Grading US Coins for Beginners
This documentation is a tutorial for grading US coins using the 70 Point Sheldon Coin Grading Scale, the PCGS Photograde Online Service, and the NGC Coin GradingGuide. This will enable the reader to assign a ballpark grade for use in determining quality and value of US coins.
The 70 point grading scale was created by William Sheldon in 1949 and published in his book "Early American Cents". It provides a “Quantitative Scale for condition” to assign a numerical grade for the quality of Large US Cents. It was modified by the AmericanNumismatic Association so that it could be used for all US coins. It was published in 1977 as “Official ANA Grading Standards for UnitedStates Coins” which is now in its Seventh Edition.
Your hands have natural oils that can damage coins so should wash your hands before picking up a collectible coin. Even then you should pick it up by the edges and don’t touch the front or the back of the coin. This is particularly important when handling “new” or uncirculated coins as opposed to “old” or circulated coins that have been handled frequently in the past. If you were to press your finger onto the front or back of a “new” coin, your fingerprint could become visible in a few weeks. Once this happens the damage is done as the fingerprint will be etched into the surface of the coin.
Care should be taken not to allow spittle from your mouth to spray down on your coins. This can be caused by talking or sneezing or even talking. The spittle contains acids that will form a black spot over time. This damage is not reversible either.
You should hold your coins over a soft surface like a towel or a cloth because dropping a coin on a hard surface may damage it and lower its value.
Store your coins in individual holders like plastic (not PVC) flips, cardboard foldovers with transparent mylar windows, or plastic holders. Keep them away from humidity.
What you’ll need to grade coins
To get a good look at the details of the coins you need a light source, a magnifying glass for an overall look, a stronger magnifying glass for a more detailed look, and a soft cloth. Here are some that I recommend.
- An incandescent light source with a 75W or 100W bulb.
- A 5x magnifying glass, e.g. Bausch & Lomb 5x Aspheric.
- A 7x magnifying glass, e.g. Bausch & Lomb 7x Hastings Triplet.
- A microfiber cloth similar to the ones optometrists include with new eyeglasses.
Introduction to grading coins
Two primary types of coins
There are two primary types of coins; Business Strike and Proof.
Business Strike coins are made to be used in commerce and are typically distributed to the public through banks. Proof coins are primarily made for coin collectors and typically have mirrored surfaces and full details.
Both types of coins are manufactured from “planchets” which are round metal blanks. The planchets used for Business Strike coins are fed into the minting machinery by conveyer and are struck once only. The planchets used for Proof coins are specially made and polished so that they are a higher quality than the planchets used for Business Strike coins. Proof coins are placed into the minting machinery by hand and are struck at least twice. Proof coins typically have mirror like surfaces and better detail than Mint State coins.
Two primary grades of coins
There are two primary grades of coins; Uncirculated, and Circulated.
In the coin grading realm an “Uncirculated” coin is a coin that does not show evidence of wear. Uncirculated coins are also called MS or (Mint State) or BU (Brilliant Uncirculated).
A “Circulated” coin is a coin that shows evidence of wear. The amount of wear is an important component of grading coins.
Beginning the Grading Process
Is this a Mint State or a Proof coin?
As a beginner you won’t always be able to determine whether the coin is Mint State or Proof, but you should be able to tell most of the time. In the simplest case, many proof coins can be identified as such because their denomination, date, and mint mark define a proof only issue. For example, Lincoln Cents minted in San Francisco from 1971 to the present are all proofs.
The first test you can use is to look up the coin’s denomination, date, and mint mark in an online price guide like the NGC Price Guide or the PCGS Price Guide. When there is still doubt, if the coin has a mirrored background and full details it is probably a proof.
Is the coin Uncirculated or Circulated?
The first task in assigning an uncirculated grade is to determine whether the coin is in fact uncirculated. An uncirculated coin is a coin that does not show evidence of wear. Uncirculated coins have original luster (shine) though the luster can be diminished over time.
Hold the coin under a light source and tilt it from side to side and from top to bottom. As you do this you will see the luster as it moves around under the light. Look for dull spots on the high points of the coin where the luster is absent. These dull spots are evidence of wear. If you find one or more dull spots the coin is not “Uncirculated”.
Some uncirculated coins have no luster remaining and in this case look for flattening of the high points. It takes some experience to determine if this flattening is due to a weak strike or if it is due to wear. A good way to improve on this judgment is to discuss it with fellow collectors.
Examine the coin to find any “problems”
Look for any problems, for example, scratches, rim damage, surface damage, corrosion, improper cleaning, or holes. As a beginner you won’t be able to find all of the problems but using this procedure to take an overall look at the coin will allow you to begin getting the experience you’ll improve on over time.
Once you have a feel for the coin, use the lower power magnifying glass to take a closer look, still looking for problem areas. Make a mental note of the problems, if any.
