Coin grading is an art, a science, a subjective judgment, or a miscalculated shot in the dark, depending on who you ask. The process has evolved over many decades. At present (early decades of the 21st century) it is so much more refined than at any other time. Whereas it might have sufficed for collectors 100 years ago to distinguish a coin as either “New” or “Used,” today’s collectors want to know which of 11 levels of New a coin’s condition rating is, and 59 levels in the Used category.
This is only a thumbnail description of the intricacies of modern-day coin grading, for in reality the scope of possible rankings far exceeds 70 degrees. For within each grade (Good-06, Extra Fine-45, as examples), there are three levels: low-end, mid-range, and high-end. And we haven’t even broached the subject of Prooflike, Deep Mirror Prooflike, and problem coins (ones that have been cleaned, for instance).
Nothing substitutes for experience when it comes to acquiring a knowledge of the finer points of coin grading. A collector (or dealer) must examine hundreds and thousands of coins over a long period of time to gain savvy. Coin grading classes are offered periodically, which provide learners with far more practice and experience than they could achieve on their own. Fortunately, books about coin grading are available, which if used properly can enhance a person’s skills dramatically. The Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) published the most helpful book on the subject (Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection). Coin World, a popular trade publication, has published a commendable book about coin grading called Making the Grade.
For now, we offer the following terms to supplement your education in coin grading:
The grade AG-03 describes the grade of a coin that falls short of Good. Only the main features of the coin are present in this grade. Peripheral lettering, date, stars, etc. sometimes are partially worn away.
The grades AU-50, 53, 55, and 58. A coin that on first glance appears Uncirculated but upon closer inspection has slight friction or rub.
Area(s) of a coin where a foreign object or another coin has displaced metal in an abraded fashion. Similar to a bag mark but usually on the high points or open fields and not as deep or acute as the former.
This is for "About Good" (the grade) and "03" (the corresponding numerical designation). Most of the lettering on the coin is readable, but there is moderately heavy wear into the rims.
This is for "About Uncirculated" (the grade) and "50" (the numerical designation of that grade). This is the lowest of the four AU grades, with the others being AU-53, AU-55, and AU-58. Between 50% and 100% of the surfaces will exhibit luster disturbances, and perhaps the only luster still in evidence will be in the protected areas. The high points of the coin will have wear that is easily visible to the naked eye.
This is for "About Uncirculated" (the grade) and "53" (the numerical designation of that grade). There is obvious wear on the high points with light friction covering 50-75% of the fields. There are noticeable luster breaks, with most of the luster still intact in the protected areas.
This is for "About Uncirculated" (the grade) and "55" (the numerical designation of that grade). There is slight wear on the high points with minor friction in the fields. Luster can range from almost nonexistent to virtually full, but it will be missing from the high points. The grade of "Choice AU" equates to AU-55.
This is for "About Uncirculated" (the grade) and "58" (the numerical designation of that grade). There is the slightest wear on the high points, even though it may be necessary to tilt the coin towards the light source to see the friction. In many cases the reverse of an AU-58 coin will be fully Mint State. Less than 10% of the surface area will show luster breaks. The grade of "Borderline Unc" equates to AU-58. Often referred to as a “Slider.”
A generic term applied to any coin that has not been in circulation. The coin should have significant luster (radiance) remaining.
The term applied to coins, usually Proofs and Prooflike coins that have frosted devices and lettering that contrast with the fields. When this is deep the coins are said to be “Black and White” cameos. You can hold one such coin close to your face and see the wink of your eye in the coin’s field.
An Uncirculated coin in the MS-63 or MS-64 condition rating range.
A term applied to a coin whose original surface has been removed (usually with a chemical dip). The effects may be slight or severe, depending on the method used.
A term applied to a coin that has been placed in a commercial "dip" solution, a mild acid wash that removes the toning from most coins. The first few layers of metal are removed with every dip, so coins repeatedly dipped will lose luster, hence the term "dipped out."
Short for deep mirror prooflike.
EF (or XF)-40
This is for "Extremely Fine” or “Extra Fine” (the grade) and "40" (the numerical designation of the grade). About 90% of the original detail is still evident and the devices are sharp and clear.
EF (or XF)-45
This is for "Extremely Fine" or “Extra Fine” (the grade) and "45" (the numerical designation of the grade). About 95% of the original detail is still evident and the devices are sharp and clear.
This is for "Fine" (the grade) and "12" (the numerical designation of the grade). The design detail is partially in evidence. The coin is still heavily worn. If there is any eye appeal in this grade it comes from the smooth surfaces associated with this grade, as any distracting marks have usually been worn off through circulation.
