Learning how to grade Lincoln wheat pennies is a skill that has taken even the best coin collectors many years of experience 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, there is room for interpretation, which can lead to disagreement between two parties.
Grading is not an exact science where a formula can be applied, and everyone comes out with the same result. Over the years, Professional numismatists and coin grading services have agreed upon specific definitions, descriptions and Sheldon numeric values that help coin collectors describe their coins accurately (to a certain extent). Study the descriptions and photos to get a better understanding of how to grade Lincoln pennies.
Learn to Grade like the Pros
- Study a coin grading book like Making the Grade or The Official ANA Grading Standards.
- Know where the high points on the design are.
- Go to a coin show or coin dealer and look at coins that have been graded by a third-party grading service such as Professional Coin Grading Service or Numismatic Guarantee Corporation.
- Make sure you use proper lighting to inspect the coin (75W incandescent or equivalent soft white LED)
- Do not use a magnifying glass greater than 3X
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Lincoln wheat pennies are relatively small and are made out of copper that holds up better in circulation than gold and silver. However, copper oxidizes quicker and that brilliant orange-copper color quickly turns to brown. Given the small size of this coin most examples are well struck, the details on the coin are quite pronounced and bag marks are usually faint and few. Unfortunately, from about 1915 to approximately the mid-1930s there are many examples that were weakly struck and are lacking details.
Circulated examples are always brown in color; if not, this is an indication that the coin has been cleaned. Grades of Mint State or uncirculated examples also take into account the color of the copper coin. This is designated as red (RD), red/brown (RB) or brown (BN). For example "MS63RB". The photo illustrates the highest points (indicated by the color red) on the Lincoln wheat cent design.
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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: For the most part, Lincoln's portrait is flat and only an outline remains. The legend and date are readable but are almost worn flat and are merging into the rim.
- Reverse: The entire design is flat. The wheat ears are mostly flat with maybe some remnants of the grains of wheat still faintly recognizable.
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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 portrait of Lincoln is well-worn and some details are starting to show through on his coat and the upper part of his hair. The legend and date are visible and are separated from the rim of the coin.
- Reverse: The overall design is flat and some details in the grains of wheat are barely visible.
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Very Good-8 (VG8 or VG-8)
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- Summary: The coin is well-worn. The design is clear and major elements are defined but are flat and lacking in detail.
- Obverse: The outline of Lincoln's hair is visible and some details are starting to show through. The cheek and jaw are separate but flat. Some details of the ear are visible. The legend and date are clear and bold.
- Reverse: The wheat stalks are showing some detail and about half of the lines at the top of the wheat stalks are visible. The letters are bold and distinct.
- Grading Tip: If the rim is it is most likely that the coin will grade better than a VG-8.
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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 overall design is clear and bold. Some details in the hair are starting to show through. The cheek and jaw are smooth and the ear and the bow tie are visible.
- Reverse: Most detail in the stalks of wheat are visible. The lines at the top of the wheat stalks are worn but most are clearly separated.
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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: Lincoln's head shows considerable wear but almost all details are present on his hair and face. The ear and the bowtie are worn but they are defined and distinct.
- Reverse: The wheat stalks are worn but the lines are clearly defined with no weak spots. The grains of wheat are distinct but flat.
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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: There is abrasion on the hair above the ear, the cheek and the jaw evidenced by some very slight flatness. Some traces of mint luster may still be seen.
- Reverse: The high points on the wheat stalks (the grains of wheat) show some very slight wear but all details are distinct and well defined.
- Grading Tip: A coin that grades EF-40 should have a very pleasing eye appeal for a circulated coin. Any major blemishes that distract from the overall beauty of the coin will force a lower grade.
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About Uncirculated-55 (AU55 or AU-55)
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- 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.
- Obverse: Only a slight trace of wear exists on the highest points of Lincoln's portrait (the cheek and jaw) but they are not flat.
- Reverse: A slight trace of wear exists on the top of the wheat stalks but the detail is full and not flat.
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Mint State-63 (MS63 or MS-63)
- Summary: Mint luster is complete but shows minor impairments. Many abrasions and hairline scratches exist in the coin's field, on major design elements and are visible without magnification. Overall, the coin has an attractive eye appeal.
- Obverse: No signs of wear are evident on Lincoln's cheek and jaw. There are noticeable detracting contact marks in the fields of the coin and on Lincoln's face.
- Reverse: The tops of the wheat stalks and the area of "ONE CENT" have noticeable distracting marks.
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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 small blemish or a few non-distracting marks may be present on Lincoln's face or on the fields of the coin.
- Reverse: A small blemish or a few non-distracting marks may be present in the fields or on the "ONE CENT" words.
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Lincoln Wheat Cent Grade: 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: Virtually flawless with no distracting blemishes or marks on Lincoln's face or in the fields.
- Reverse: Virtually flawless with no distracting marks on the words "ONE CENT" or in the fields.