What is Coin Grading?

A numismatist inspecting a coin
A numismatist inspecting a coin.

James Bucki

Coin grading is the process of measuring the state of preservation and wear on a given coin. There are basically three main areas to consider when grading a coin:

  • (a) Quality of coin die and striking characteristics
  • (b) Condition and characteristics of the planchet (coin blank)
  • (c) Amount and type of wear, damage, and the overall eye appeal of the coin

For most circulated coins, (c) is the primary focus of our coin grading efforts, especially how much wear the coin has seen and what kind of damage it has suffered, including things like dings, dents, scrapes, etc. Learn how to begin grading coins using a simple 3-step method

Coin Grading Scales

The most frequently used scale for grading coins is called the Sheldon Scale. It consists of a 70-point scale, ranging from 1 to 70, with an abbreviation for an adjective appended for clarity. Examples of coin grades on the Sheldon Scale include such grades as VF-20 (meaning Very Fine 20,) EF-45 (Extremely Fine 45,) and MS-60 (Mint State 60.)

Fun Fact

Uncirculated coins are always called "Mint State" on the Sheldon coin grading scale and abbreviated using MS.

The adjectives used with the Sheldon Scale have been in use for more than 150 years. Before the Sheldon Scale came along, coins were described by the adjectives only. Adjectival coin grading was a very subjective and troublesome system since one man's VF was another man's EF. Coin dealers were often accused of over-grading a coin to get a better price for it. Adding the relative numerical precision of the Sheldon scale has helped standardize adjectival grading.

The History of Coin Grading

Coin grading has an interesting history that mirrors the evolution of the coin market in general over the years. For example, prior to the mid-1850s, modern coins were generally considered to be Circulated or Uncirculated. More progressive collectors began distinguishing between the more heavily circulated and the less heavily circulated. As collectors became more sophisticated (and observant) additional distinctions were added, until today we have a fairly complex 70-point system that includes additional designators related to the quality of the original strike, such as "Full Steps" (on Jefferson Nickels) and a "Full Head" on Standing Liberty Quarters. Sometimes an asterisk is added after the grade to denote a PQ (Premium Quality) coin in that grade so that we can have an MS-67*FS Nickel! (This translates as Mint State 67 PQ with Full Steps.) The journey from "Uncirculated" to "MS-67*FS" is a fascinating one.

Edited by: James Bucki