Grading Morgan dollars (1878-1904 and 1921) is a skill that takes even the most experienced coin collector years to perfect. Remember that coin grading is the expression of an opinion that describes the condition of an individual coin that most dealers and collectors would agree with. However, an agreement is not necessarily guaranteed. This is especially true when the value in one grade greatly exceeds the value in the next lower grade.
Grading Morgan Dollars is not an exact science where an objective method can be applied, and everyone comes out with the same result. Over time, numismatists and coin grading services have agreed upon specific definitions, descriptions, and Sheldon's numeric values that help all coin collectors describe their coins accurately. By studying this guide, you will understand those terms and designations so you can accurately grade your Morgan dollars.
The design of the Morgan dollar stayed reasonably steady over the life of its run. However, when the mint resurrected the Morgan design in 1921, they had to re-create the master coin hub used to create working coin dies. The changes to the new coin dies were so minor that they are barely noticeable. Therefore, all United States Morgan silver dollars can be graded using the following standards.
5 Surprising Facts About the Morgan Dollar
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Understanding Grades for Morgan Dollars
Morgan Dollars are large and heavy coins that are made out of silver. While silver is relatively soft and malleable, the large size of the Morgan dollar makes it difficult to strike up the design fully. Additionally, the composition contains 10% copper that is used to harden the metal so it will last longer in circulation. Therefore, you must pay special attention to the quality of the strike when grading uncirculated coins.
When grading mint state or uncirculated coins, the hair that covers the upper half of Lady Liberty's ear sometimes does not strike up fully and you may confuse this lack of detail with wear due to circulation. Look closely at the other high points for signs of wear before determining if the coin is uncirculated or not. The photo illustrates the highest points on the Morgan Dollars design (indicated by the color red).
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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.
Obverse: Liberty's head is almost flat with only the elementary details visible. The stars are flat, and the rim is blending into the field.
Reverse: The eagle is just an outline with a few feathers showing. The rim is blending into the field and the letters.
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Good-4 (G4 or G-4)
Summary: The coin is heavily worn over the entire surface. 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 almost complete but may be incomplete in a few spots.
Obverse: The rim is mostly complete. However, the rim must not be blending with the letters near the rim of the coin. Some details in Liberty's cap are starting to appear. Her hairline is barely visible and blends mostly with her face. The stars and lettering are flat but distinct.
Reverse: The eagle is mostly flat but well defined. Some detail in the arrows is visible. All lettering is separate from the rim.
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Very Good-8 (VG8 or VG-8)
Summary: The coin is well-worn. The design is clear and significant elements are defined but are flat and lacking in detail.
Obverse: The hair is well-worn, and two-thirds of the hairline is defined. The cotton bolls are flat and outlined. Details in the hair by the neck are starting to be defined. Lady Liberty's ear will be clearly defined.
Reverse: Half to two-thirds of the eagle's feathers are noticeable. Details in the leaves of the wreath are starting to appear. The higher points on the leaves are flat.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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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: The hairline along the face is fully visible. The two lines in each of the cotton bolls show clearly. The two cotton leaves are flat but separate from the details in the cap.
Reverse: Three-quarters of the detail in the eagle's wings are now showing. The eagle's head, neck, and breast are flat with no fine details showing. The leaves in the wreath are beginning to show more detail.
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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: Details in the hair are evident with the highest spots showing noticeable flatness. Cotton leaves and wheat grains show wear but are clearly defined.
Reverse: Almost all of the feathers on the wings are distinct but worn. Feathers on the breast are worn smooth, and a few details on the head and neck are beginning to show. The leaves on the wreath are worn but well defined.
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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. There may be several significant bag marks or abrasions on the surface of the coin.
Obverse: Wear is evident on the hair by the neck, the forehead, and ear. The details in the hair are defined with only the high points showing some flatness. The cheek shows a small amount of abrasion.
Reverse: Finer details in the feathers on the wings are well defined. Neck feathers are evident but flat. Breast feathers are worn smooth. Talons are defined, but flat. Only the very highest spots on the wreath's leaves are flat; the rest of the leaves show some more delicate details.
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About Uncirculated-55 (AU55 or AU-55)
Summary: 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. Significant nicks and bag marks should be at a minimum.
Obverse: Slight wear is evident on only the highest points (see section above): forehead, eye, ear, cheek and curls by the neck. Mint luster on the cheek is gone, and slight rub from circulation is evident.
Reverse: Details in the feathers on the breast are obvious. The eagle's head, tops of legs and talons only show the slightest of wear. All finer details on the wreath are apparent.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Mint State-63 (MS63 or MS-63)
Summary: No traces of wear from circulation exist anywhere on the surface of the coin. Mint luster is complete but shows minor impairments; it may be dull or muted. 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: There are distracting contact marks on the cheek and fields. Finer details on the highest point are unmistakable. Mint luster is full and complete.
Reverse: Finer details in the breast feathers are evident. Major contact marks distract from the overall appearance 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: A few contact marks will be evident on the cheek and in the field in front of Lady Liberty's face. There are no significant abrasions or deep contact marks. The overall appearance will be pleasing.
Reverse: Friction from contact with other coins during the manufacturing process may be evident on the breast. There are few bag marks, and none of them are dominant and detract from the overall appearance.
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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.
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Having been a coin collector for a majority of my life, I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of coin grading standards over the last 50 years. 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 skill in grading coins. Coin grading is an opinion that one person believes reflects and describes the condition of a given coin. 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 this particular coinage series should be graded.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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More Coin Grading Resources
I recommend the following books to help you further develop your Morgan dollar grading skills. Clicking on the links below will find the lowest prices on the Internet for you.
- 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