Determine how much wear the coin has
Coins wear from their highest points down to the surface. Each denomination has a different wear pattern based on where the high, middle, and low features are.
If the coin is Uncirculated it does not have any wear by definition. Otherwise, if the coin is circulated you need to quantify how much wear it does have. The best tool I have seen for this purpose is the PCGS Photograde Online Service. This web site allows you to select the denomination of the coin you are grading and shows examples of the obverse and the reverse of that denomination in each grade. If you select Lincoln Cents, for example, you can scroll from the highest to the lowest grade and see how these coins wear from uncirculated to Poor.
The online service uses the 70 point grading scale, which is described in a nutshell below.
Overview of the 1-70 Grading Scale
Grades 1 to 58 (Circulated)
Most Important Grades
Not all of the grade numbers from 1 to 58 are used. The most important grades are described below.
PO-1: Poor; the lowest grade, the date and type of coin are identifiable
FR-2: Fair; mostly worn, though some detail is visible
AG-3: About Good; Worn rims, but most lettering is visible though worn
G-4: Good; slightly worn rims, flat details, peripheral lettering nearly full
VG-8: Very Good; design worn with slight detail remaining
F-12: Fine; more areas with detail, all lettering sharp
VF-20: Very Fine; details are nearly complete with some wear on the highest points, all lettering full and sharp
EF-40: Extra Fine; details are complete with most high points slightly flat
AU-50: About Uncirculated; complete details with friction over most of the surface, slight flatness on high points
“In-Between” grades for Circulated coins
The best approach is to focus on the “Most Important” grades above and to be comfortable assigning those grades before trying to assign the “In-Between” grades below. Click on a grade (e.g. VG-10) to see some examples.
VG-10: Very Good 10; design worn with slight detail, slightly clearer
F-15: Fine 15; Slightly more detail in recessed areas, all lettering sharp
VF-25: Very Fine 25; slightly more definition than VF-20 in the detail and lettering
VF-30: Very Fine 30; almost complete detail with flat areas
VF-35: Very Fine 35; detail is complete but worn with high points flat
EF-45: Extra Fine 45; detail is complete with some high points flat
AU-53: About Uncirculated 53; full detail with friction over 1/2 or more of the surface, very slight flatness on high points
AU-55: About Uncirculated 55; full detail with friction on less than 1/2 surface, mainly on high points
AU-58: About Uncirculated 58; full detail with only slight friction on the high points
Grades 60 to 70 (Uncirculated Mint State coins or Proof coins)
Once you have determined that the coin is “Uncirculated” the next important characteristic to consider is the quality of the “strike”. The better the “strike” the more details are on the coin. A good way to evaluate this characteristic is to use the photos provided in the PCGS Photograde Online Service. Look at the type of coin you’re grading in its highest grade to see what a full strike looks like.
After determining that the coin is uncirculated and evaluating its strike you are ready to assign a grade from the list below. PCGS Photograde Online Service will be very useful in this evaluation.
MS or PR-60: Mint State 60 or Proof 60; no Wear. May have many heavy marks/hairlines, strike may not be full
MS or PR-61: Mint State 61 or Proof 61; No Wear. Multiple heavy marks & hairline scratches, strike may not be full
MS or PR-62: Mint State 62 or Proof 62; No wear. Slightly less marks & hairline scratches, strike may not be full
MS or PR-63: Mint State 63 or Proof 63; Moderate number and size marks & hairline scratches, strike may not be full
MS or PR-64: Mint State 64 or Proof 64; Few marks & hairline scratches or a couple of severe ones, strike should be average or above
MS or PR-65: Mint State 65 or Proof 65; Minor marks & hairline scratches though none in focal areas, above average strike
MS or PR-66: Mint State 66 or Proof 66; Few minor marks & hairline scratches not in focal areas, good strike
MS or PR-67: Mint State 66 or Proof 67; Virtually as struck with minor imperfections, very well struck
MS or PR-68: Mint State 68 or Proof 68; Virtually as struck with slight imperfections, slightest weakness of strike allowed
MS or PR-69: Mint State 69 or Proof 69; Virtually as struck with miniscule imperfections, near full strike necessary
MS or PR-70: Mint State 70 or Proof 70; As struck, with full strike
Completing your grade assignment
The grade you have determined with this process is called a “details” grade. This means that the coin has details that fit with other coins in this grade, in your opinion. To complete your grade for the coin you should note any problems that you found earlier in the process. For example, the grade could be “F12 details with carbon spots” A typical way that sellers adjust the price to take into account the problems with the coin is do look up its value in a lower grade. For example, you might price this coin according to its value as VG-8.
If you’ve gotten this far you are on your way to having the ability to assign ballpark grades. All that remains is to practice grading coins and get some feedback using the tools described in the introduction or discussing the grades with fellow collectors. This is an enjoyable pursuit through which you can gain a useful skill for your hobby.