Grading Indian Head pennies is a skill that will take years of experience to perfect, but this guide will get you started. Remember that coin grading is the expression of an opinion that describes the condition of a specific coin that most dealers and collectors would agree with. However, interpretation of the standards can vary between coin dealers and coin collectors.
Grading Indian Head pennies is not an exact science where a precise method can be applied, and everyone comes out with the same result. But over the years, numismatists and coin grading services have agreed upon specific definitions, descriptions, and Sheldon's numeric values that help all coin collectors describe their coins correctly (to a certain extent).
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Understanding Indian Head Penny Grades
Early Indian Head pennies (1859-1864) were made of 12% nickel and have a slight silver hue to them. The addition of nickel to the alloy made the metal harder than a coin that made with 100% copper. The harder metal alloy made it difficult to get a crisp strike showing all the detail of the design. By striking the coins with greater pressure, caused the coin dies to break and wear out quicker.
Beginning in 1864 the nickel was removed from the composition and replaced with 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. This new alloy made the metal softer and easier to strike. Since nickel was eliminated from the alloy, coins were now more susceptible to toning. Therefore, grades of mint state or uncirculated also take into account the color of the copper coin. The color of the coin is designated as red (RD), red/brown (RB) or brown (BN) and listed after the numerical grade. For example "MS63RB".
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Design High Points
The highest points on the coin's design will be the first to experience wear from being in circulation. This photo illustrates the highest points on the Indian Head penny design as indicated by the color red. If you think you have an uncirculated Indian Head cent, look at these areas on the coin to see if you can spot any wear. Tilt the coin from side to side under a good light. If the mint luster on the high points is unbroken, then the coin is uncirculated. If there is wear, then it is not uncirculated.
As mentioned earlier, some Indian Head pennies were difficult to strike up properly. If a coin was not fully struck using the proper amount of pressure in the coining press, the highest points on the coin's design would be flat. This isn't because they were worn off, it's because the penny was not properly made. Coins like this can still be classified as uncirculated.
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About Good-3 (AG3 or AG-3)
Summary: The coin is very heavily worn and barely legible. Some of the devices, lettering, legends, and date may be worn smooth, but the date is readable. Portions of the rim blend into the lettering or portions of the coin's design that is near the rim.
Obverse: The Indian's head shows very few details and is almost just an outline. The date is barely readable and some of the letterings merges with the rim.
Reverse: The wreath and bow are flat and just an outline. The lettering is flat but readable.
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Good-4 (G4 or G-4)
Summary: The coin is heavily worn overall. The devices, lettering, legends, and date are readable but may have some faintness in a few areas. All major features are visible in at least outline form and the rim is mostly complete but may be incomplete in a few spots.
Obverse: The head shows slightly more detail but is mostly just an outline. However, you should be able to discern the ear and the ribbons. The rim is full and complete and does not merge with the field.
Reverse: The wreath is worn flat but the rim is complete and separate from the field of the coin.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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Very Good-8 (VG8 or VG-8)
Summary: The coin is well-worn. The design is clear and major elements are defined but are flat and lacking in detail.
Obverse: "LIBERTY" in the headband is starting to become visible and about three letters are readable. The legend and date are defined but heavily worn
Reverse: The tops of the leaves on the wreath are worn smooth and more detail is starting to show. The bow and ribbon are mostly flat.
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Fine-12 (F12 or F-12)
Summary: The coin shows moderate even wear over the entire surface of the coin. The major design elements are bold and all lettering, legends, and date are clear and readable.
Obverse: "LIBERTY" is readable but weak in spots. A quarter of the details now shows in the hair. Details in the feathers are now becoming apparent.
Reverse: Some details are visible in the bow and wreath. The high points of the leaves are worn smooth and some may blend with the lower leaves.
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Very Fine-20 (VF20 or VF-20)
Summary: Moderate to minor wear exists only on the highest parts of the design where a slight flatness is beginning to show. The overall condition of the coin is pleasing and attractive.
Obverse: "LIBERTY" is full and complete but may not be extremely sharp. The headdress shows some flatness but details are starting to emerge and finer details of the feathers are now apparent.
Reverse: Only the tips of the leaves on the wreath show signs of wear. The bow shows flatness on the higher points but is distinct.
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Extra Fine-40 (EF40, XF40 EF-40 or XF-40)
Summary: Has only the slightest wear on the very highest points of the coin. All details are sharp and all design elements are well defined. Some traces of mint luster may still exist.
Obverse: "LIBERTY" is full and sharp. The tips of the feathers show only minor wear and are well defined. Wear is evident on the hair above the ear but is well defined as are the curls by the neck. The diamond design on the ribbon by the neck is evident.
Reverse: The leaves and bow exhibit wear only on the high points. The leaves and bow are crisp and detailed.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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About Uncirculated-55 (AU55 or AU-55)
Summary: There are very minor traces of wear or abrasions are visible on only the highest points on the coin. Mint luster is almost complete and the surfaces of the coin are well preserved.
Obverse: Small traces of wear are detectable only on the highest points of the design (see photo above "Design High Points"). Some mint luster still remains.
Reverse: Minor traces of wear are evident on the high points of the leaves and bow on the wreath.
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Mint State-63 (MS63 or MS-63)
Summary: No traces of wear from circulation exist. Mint luster is complete but shows minor impairments. Many contact marks, bag marks, and hairline scratches exist on the coin's field and major design elements and are visible without magnification. Overall, the coin has an attractive eye appeal.
Obverse: Mint luster is complete over the entire surface of the coin. There may be five to ten marks on the coin's surface.
Reverse: Mint luster is complete, even on the wreath and bow. Five to ten marks are permitted on the surface of the coin.
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Mint State-65 (MS65 or MS-65)
Summary: A high quality of mint luster completely covers the surfaces of the coin and is undisturbed. Contact marks and bag marks are few and small. The coin is well struck and a few hairlines may be seen under a magnifying glass. Overall the coin is brilliant and has an above average eye appeal.
Obverse: the surface is pristine with only a few small marks evident without magnification. Color may be red, red brown, or brown.
Reverse: A few small marks on the wreath and bow are permitted. Mint luster is full and complete.
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Mint State-67 (MS67 or MS-67)
Summary: The original mint luster is complete and almost perfect. There are only three or four very small and unnoticeable contact marks. Overall, the coin has an extraordinary eye appeal that is hardly ever seen. A few minor hairlines can be found only with magnification.
Obverse: No traces of wear are evident anywhere on the coin. There are no distracting marks and the mint luster is above average.
Reverse: All details of the coin are present even on the highest points of the coin and the eye appeal is superb.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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Having been a coin collector for many years and I have witnessed the evolution of coin grading standards over the last forty years. Most recently, I have studied coin grading with professional coin graders from NGC and PCGS. I have read many books and worked with many coin dealers to sharpen my coin grading skills. The information presented in this article is my opinion on how to interpret the many coin grading standards that you will encounter. This is not a universal, absolute and definitive definition on how the Indian Head cent series should be graded.
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More Coin Grading Resources
I recommend the following books to help you further develop your coin grading skills.
- The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards of United States Coins
- Photograde: A Photographic Grading Encyclopedia for United States Coins
- Making the Grade: A Grading Guide to the Top 50 Most Widely Collected U.S. Coins
- Grading Coins by Photographs
- The Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection