisions whether buying, selling, or investing.

The History of Coin Grading Systems

In the early days of coin collecting, grading of coins was by "instinct." Dealers had different grading systems based on their individual experiences, observations, and opinions. There was very little standardization.

Discussions on coin grading systems were held by the American Numismatic Association (A.N.A.) for decades, but it was not until the 1970's that definite steps were taken to compile a book of universal grading standards. In 1978 the Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins was first published, representing a consensus of professional numismatists' grading systems.

In recent times, coin values have increased sharply. In many instances coins that were sold at $100.00 twenty years ago command prices of $2,000.00 or more now. A very small difference in a coin's grade can mean a very large difference in its price. The exact grade of a coin is more important now than ever before.

The Official A.N.A. Grading System for United States Coins

It is recommended that anyone considering an investment in rare coins should become familiar with the Official A.N.A. Grading System for United States Coins, outlined below. Descriptions of Uncirculated Grades are presented first, followed by a listing of Circulated Grades. Also included is a series of pictures illustrating a typical coin in the respective states of wear. The information provided herein is intended only as an introduction. A complete grading guide to each individual series of United States coins is detailed in the Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins (pictured below).

Uncirculated Grades (Mint State)

MS-70 - The perfect coin. Has very attractive sharp strike and original luster of the highest quality for the date and mint. No contact marks are visible under magnification. There are absolutely no hairlines, scuff marks or defects. Attractive and outstanding eye appeal. Copper coins must be bright with full original color and luster.

MS-69 - Must have very attractive sharp strike and full original luster for the date and mint, with no more than two small non-detracting contact marks or flaws. No hairlines or scuff marks can be seen. Has exceptional eye appeal. Copper coins must be bright with full original color and luster.

MS-68 - Attractive sharp strike and full original luster for the date and mint, with no more than four light scattered contact marks or flaws. No hairlines or scuff marks show. Exceptional eye appeal. Copper coins must have lustrous original color.

MS-67 - Has full original luster and sharp strike for date and mint. May have three or four very small contact marks and one more noticeable but not detracting mark. On comparable coins, one or two small single hairlines may show under magnification, or one or two partially hidden scuff marks or flaws may be present. Eye appeal is exceptional. Copper coins must have lustrous original color.

MS-66 - Must have above average quality of strike and full original mint luster, with no more than two or three minor but noticeable contact marks. A few very light hairlines may show under magnification, or there may be one or two light scuff marks showing on frosted surfaces or in the field. The eye appeal must be above average and very pleasing for the date and mint. Copper coins display full original or lightly toned color as appropriate.

MS-65 - Shows an attractive high quality of luster and strike for the date and mint. A few small scattered contact marks, or two larger marks may be present, and one or two small patches of hairlines may show under magnification. Noticeable light scuff marks may show on the high points of the design. Overall quality is above average and overall eye appeal is very pleasing. Copper coins have full luster with original or darkened color as appropriate.

MS-64 - Has at least average luster and strike for the type. Several small contact marks in groups, as well as one or two moderately heavy marks may be present. One or two mall patches of hairlines may show under low magnification. Noticeable light scuff marks or defects might be seen within the design or in the field. Attractive overall quality with a pleasing eye appeal. Copper coins may be slightly dull. Color should be appropriate.

MS-63 - Mint luster may be slightly impaired. Numerous small contact marks, and a few scattered heavy marks may be seen. Small hairlines are visible without magnification. Several detracting scuff marks or defects may be present throughout the design or in the fields. The general quality is about average, but overall the coin is rather attractive. Copper pieces may be darkened or dull. Color should be appropriate.

MS-62 - An impaired or dull luster may be evident. Clusters of small marks may be present throughout with a few large marks or nicks in prime focal areas. Hairlines may be very noticeable. Large unattractive scuff-marks might be seen on major features. The strike, rim and planchet quality may be noticeably below average. Overall eye-appeal is generally acceptable. Copper coins will show a diminished color and tone.

MS-61 - Mint luster may be diminished or noticeably impaired, and the surface has clusters of small contact marks throughout. Hairlines could be very noticeable. Scuff-marks may show as unattractive patches on large areas or major features. Small rim nicks, striking or planchet defects may show, and the quality may be noticeably poor. Eye appeal is somewhat unattractive. Copper pieces will be generally dull, dark and possibly spotted.

