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The primary purpose of grading a coin is to determine the coin's market value. Ascertaining a coin's value is dependent on how well the coin was struck initially, the coin's a level of preservation, and how much wear and damage the coin has sustained. For beginners, we're going to concentrate on how to evaluate the amount of wear the coin has, and where it fits on the 70-point scale.

Remember, coin grading is an opinion based upon a standard definition that most coin dealers and numismatists would agree with. The differences come in when minor details in a coin's appearance may push it to a higher grade if it's a positive influence. On the contrary, the difference may be a minor defect that a push it into a lower grade. The size and position of the imperfection and its effect on appearance is where one person may grade the coin higher and another one to grade the coin lower.

Study coins that have been graded by a trusted coin dealer and tried to determine why they graded the coin as such. If you are not sure why a certain coin received a particular grade, asked the dealer to explain it to you. Coin dealers are more than willing to share their knowledge and create a well-educated coin collector. However, seek a trusted and valued coin dealer amongst experienced coin collectors. Some coin dealers’ over-grade their coins in order to sell them at a higher price. When you go to sell that coin, honest coin dealers will grade the coin properly and you will not be able to recover the money that you overpaid for the coin initially.

The 70-Point Coin Grading Scale

When numismatists grade coins, they are assigned a numeric value on the Sheldon Scale. The Sheldon Scale ranges from a grade of Poor (P-1) to Perfect Mint State (MS-70). Originally coins were graded using adjectives to describe the condition of the coin (Good, Fair, Excellent, Etc.). Unfortunately, coin collectors and coin dealers had differing interpretations of what each one of these words meant.

In the 1970s, professional numismatists got together and agreed-upon standards for Coin Grading. These numismatists now assign grades at crucial points on this seventy-point scale, with the most commonly used numeric points used along with the original adjective grade. The most common coin grades are as follows:

    (P-1) Poor - Barely identifiable and possibly damaged; must have a date and mintmark if used, otherwise pretty thrashed.

    (FR-2) Fair - Worn almost smooth but lacking the damage a coin graded Poor usually has. Enough detail must remain to identify the coin

    (G-4) Good - Heavily worn such that inscriptions merge into the rims in places; major features are mostly obliterated.

    (VG-8) Very Good - Very worn, but all major design elements are evident, albeit faint. Little if any central detail remains.

    (F-12) Fine - Very worn, but wear is even, and overall design elements stand out boldly. Almost fully-separated rims from the field.

    (VF-20) Very Fine - Moderately worn, with some finer details persisting. All letters of LIBERTY or the motto are readable. The rims on both sides of the coin are full and separated from the field.

    (EF-40) Extremely Fine - Lightly worn; all devices are clear, significant devices are bold. Finer detail is bold and clear but may show some evidence of light wear.

    (AU-50) About Uncirculated - Slight traces of wear on high points of the coin's design; may have contact marks and eye appeal should be acceptable.

    (AU-58) Very Choice About Uncirculated - Slightest hints of wear marks, no significant contact marks, almost full mint luster, and positive eye appeal.

    (MS-60) Mint State Basal - Strictly uncirculated; no evidence of wear on the highest points of the coin but an ugly coin with subdued luster, noticeable contact marks, hairlines, etc.

    (MS-63) Mint State Acceptable - Uncirculated, but with contact marks and nicks, slightly impaired luster, fundamentally appealing appearance. The strike is average to weak.

    (MS-65) Mint State Choice - Uncirculated with strong mint luster, very few contact marks, excellent eye appeal. The strike is above average.

    (MS-68) Mint State Premium Quality - Uncirculated with perfect luster, no visible contact marks to the naked eye, exceptional eye appeal. The strike is sharp and attractive.

    (MS-69) Mint State Almost Perfect - Uncirculated with perfect luster, sharp and attractive strike, and very exceptional eye appeal. A perfect coin except for tiny flaws (only visible under 8x magnification) in planchet, strike, or contact marks.

    (MS-70) Mint State Perfect - The perfect coin. There are no microscopic flaws visible under 8x magnification; the strike is sharp, and the coin is perfectly centered on a perfect planchet. Bright and full, original luster and outstanding eye appeal that is rarely seen on a coin.

How to Grade Circulated Coins

Most beginners looking for grading help have circulated coins, and fortunately, circulated coins are the easiest for the novice to grade. It helps to have a Mint State (a.k.a. uncirculated) specimen of the coin type under consideration to make comparisons to, but this isn't a requirement.

Step 1

You'll need to have an excellent light source, such as a 100-watt bulb in a lamp close to where you are sitting. Next, you'll need a decent magnifier, preferably something that magnifies about 5 to 8 times (expressed as 5x to 8x). Anything stronger than 8x isn't usually used in coin grading, and anything lower than 5x is too weak to see important details and small damage marks.

Step 2

Determine if your coin is Uncirculated (Mint State) or does it have only the slightest hints of wear on the high points (About Uncirculated)?

Step 3

Compare your coin to the scale shown above to determine where it fits on the scale. Keep in mind that the numbers are not proportional; in other words, the amount of detail loss between EF-40 and EF-20 is not the same as that which is lost between MS-60 and EF-40. In fact, the coin that grades EF-40 has lost only about 5% to 10% of its detail, but the coin that grades F-20 has lost about 60%. Use the written descriptions to place your coin as best you can. If you want more precise grading, I recommend "The Official ANA Grading Standards" book, which breaks the grades out for every major U.S. coin type, along with photos to help you determine the correct grade.

NGC Coin Grading Scale

PCGS Grading Standards