This is for "Fine" (the grade) and "15" (the numerical designation of the grade). Most of the letters in LIBERTY are visible, about 35-50% of the wing feathers are visible, or whatever applies to the coin in question. In other words, the coin is still in highly collectible shape.
Short for Full Bands on the reverse of Mercury dimes.
Short for Full Bell Lines on the reverse of Franklin half dollars.
Short for Full Head on the obverse of Standing Liberty quarters.
The best-known condition example of a particular numismatic item.
This is for “Fair” (the grade) and "02" (the corresponding numerical designation). Enough of the coin’s design is visible to make out the major devices, although the coin is extremely worn, with the rims usually flat.
A crystallized-metal effect seen in the recessed areas of a die, thus the raised parts of a coin struck with that die
Raised elements on coins struck with treated dies that have frost in their recessed areas. Such coins have crystalline surfaces that resemble frost on a lawn.
The crystalline appearance of coins struck with dies that have frost in their recessed areas. Such coins show vibrant luster on their devices and/or surfaces; the amount of crystallization may vary
Short for Full Steps on the reverse of Jefferson five-cent pieces.
This is for "Good" (the grade) and "4" (the numerical designation of the grade). The major details of the coin will be worn flat. Minor wear into the rims is allowable, but the peripheral lettering will be nearly full.
This is for "Good" (the grade) and "6" (the numerical designation of the grade). A higher grade (i.e., less worn) than a G-04 coin. The rims will be complete and the peripheral lettering will be full.
Adjectival description applied to Mint State and Proof-65 coins. It also is used for higher grades and as a generic term for a superb coin.
Gem Brilliant Uncirculated
A superior looking coin, the adjectival equivalent of Mint State 65 or 66.
Thin, fine cleaning lines found typically in the fields on coins that have been improperly cleaned.
An incuse depression on a coin, usually thin and curly, caused by a thread that adhered to a die during the coin's production. Lint marks are found primarily on Proofs. After dies are polished, they are wiped with a cloth, and these sometimes leave tiny threads.
A magnifying glass used to examine coins. Loupes are found in varying strengths or "powers." Five or seven times magnification is typically used for coin grading.
In numismatics, the amount and strength of light reflected from a coin’s surface or its original mint bloom. Luster is the result of light reflecting on the flow lines, whether visible or not.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "60" (the numerical designation of that grade). This is the lowest of the eleven Mint State grades that range from MS-60 through MS-70. An MS-60 coin will usually exhibit the maximum number of marks and/or hairlines. The luster may range from poor to full, but is usually on the "poor" side. Eye appeal is usually minimal.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "61" (the numerical designation of that grade). This grade meets the minimum requirements of Mint State plus includes some virtues not found on MS-60 coins. For instance, there may be slightly fewer marks than on an MS-60 coin, or better luster, or less negative eye appeal.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "62" (the numerical designation of that grade). This grade is nearly in the "choice" or MS-63 category, but there is usually one thing that keeps it from a higher grader. Expect to find excessive marks or an extremely poor strike or dark and unattractive toning. Some MS-62 coins will have clean surfaces and reasonably good eye appeal but exhibit many hairlines on the fields and devices.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "63" (the numerical designation of that grade). The equivalent of "choice" or "Choice BU" from the days before numerical grading was prevalent. This grade is usually found with clean fields and distracting marks or hairlines on the devices or clean devices with distracting marks or hairlines in the fields. The strike and luster can range from mediocre to excellent.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "64" (the numerical designation of that grade). This grade is also called "Borderline Gem" at times, as well as "Very Choice BU." There will be no more than a couple of significant marks or, possibly, a number of light abrasions. The overall visual impact of the coin will be positive. The strike will range from average to full and the luster breaks will be minimal.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "65" (the numerical designation of that grade). This grade is also called "Gem" or "Gem Mint State" or "Gem BU." There may be scattered marks, hairlines or other defects, but they will be minor. Any spots on copper coins will also be minor. The coin must be well struck with positive (average or better) eye appeal. This is a nice coin!
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "66" (the numerical designation of that grade). This is not only a Gem-quality coin, but the eye appeal ranges from "above average" to "superb." The luster is usually far above average, and any toning cannot impede the luster in any significant way. This is an extra-nice coin.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "67" (the numerical designation of that grade). A superb-quality coin! Any abrasions are extremely light and do not detract from the coin’s beauty in any way. The strike is extremely sharp (or full) and the luster is outstanding. This is a spectacular coin!