MS-60 - Unattractive, dull or washed out mint luster may mark this coin. There may be many large detracting contact marks, or damage spots, but absolutely no trace of wear. There could be a heavy concentration of hairlines, or unattractive large areas of scuff-marks. Rim nicks may be present, and eye appeal is very poor. Copper coins may be dark, dull and spotted.

Circulated Grades

AU-58 - (Very Choice About Uncirculated) - The barest trace of wear may be seen on one or more of the high points of the design. No major detracting contact marks will be present and the coin will have attractive eye appeal and nearly full luster, often with the appearance of a higher grade.

AU-55 - (Choice About Uncirculated) - Only small traces of wear are visible on the highest points of the coin.

AU-50 - (About Uncirculated) - With traces of wear on nearly all of the highest areas. At least half of the original mint luster is present.

EF-45 - (Choice Extremely Fine) - With light overall wear on the coin's highest points. All design details are very sharp. Mint luster is usually seen only in protected areas of the coin's surface.

EF-40 - (Extremely Fine) - With only slight wear but more extensive than the preceding, still with excellent overall sharpness. Traces of mint luster may still show.

VF-30 - (Choice Very Fine) - With light even wear on the surface; design details on the highest points lightly worn, but with all lettering and major features sharp.

VF-20 - (Very Fine) - As with VF-30 but with moderate wear on the higher surface features.

F-12 - (Fine) - Moderate to considerable even wear. Entire design is bold. All lettering, including the word "LIBERTY" (on coins with this feature on shield or headband), visible, but with some weakness.

VG-8 - (Very Good) - Well worn. Major designs visible, but with faintness in areas. Head of Liberty, wreath, and other major features visible in outline form without center detail.

G-4 - (Good) - Heavily worn. Major designs visible, but with faintness in areas. Head of Liberty, wreath, and other major features, as applicable, visible in outline form without center detail.

AG-3 - (About Good) - Very heavily worn with portions of the lettering, date, and legends being worn smooth. The date is barely readable.

The exact descriptions of circulated grades vary from one coin series to another, so the preceding commentary is of a general nature. It is essential to refer to the proper section of the Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins text when grading any coin.

Nonstandard Grades and Terms

Although not recognized by the Official A.N.A. Grading System for United States Coins, intermediate grades such as AU-53, VF-35, VF-25, F-15 and G-6 are employed by some grading services and dealers. Also, some dealers use the abbreviation XF (instead of EF) to designate coins in Extra Fine condition. Additionally, three other nonstandard grades are sometimes applied to coins that grade below AG-3:

FR-2 - (Fair) - Extremely worn. Most of the coin's surface may be smooth. The date may not be readable. Possibly exhibits slight to moderate damage.

P-1 - (Poor) - Hardly recognizable. May be damaged considerably.

B-0 - (Bad) - Unrecognizable and/or severely damaged and unable to be attributed.

The term PQ or "+" might also be included by a grader who believes that a coin is better than the minimum grade requirements, but does not satisfy the criteria for the next higher grade (for example, MS-63 PQ or MS-63+). A grade range may also be given (for example, VF-EF). In addition, the designation BU (Brilliant Uncirculated) is frequently used to describe uncirculated coins. Because of the absence of a numerical grade, this term is ambiguous at best. Often, coins that are offered as BU may in reality be AU (About Uncirculated) by strict definition.

A split grade may be assigned when there are significant differences in the obverse grade and reverse grade of the same coin. Split grades are normally denoted with a dual grade in obverse/reverse format. For example, a coin with a split grade of F/VF would have an obverse grading Fine (F) and a reverse grading Very Fine (VF). Typically, coins with a split grade are valued at the level of their lowest grade, whether obverse or reverse.

In addition to numerical grade, the market value of a coin is determined by several other factors. Some of these are: quality of strike, brilliance or toning, centering, planchet quality, aesthetic appeal, and supply vs. demand. Collectors and investors are also encouraged to seek one or more second opinions from a professional before purchasing a coin with a high market price.

Recommended Reading

  1. Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins. Ed. Ken Bressett and A. Kosoff. 4th ed. N.p.: Whitman, 1991.
  2. Ruddy, James F. Photograde. N.p.: Bowers and Merena Galleries, 1991.
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