How to grade coins

Coin Collecting - How To Grade Coins

Grading coins is both science and art. You may want to acquire this skill not for the purpose of becoming an expert, but simply to better deal with other collectors and dealers. Knowledge is power, if only the power of self-defense.

Coin grades run from 1 to 70, after a system developed in the 1950s by Dr. William Sheldon. The Sheldon Scale of grading coins has been adapted and expanded, so that earlier designations (such as Poor, Fair, Fine, Uncirculated, Mint State and others) are combined with numbers.

The best way to begin to learn how to grade your own coins, or ones you are considering acquiring, is to study a number of concrete examples. After all, even in coin collecting, nothing teaches so well as experience.

But, first, some elementary terminology.

Coin graders examine the 'obverse' (or face) and the 'reverse' (or back) of the coin. They also pay close attention to highlights in 'lettering' (letters or numbers), but also to 'devices' - the designs, such as laurel wreaths, buildings, faces, etc. They look for 'luster' and 'wear', which have the common meanings as in other disciplines, and for damage to the 'rim'.

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As the first example, consider the Winged Liberty Head Dime. One sample, minted in 1941 and therefore almost 90% silver, 10% copper, will have a number of elements that are easy to analyze.

First, is the content. If it isn't 90% silver and 10% copper which can be measurered using a simple test, it's probably a fake.

Next, check the obverse. The face of the figure on the obverse will show a varying level of detail in the hair. If it's well defined it may contribute to a designation of Extra Fine (EF) or even Uncirculated. Feathers that form the wing should show clearly, with the edge protruding visibly from the background.

There may be minor nicks, and other abrasions, even in an uncirculated coin. Except in rare instances, even uncirculated coins are collected in a bag and moved around. That jostling will often produce small amounts of damage and wear, even if the coin was never used by the general public for currency.

Morgan Dollars are another popular collectible item. Collectors should look for wear in the hairline above the eye and ear. Strands should be visible, and the folds of the cap should have little wear.

As with other coins depicting a face - the Roosevelt Dime, the Jefferson Nickel, the Lincoln Cent and many others - the luster of the cheek and forehead is telling.

Luster should be the result of low use and wear, not artificial cleaning. Cleaning a coin almost always lower the value. It introduces an unnatural color and sheen, and often introduces abrasion marks on the surface that is easy to see with a magnifying glass.

In the Morgan, the eagle's breast, along with the talons, should be well defined. Feathers should show detail and the tips of the wings should be distinct.

These, along with many other examples, will quickly show the student of grading that issues of degree and individual judgment will play apart for years to come. Until careful computer modeling (based on image recognition software) can be perfected each grader will make a slightly different determination.

When seeking the advice of experts, try to get more than one opinion - and develop your own skills in order to judge the worth of the advice.

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How to Grade Coins - Copyright 2014 by Donovan Baldwin
Page Updated 4:14 PM Sunday 3/23/2014