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'.
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
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.