Collecting Coins: Determine Coin Grades

These tips provide an introduction to the subjective art of coin grading. A coin's overall value is determined by its grade.

Ever wondered how much that coin in your collection is worth? If you've referred to a price guide such as the Red Book or the Blue Book, chances are the values will be evaluated according to its grade.

Grading is the evaluation of the overall condition of a coin. Several factors affect grading. The lack or presence of physical features, sharpness of detail, luster, surface wear, scarcity, and age are among some of the indicators of value. The American Numismatic Association (A.N.A) currently uses a grading scale developed by Dr. William Shelby, which rates coins on a 0 to 70 scale, with 0 being the lease desirable and 70 rating a coin in perfect state. This standard is applicable to United States coins only; no grading standard exists for world coins. Generally speaking, a higher grade means a coin will be worth more.

Although there are defined criteria that define a coin's grade, the art of coin grading is still a subjective one. Certain numismatic associations will tend to undergrade a coin, while the reverse is true for dealers and disreputable sellers. Coins are judged by degrees of uncirculatedness and circulatedness. Coins in circulated states are judged as extents of fine, good and fair mainly because of public contact, and subsequently, the wear and tear contact incurs. Uncirculated coins are described in terms of the varying appearance of blemishes, luster, and visibility of wear to its surface. A newly minted dime may be considered as uncirculated, but its condition will be largely determined by whether it has been in contact with other coins in a roll, or whether it has retained its original shine. Higher areas of the coin (such as raised areas of the design as in the raised head on the quarter) will frequently incur more damage than other areas. The discussion below explains the various grades as defined by the American Numismatic Association:

A coin that is in Perfect Uncirculated state (MS-70) is a coin that has no blemishes and has no wear. These coins have had no contact marks with other coins, and have a brilliant mint luster. Normally, coins that are packaged in proof sets from the United States Mint warrant this grade.

A coin is Choice Uncirculated (MS-65) if it has no discernible contact marks and still retains a brilliant luster to its surface. An average roll of new nickels from the bank will typically contain one or two MS-65 coins.

An Uncirculated coin (MS-60) will typically have sustained a few contact marks, but have no visible traces of wear. A MS-60 coin may have lost some of its original luster. In the average roll of new nickels, two to five coins will typically be within this grade.

The next series of uncirulated states assign a lower value for an uncirculated coin which has incurred slight wear on its high points. These coins are rated as "╦ťA' for almost or about, and may in some circumstances be assigned a lower grade for these slight imperfections.

A Choice About Uncirculated (AU-55) coin has barely discernible traces of wear on the high points. An AU-55 coin maintains its mint luster.

On the other hand, an About Uncirculated (AU-50) coin will show the lightest traces of wear on its high points. An AU-50 coin still displays half of its brilliant luster.

Having been in use, circulated coins will typically show light to heavy wear. The differences in the grade depend on the visibility of features and sharpness of details on the coin.

Choice Extremely Fine (EF-45) coins are lightly worn on the high points. The details in the design are well-defined and sharp. The coins retain some of the original mint luster.

Extremely Fine (XF-40 or EF-40) refers to a coin that has light wear in the overall design, but the details are still well-defined.

Choice Very Fine (VF-30) refers to a coin in which the lettering and specific design details such as hair and feathers are still sharp, but that has sustained even wear on its entire surface. A coin in VF condition has been in circulation between 1 to 3 years.

Very Fine (VF-20) coins display minor wear on the features such as hair and feathers, and moderate wear on the high points. The major features on the coin are still sharp and defined.

A coin that is in Fine (F-12) condition maintains clarity on the major design details, but obvious wear will be apparent on the surface. Moderate to heavy wear on the high points will be the defining aspects of this grade. A quarter from the year 1965 will usually be an example of this particular grade.

A Very Good (VG-8) coin is worn. The design is beginning to lack sharpness in its detail, although those elements are still present. The rims on the coin (line that circles the coin's edge) are still present.

A Good (VG-4) coin is worn heavily, and its design is also worn in certain areas. You can still see the date and mint mark on the coin. With an About Good (AG-3) coin, the date and mint mark is beginning to fade, and the lettering is faint.

Finally, the Fair coin is a coin which has sustained extreme wear, and on which the lettering and dates are no longer visible. Basically, you'll know what type of coin this is (i.e. - quarter, dime, nickel, penny). A coin in Basal state is, for lack of a better term, still a coin.

Not everybody will agree with the exact definition of a grade. There may be varying opinions on the degree of mint luster (or brilliance), sharpness or definition of detail still present on the coin. Consequently, coin grading is not a well-defined scientific endeavor. If you decide to learn the grading system yourself, much patience and study will be necessary to correctly grade those coins in your collection. It is recommended that you acquire the "Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins" and a magnifying glass prior to your travails into grading. If you are ever in doubt about the exact grading of your coins, you have the option of first determining the grade yourself, and then obtaining opinions from professional coin dealers.

Do your research, and this experience could potentially be rewarding!

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