What Is a "BU" Coin?

Morgan Silver Dollar
Heritage Auction Galleries

A BU coin is a coin that has never been circulated and retains all of its original mint luster. BU stands for "Brilliant Uncirculated," but this term is used less frequently now that the Sheldon scale of numerical grading is more widely used. Additionally, some people incorrectly believe that BU stands for "Beautiful Uncirculated."

Although some commonly agreed-upon grading standards for coins, a few coin dealers do not follow these rules and make up their own. If you depend upon a dealer to accurately grade the coins they sell, it is best to form a relationship with a trusted coin dealer. This way, he will know your taste for the coins you like in the condition that will match your collecting goals.

Fun Fact

"Brilliant Uncirculated" is sometimes used interchangeably with Mint State or Uncirculated.

Coin Grades

A BU coin is usually described as MS (Mint State) today and generally falls into the lowest MS grades (grades between MS-60 and MS-63) on the Sheldon scale. However, since there is no explicit mapping between what a "Brilliant Uncirculated" coin is on the Sheldon seventy-point coin grading scale, few dealers and collectors use the term to value their coins.

You should be cautious when buying coins if a coin dealer uses this relatively obscure coin grading term to assign a value to his coins. Sometimes unscrupulous coin dealers will use these adjectives to confuse the buyer and overprice his coins. As a result, when the buyer submits them to a third-party grading service, they will usually come back at a lower grade than expected.

Standard adjective grading usually maps to the following Mint State grades:

  • Uncirculated (MS-60, MS-61, MS-62): A technically uncirculated coin with large and noticeable defects such as bag marks and scrapes. It is usually accompanied by a poor strike and dull mint luster.
  • Select Uncirculated (MS-63): An uncirculated coin with fewer deficiencies and better eye appeal been lower Mint State grades
  • Choice Uncirculated (MS-64): These coins have moderate distracting bag marks and/or very few, but noticeable, light scratches due to handling. Eye appeal will be good but not outstanding.
  • Gem Uncirculated (MS-65, MS-66): any uncirculated coin with only minor and light distracting marks or imperfections. Strike and eye appeal will be above average for the coin type.
  • Superb Gem Uncirculated (MS-67, MS-68, MS-69): An uncirculated coin with only the slightest imperfections due to handling and transportation. Many of these imperfections will only be visible under magnification. Strike and eye appeal must be outstanding compared to other coins of the same type.
  • Perfect Uncirculated (MS-70): An utterly flawless coin with no imperfections or marks visible even under magnification. The strike must be exceptional, and eye appeal must be dazzling.

The History of Adjectival Grading

Although Dr. William Sheldon developed his seventy-point grading scale in 1949, it wasn't widely accepted in the numismatic community until the mid-1980s. Before that time coin dealers and coin collectors used a variety of adjectives to describe the condition of their coins. Terms such as "Nice", "Very Good", "Hardly Worn", or "Pretty Good Shape" were used to describe the condition of coins.

Unfortunately, the meaning of these terms as it relates to the coin being described was subjective and inconsistent. What one dealer might consider "Nice", a coin collector might consider as "Very Fine". Is nice better than very fine? It all depends on who you are asking. With this lack of standardization, it was a free-for-all in the coin market.

In 1934 Wayte Raymond, a New York City coin dealer and researcher published the first edition of the "Standard Catalog of United States Coins". In his work, he defined such terms as Proof, Uncirculated, Extremely Fine, Very Fine, etc. He also rank-ordered these in his catalog from the very finest condition to the very lowest condition.

Although this was an improvement because the terms were now rank-ordered from best to the least, what these terms exactly meant was still a matter of debate. In 1946 the Whitman Publishing Company issued its first annual edition of "A Guide Book of United States Coins". Later editions of the book gave more detailed descriptions of what each adjective meant regarding the coin's grade.

In 1970, James F. Ruddy published the first edition of "Photograde". Ruddy adopted Dr. Sheldon's seventy-point scale and gave detailed descriptions for each grade within every series of United States coins. Additionally, he provided photographs of what a coin should look like and that particular grade.

Sheldon Scale of Grading Coins

Dr. Sheldon's original scientific approach to grading was based on research over many years of coin values. The basic premise was that a coin in Mint State 70 (MS-70) would be worth seventy times more than a coin graded Basal State-1 (currently known as Poor-1). Regrettably, his scientific theory did not hold true for all coins, across all dates and mintmarks. However, this provided the basis for our current standard coin grading system.

Also Known As

Mint State (MS), Brilliant Uncirculated, Beautiful Uncirculated, Uncirculated

Alternate Spellings


Example Usage

"The old 2x2 coin holder stated that my 1898 Morgan Dollar was BU, and sure enough, it came back from PCGS graded MS-62."

Edited by James Bucki