Uncirculated Coins and How to Identify Them

United States half-dollar with Kennedy image

Heritage Auction Galleries / Ha.com

The term "uncirculated coin" refers to the condition of a coin that indicates that it has never circulated in the regular money supply in the economy. In other words, the coin shows no signs of wear on any of its surfaces. Remember, all coins enter the economy through the federal reserve bank. Therefore, except for special collector coins and sets available directly from the mint for a premium, the only way to obtain uncirculated specimens at face value is to purchase them from your bank directly.

Since most modern coins are mass-produced in large quantities, it is common that the coin may have minor nicks and scrapes on its surface from the production process and be transported in bags and bins. However, these minor imperfections are not from the coin circulating in commerce, and hence the coin is still considered an uncirculated coin.

Numismatists grade uncirculated coins by evaluating the quantity of these minor imperfections. Grades for uncirculated coins uses a scale that ranges from MS-60 (a lot of marks and imperfections) to MS-70 (a perfect coin with no marks). Numismatists grade world coins using adjectives to describe the grade, such as Uncirculated (a considerable amount of marks on the coin's surface), Brilliant Uncirculated (just a few minor marks), and Gem Brilliant Uncirculated (no marks are visible to the naked eye).

How to Identify an Uncirculated Coin 

When a coin first comes off the coining press, it exhibits a luster that the minting process can only produce. If you hold a coin under a single light source and tilted from side to side and top to bottom, you will notice that the light will dance around the coin's surface. This movement of light on the coin's surface is known as the cartwheel effect. All uncirculated coins exhibit this phenomenon. However, it is easily seen on larger coins such as silver dollars and much more difficult to see on smaller coins such as the dime.

If the coin does not exhibit the "cartwheel effect," it has been circulated and cannot be classified as uncirculated. Next, look at the highest points of the design. If the cartwheel effect is evident in the fields of the coin but not on the highest points of the design, numismatists would consider it an About Uncirculated coin. The only way for a coin to be classified as uncirculated is if there is no evidence of wear anywhere on the coin. In other words, the luster is bright and complete across the entire surface of the coin.

3 Tips For Identifying Uncirculated Coins

  1. Look for the cartwheel effect
  2. Look at the highest points of the coin's design
  3. Look for minor damage and imperfections

Effect on Value

Just like any collectible item, be it classic cars or antique dolls, the better the condition of the article, the more it will be worth. This effect on value takes into consideration the basic economic laws of supply and demand. Mints around the world make many modern coins by the millions, if not billions. The quantity of these coins is enormous, and the chances of a coin collector finding an uncirculated coin are relatively sure. Coin collectors did not save a lot of coins from the 1800s and before, and hence the supply of uncirculated coins is limited. 

Additionally, just because very few examples of a particular coin exist may not make it exceedingly valuable. This is where demand comes into play. Many people collect Lincoln pennies, and hence, the demand for them is quite steep. On the other hand, very few people collect the United States' three-cent coins. Therefore, a low supply of a particular date of three-cent coins may not make it exceedingly valuable because not many people are seeking to buy it. In other words, the competition to purchase that particular coin is low, and so will be the price.

However, be on the lookout for coins that may have been "doctored." Unscrupulous people try to take circulated coins and make them look uncirculated by harshly cleaning them or polishing them with the wire brush. Look at certified uncirculated coins to learn the difference between doctored coins and uncirculated coins.

Acquiring Uncirculated Coins for Your Coin Collection

There are many different ways for you to buy uncirculated coins for your collection. Uncirculated modern United States coins, such as the Lincoln penny or the Jefferson nickel, can be collected directly from circulation or rolls of coins from your local bank. Some modern coins from the Denver mint are scarce on the East Coast. Conversely, coins from the Philadelphia mint are scarce on the West Coast. Therefore, you may have to visit your local coin store or purchase uncirculated modern United States coins from an online coin dealer. Additionally, you can purchase uncirculated mint sets directly from the United States Mint.

Purchasing classic uncirculated United States coins can be more of a challenge and a strain on your coin collecting budget. You will have to purchase these coins from a coin dealer or at an online auction. Stay away from unregulated sites like eBay or small auction sites. Larger auction houses such as Heritage, Great Collections, or Stacks Bowers, are trusted sources for rare roins. Depending on the coin type and date, uncirculated specimens of classic United States, coins can range from a few dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars.

Purchasing an uncirculated world or foreign coins can be accomplished through a visit to your local coin dealer or online transactions. Buying world coins on eBay can be an adventure in itself. There are so many international sellers that you can virtually purchase any modern world coin at a reasonable price.