Coin grading standards
Coins cannot always be graded according to specific rules. There are many factors that influence
the price and value of a coin, resulting in the approximately 60 different grading methods that exist.
Grading does however provide an important set of benchmarks, that facilitate collectors' and
purchasers' assessment of a coin's quality. It is important to assess the condition of a coin because
the value of the coin is affected by the grade. If the coin has been in some form of jewellery it
loses quite a bit of value. Rims, nicks, polishing and scratches are all important details that are
considered in grading coins. Keep in mind that grade is only someone's opinion. Until you are
comfortable with your ability to grade coins, make liberal use of other opinions, such as those
available with slabbed coins or from experienced collectors and dealers you trust.
In the early years of coin collecting, three general terms were used to describe a coin's grade:
- Good Where details were visible but circulation had
worn the surface
- Fine Features were less worn from circulation and a
bit of the mint luster showed on the surfaces
- Uncirculated Details were sharp and there was a
luster approaching the state of the coin at the mint, prior to general circulation
As the collector market for coins grew rapidly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became
apparent that a more precise grading standard was needed. Some coins were simply more fine than others,
and some uncirculated coins showed more luster and far fewer marks than others. Terms like "gem
uncirculated" and "very fine" began to see use, as more precise grading descriptions allowed for more
precise pricing for the booming collector market. In 1948, a well-known numismatist by the name of Dr.
William Sheldon attempted to standardized coin grading by proposing what is now known as the Sheldon
His scale, included in his famous work "Penny Whimsy", was originally devised specifically for
United States large cents, but it is now applied to all series. The scale runs from 0 to 70, where 0
means that you can pretty much tell that it was once a coin while 70 means that it is perfect. Note that
60 is uncirculated, what the general public would consider perfect, with no wear whatsoever. There is
a direct mapping from this scale to the older descriptive terms, but they are not always used the same.
The Sheldon Scale was a vast improvement over grades such as Good and Fine, although there is still
substantial room for disagreement among two parties based on subjective opinion. If you have absolutely
no idea how to grade coins, you have no business buying coins without help. If you do not know how to
grade coins for yourself, you will eventually learn, and it could very well be an expensive lesson.
When selling coins, you don't have as much of a problem. Simply take the coins to a couple of
different dealers and get their opinions as to the grade. Always ask for the grade opinion before
asking for a price as it can help in negotiating a fair price.