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "68" (the numerical designation of that grade). A nearly perfect coin, with only minuscule imperfections visible to the naked eye. The strike will be exceptionally sharp and the luster will glow. This is an incredible coin.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "69" (the numerical designation of that grade). Virtually perfect in all departments, including wondrous surfaces, a 99% full strike (or better), full unbroken booming luster and show-stopping eye appeal. You may have to study this coin with a 5x glass to find the reason why it didn’t grade MS-70.
This is for "Mint State" (the grade) and "70" (the numerical designation of that grade). A perfect coin! Even with 5x magnification there are no marks, hairlines or luster breaks in evidence. The luster is vibrant, the strike is razor-sharp, and the eye appeal is the ultimate.
Term applied to a coin returned from a third-party grading service that was not assigned a numerical grade because of varying reasons. (This could be for cleaning, damage, questionable authenticity, etc.) These are not the kinds of coins you want in your collection.
The dimple-textured fields seen on many Proof gold coins; their surfaces resemble those of an orange, hence the descriptive term. Some Mint State gold coins also exhibit this effect in varying degrees.
Term for the color acquired naturally by a coin that never has never been cleaned or dipped. Original toning ranges from the palest yellow to extremely dark blues, grays, browns, and finally black. In the best sense, coins with original toning are very attractive.
Light, medium, or dark coloring around the edge of a coin.
Short for Prooflike. Term to designate a coin that has mirror-like surfaces, the term especially applicable to Morgan dollars.
Any of the various abnormalities found on coin blanks that show up on the finished coin released by a mint. These include drift marks, laminations, clips, and so forth.
This is for "Poor" (the grade) and "1" (the numerical designation that means Poor). In order to "reach" this grade a coin must be identifiable as to date and type and not be horribly damaged (such as holes).
A die that has been basined to remove clash marks or other die injury. In a positive sense, Proof dies were basined to impart mirror-like surfaces, resulting in coins with reflective field.
A description indicating a rough or granular surface, typically seen on pre-1816 copper coins.
A film, usually green, left on a coin after storage in flips that contain PVC (Short for polyvinyl chloride). During the early stage, this film may be clear and sticky.
Term to describe the color on a coin that may not be original. After a coin is dipped or cleaned, any subsequent toning, whether acquired naturally or induced artificially, will look different than original toning.
Term for toning on a coin where the “colors of the rainbow” are represented, stating with pale yellow, to green, to red, to blue.
Raised die lines (Striations)
Term for the incuse polish lines on the die that result in raised lines on coins. These are usually fine lines, sometimes swirling, that scatter in multiple directions on a coin’s surface.
Short for the red and brown or Red-Brown color seen on copper coins.
Short for the Red color seen on copper coins; almost exactly the color had when it left the mint that made it.
A term used to describe a coin that has been dipped or cleaned and then reacquired color, whether naturally or artificially.
Fine, silky luster seen on many business strike coins. Almost no “cartwheel” effect is seen on coins with this type of luster.
The process of sending a coin to a third-party grading service to have it authenticated, graded, and encapsulated in a sonically sealed holder.
Term used to indicate a special coin struck at a mint, which displays many characteristics of a Proof strike. PCGS designates these coins SP.
A term used to describe a coin that has been doctored in a specific way to cover marks, hairlines, or other disturbances. Often associated with silver dollars, it actually is used on many issues, mainly business strikes. The thumb is wiped across a portion of a person’s face, typically a nose, to acquire a thin residue of body oil, and then rubbed lightly over the disturbances; the oils in the skin help to disguise any problems.
This is for "Very Fine" (the grade) and "20" (the numerical designation of the grade). Wing feathers show most of their detail, lettering is readable but sometimes indistinct and some minor detail is sometimes separate but usually blended.
This is for "Very Fine" (the grade) and "25" (the numerical designation of the grade). In this grade about 60% of the original detail is evident, with the major devices being clear and distinct.
This is for "Very Fine" (the grade) and "30" (the numerical designation of the grade). The devices are sharp with only a small amount of blending. Up to 75% of the original detail is evident.
This is for "Very Fine" (the grade) and "35" (the numerical designation of the grade). This grade used to be called VF/EF (or VF/XF) before numerical grading was accepted throughout the hobby. Devices are sharp and clear and up to 80% of the detail is in evidence.
This is for "Very Good" (the grade) and "10" (the numerical designation of the grade). A higher grade (less worn) than the VG-08 coin. Design detail is still heavily worn but the major devices and lettering are clear.
This is for "Very Good" (the grade) and "8" (the numerical designation of the grade). A slight amount of design detail is still showing on the coin, such as a couple of letters in the word LIBERTY.