How to Look Coins So You Can Grade Them

Learn to Look at Coins Like a Professional Coin Grader

  • 01 of 18

    Use the Proper Tools

    Desklamp, Loupe and Magnifying Glass
    Desklamp, Loupe and Magnifying Glass. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    If you can, remove the coin from it's holder. Work over a soft cloth or pad in case you drop the coin. Hold it underneath a desk lamp that uses an incandescent bulb (60 - 75 watts) that is about 18 inches above the coin. For extremely small coins use a magnifying glass that is no greater than 3X power. Do not use a loupe (8X - 10X) to initially look at the coin. Only use your loupe to get a closer look at suspected problems on the coin.

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  • 02 of 18

    Look at the Whole Coin without Magnification

    1972-D Circulated Kennedy Half-Dollar
    1972-D Circulated Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com

    Look at the entire coin without using a magnifying glass or loupe. Get an overall impression of the coin and determine the level of eye appeal. Ask yourself the following questions:

    • Does the coin look beautiful or ugly?
    • Would it match the rest of the coins in your collection?
    • Does the coin have any serious problems? For example: scrapes, holes, corrosion, digs, gouges, PVC damage, bent, chemical residue, or environmental damage
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  • 03 of 18

    Determine If the Coin Is Circulated or Uncirculated

    Design High Points on a 1964 Kennedy Half-Dollar
    Design High Points on a 1964 Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com (annotated by James Bucki)

    Sometimes it is obvious that a coin has been circulated. If the condition of the coin is such that you are questioning if it's circulated or uncirculated, look at the design high points (as indicated in red on the photo) for signs of wear. A break in the mint luster in these areas is usually an indication that the coin is circulated. 

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  • 04 of 18

    Prime Focal Areas

    Prime Focal Areas of a Kennedy Half-Dolllar
    Prime Focal Areas of a Kennedy Half-Dolllar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com (annotations by James Bucki)

    The prime focal areas of the coin are the areas that your eye is drawn to first. It is usually the major device on the coin. On the Kennedy half-dollar example the prime focal area is indicated by red. The secondary focal areas are indicated with orange and the third level focal areas are indicated by yellow.

    Any imperfections or marks in the prime focal areas are more severe than if the same size and type of imperfection was in the third level focal area. For example, a small scrape on Kennedy's cheek would be more noticeable than the same size and type of scrape hidden in the details of his hair.

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  • 05 of 18

    Look at the Prime Focal Areas First

    Portrait of John F Kennedy on a Kennedy Half Dollar
    Prime Focal Area of a Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com (annotated by James Bucki)

    In our example of the Kennedy half-dollar, the prime focal area is the cheek and face area of the portrait. Look closely at this area first and determine if there are any noticeable imperfections that jump out at you. Make a mental note of these as you look at the rest of the coin. Imperfections in his hair and by his ear are third level focal areas and will be less distracting.

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  • 06 of 18

    Inspect the Field of the Coin

    The Field of a Kennedy Half-Dollar
    The Field of a Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com (annotated by James Bucki)

    Next look at the field of the coin for any noticeable and distracting marks. Small imperfections will not affect the grade of the coin as much as distracting ones. For example, in the area just above "In God" and below the "L" in Liberty there is a very noticeable scrape. This will definitely impact the grade of the coin. 

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  • 07 of 18

    Look at the Lettering on the Coin

    Lettering on a 1972-D Kennedy Half-Dollar
    Lettering on a 1972-D Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com (annotated by James Bucki)

    The lettering on the coin is usually one of secondary focal areas because people tend to look at the date, legends and mottos on a coin in order to identify it. Marks and imperfections in this area will negatively impact the coin's grade. In our example Kennedy half-dollar, there are a few minor imperfections on the lettering but no significant imperfections.

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  • 08 of 18

    Examine the Coin's Rim

    The Rim of a Kennedy Half-Dollar
    The Rim of a Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com (annotated by James Bucki)

    One of the areas that is most commonly overlooked when grading a coin is the coins rim. Look for dents and gouges that significantly impact the appearance of your coin.

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  • 09 of 18

    Logically Look at Each Section of the Coin

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Divided into Eight Sections
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Divided into Eight Logical Sections. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    Now that we have looked at each focal area of the coin we now need to inspect the coin thoroughly for any imperfections or damage that we may have missed. To do this, we will logically divide the coin into eight sections. We will look at each section in a clockwise direction beginning at "12:00 noon".

    For this phase of looking at your coin, it would be appropriate to use a magnifying glass or loupe especially for small coins.

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  • 10 of 18

    Section #1

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #1
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #1. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    In Section #1 we see a few major bag marks on Kennedy's hair. These will definitely impact the grade of the coin.

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  • 11 of 18

    Section #2

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #2
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #2. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    In Section #2 there are no outstanding problems in this section. The wear and marks are consistent with a circulated coin.

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  • 12 of 18

    Section #3

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #3
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #3. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    In Section #3 There is a heavy bag mark in the field above the motto. Additionally, there is a scrape on the rim between the letter "Y" and the motto. 

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  • 13 of 18

    Section #4

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #4
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #4. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    Section #4 has no major distracting marks and the evidence of wear in this section is consistent with a circulated coin.

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  • 14 of 18

    Section #5

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #5
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #5. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    Section #5 has some smaller and assorted bag marks but no other obvious problems in this section.

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  • 15 of 18

    Section #6

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #6
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #6. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    Section #6 has a light scrape beneath the letter "L" in the field in front of Kennedy's face. Otherwise, there are no other major distracting marks in this section.

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  • 16 of 18

    Section #7

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #7
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #7. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    Section #7 has a few minor contact marks in the field in front of Kennedy's eye. This is consistent wear for a circulated coin.

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  • 17 of 18

    Section #8

    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #8
    Kennedy Half-Dollar Section #8. Image Copyright: © 2016 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

    In Section #8 we see a few contact marks in Kennedy's hair. This is also consistent for a coin in circulated condition. 

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  • 18 of 18

    Making The Grade

    1972-D Circulated Kennedy Half-Dollar
    1972-D Circulated Kennedy Half-Dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com

    Now that you have thoroughly inspected the coin it is obvious that this coin has seen circulation. Although the details of the design are still intact and show little evidence of wear, it is not able to be graded as a Mint State coin. Due to the numerous bag marks and contact marks on the surface of this coin it would be graded About Uncirculated, specifically AU-53.

    You would then flip the coin over and perform the same analysis on the reverse. If the reverse grades slightly different than the obverse, usually the obverse grade is used for the entire coin.