Coin Grading 101
Coin grading is done both by adjectives and on the Sheldon scale that uses a combination of numbers and letters. This scale was first developed in 1949 by Dr. William H Sheldon. It was originally intended to be part of a formula for setting market prices. Following is a generalization of this scale and most collectors could follow it today. Coin grades are as follows:
Poor (PO-1): Barely identifiable date and type.
Fair (FR-2): Rims nearly completely worn away. There should be some outline and images visible on both sides of the coin. The lettering may be completely gone. Basically some detail is visible and enough of the date to identify the coin.
About Good (AG-3): Worn rims and most lettering is readable though worn.
Good (G-4, 6): The design of the coin will be outlined and there will be very little detail. and some parts may be very weak. For G-4 coins the rim will be worn while G-6 coins will have a complete rim.. Even though a novice might say their coin is in good condition, literally, it means "not so good" in numismatic lingo..
Very Good (VG-8, 10): The design is worn and with very little detail, but some details will still be visible. As a general rule for Seated Liberty coins, Barber coins, Liberty Nickels, and Indian Head Cents, three or more letters of LIBERTY will be visible.
Fine (F-12, 15): The coin will have some deeply recessed areas with detail but some high spots obviously worn away. All lettering should be sharp enough to read.
Very Fine (VF-20, 25, 30, 35): All lettering should be full and sharp with detail complete. There should be a range of definition in the details throughout these grades and less to more flatness in the high points.
Extremely Fine (XF-40, 45): Wear exists over the high points only. Traces of mint luster may exist. This grade is also known as EF.
About Uncirculated (AU-50, 53, 55, 58): The range here is from extremely light to only a trace of friction on the highest points, The luster ranges from nearly half to nearly full. Some AU-58 coins look uncirculated and could almost pass for an MS-63 coin but of course with less of a price tag.
The above circulated grades are general guides only. There is art and science involved but circulated grading is more technical than uncirculated grading (called market grading). These standards can also vary by type of coin and even from date to date depending on factors such as design and striking standards. Buffalo Nickels and Liberty Standing Quarters are examples. The date on these two designs happens to be the high point and the first place to wear. A very worn date might still qualify it for a higher grade because of the design. All circulated coins will have at least a trace of wear and can only grade as high as AU-58.
Coins with no wear can be referred to as Uncirculated (Unc.), Brilliant Uncirculated (BU), and Mint State (MS). Uncirculated coins are prefixed by MS. This prefix means there is no wear from circulation. Jingling around in bags during shipment can cause bagmarks or hairlines and this is not circulation wear. If a coin has a weak strike, and or bagmarks, and or hairlines it can still qualify as an MS coin.
Uncirculated (MS-60, 61, 62): "An uncirculated coin with noticeable deficiencies, generally either an overabundance of bagmarks, a poor strike, or poor luster". The two major grading services (PCGS and NGC) hate to use the MS-60 and MS-61 grade and rarely use it. Usually an MS coin starts at MS-62, Select Uncirculated is sometimes the adjective used.
Select Uncirculated (MS-63): This coin would have a moderate amount of marks and the strike may not be full.
Choice Uncirculated (MS-64): This has few marks or hairlines and an average or above average strike.
Gem Uncirculated (MS-65, 66): No marks in focal areas and minor marks otherwise. This coin is expected to have full mint luster. A weak strike is not allowed here and the strike should be nearly full. Toning is acceptable.
Superb Gem Uncirculated (MS-67, 68, 69): Virtually as struck with minor to minuscule imperfections. The coin should be very well or fully struck. Very attractive toning could boost the grade from MS-66 to MS-67. This is market grading and the market loves pretty, colorful, naturally toned coins.
Perfect Uncirculated (MS-70): This is a flawless, fully struck coin as if it was just minted and untouched..
Proof is not a grade. It is a method of manufacture.. Proof coins are graded just like MS coins but have the prefix PR or PF. A worn proof coin is called an Impaired Proof and will be graded accordingly, PR-15, PR-45, etc. There are other problems that a coin could have that are taken into consideration when authenticating a coin. It could come back from one of the grading services in a body bag. For example, if it has PVC damage or is counterfeit are two reasons that they will not grade it. Sometimes they will grade it but as a details grade on the holder which would make it less valuable. An example would be: UNC or AU, Details-Harshly Cleaned or Environmental Damage. There are whole books on the description of numismatic terms and I have touched on some of them here.
'"Coin Grading Tutorial"". Heritage Auctions. https://coins.ha.com/tutorial/coin-grading.s. Accessed 06/29/22.
""Compilation of Articles and Guides About Coins and Coin Grading"". American Numismatic Association *School of Numismatics. https://www.money.org/. Accessed 06/29/22.