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.
An overview of American Numismatic Association standards follows. ANA standards are widely used in the U.S. but are 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 (see Glossary).
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 number, size and location of any hairlines, and 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 should have brilliant cartwheel luster (attractive toning is permissible), at most a few inconspicuous contact marks, no hairlines, and nearly complete striking details. 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 the theoretical maximum of MS-70. Many numismatists consider MS-70 to be an unobtainable ideal.
Terms such as brilliant uncirculated (BU), choice BU, gem BU, select BU and premium BU are still used in lieu of numerical grades by some dealers, auctioneers and others. Correlations between these terms and the numeric MS grades are difficult at best, because of inconsistent usage and in some cases overgrading.
Market values for many uncirculated coins vary dramatically from one grade to the next. Remember that whether a coin is described with a numerical or an adjectival grade, it’s only someone’s opinion. Until you are comfortable with your ability to grade uncirculated coins, make liberal use of other opinions, such as those available with slabbed coins or from experienced collectors and dealers you trust, or concentrate on 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 (though such information may also be noted).
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).
When there are significant differences between the obverse and reverse sides, a split grade may be assigned. Split grades are denoted with a “/”. For example, “F/VF” means that the obverse is F and the reverse is VF.
The overall grade is often determined by the obverse. 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.