A Collector’s Guide to Understanding U.S. Coin Grading

The value of a coin is determined by a combination of its state of preservation, population, and demand. The state of preservation is also called the coin’s grade. The current coin grading system is based on the description in Dr. William Sheldon’s 1948 book, Penny Whimsy. The Sheldon Scale assigned grades from 1 through 70 for large cents on the theory that a coin graded 70 would be worth 70 times as much as a coin grading 1. Shortly after Sheldon introduced his grading scale, it was adopted across all coins.

Since grading is subjective, the American Numismatic Association has worked with the industry to create a standard. To promote the standard and serve the numismatic community, the American Numismatic Association started the ANA Certification Service (ANACS) in 1972. Today, ANACS a private corporation and no longer associated with the ANA.

Coin Grading Scale

Although coins are graded on a 70-point scale, the grades assigned by the third-party grading services are qualified by descriptive names to make it easier for collectors to quickly understand the condition of their coins. The modern grading scale using the most commonly found grades is as follows:

Coin Condition Grading Range What to look for in the grade
Poor PO‑1 A coin that is barely identifiable but must have date and mintmark visible.
Fair FR‑2 Well-worn coins with no damage where rims seem to blend into the coin.
About Good AG‑3 Coin has flattened details and rims but basic design is visible with the edge almost merged with the designs near the edge.
Good G‑4, G‑6 Heavily worn coin lacking details and flat rims that have not overtaken the details near the edge.
Very Good VG‑8, VG‑10 A very worn coin with all of the major design elements visible but lacking detail. The rims show wear. For coins with “LIBERTY” embedded in the design, at least three letters are visible.
Fine F‑12, F‑15 A very worn coin with even ware with but the major design elements stand out. The rims are almost fully‑separated. For coins with “LIBERTY” embedded in the design all letters are visible even if they are weak.
Very Fine VF‑20, VF‑25, VF‑30, VF‑35 Moderately worn coins with fully-separated rims with many of the details visible. For coins with “LIBERTY” embedded in the design all letters are visible and strong.
Extremely Fine EF or XF‑40, XF‑45 Most of the details are clear and visible with wear on the high points. There may be signs of mint luster remaining.
About Uncirculated AU‑50, AU‑53, AU‑55, AU‑58 The coin has very light wear or maybe only a trace of friction on the highest points. It has nearly full mint luster. AU‑58 coins are often mistaken for uncirculated coins.
Uncirculated MS‑60, MS‑61, MS‑62 An uncirculated coin with noticeable contact marks that may be a poor strike or lacks significant luster.
Choice Uncirculated MS‑63, MS‑64 An uncirculated coin as a result of a strong strike with a few marks good eye appeal.
Gem Uncirculated MS‑65, MS‑66 An uncirculated coin with minor marks or imperfections and full mint luster.
Superb Gem Uncirculated MS‑67, MS‑68, MS‑69 An uncirculated coin with only the slightest imperfections visible under 8x magnification. This coin will have a very sharp strike and exceptional luster.
Perfect Uncirculated MS‑70 A coin with no flaws visible under 8x magnification.

Strike Quality

Strike quality attributes are specific to certain types coins that describe how good the strike is. These attributes are used by collectors to ensure they are collecting the best of the best versions of each coin.

Strike Quality Grading Designation What it means for the grade
Full Bands FB On Mercury Dimes (1916-1945), this attribute is assigned to a coin where the two sets of doubled bands holding the bundle of fasces on the revere show a clear, unbroken line between them. Some collectors refer to these as “full split bands.”
Full Bell Lines FBL Collectors wanting the finest strikes of Franklin Half Dollars (1948-1963), the FBL attribute is given when the lower set of two bell lines must have complete separation with no major interruptions, such as marks, scrapes, cuts, etc. The only interruption allowed is the crack of the bell.
Full Head FH While a beautiful coin, the Standing Liberty Quarter was not designed in a manner that lead to a consistently good strike, especially Miss Liberty’s head. A Standing Liberty Quarter given the FH attribute the details in her hair are well defined, the hair line along face is raised and complete, eyebrow is visible, and her check is rounded.
Full Steps FS For Jefferson Nickels (1938-2003, 2006-present) with Monticello on the reverse, a Full Step attribute is given when there are at least five separated steps (lines) at the base of Jefferson’s home. Similar to the separation required for FBL Franklin Halves, there can be no major interruptions in the lines making up the steps.

Surface Quality

The Surface Quality attribute is assigned to proof and exceptionally struck uncirculated coins to describe the quality of the coin’s fields.

Surface Quality Grading Designation What it means for the grade
Cameo CA or CAM Proof coins that show a mirrored field and elements are Cameo Proof coins.
Deep Cameo DC or DCAM Proof coins that show a very mirrored field and frosted elements where there is a heavy contrast between the two are considered to have a deep cameo. Deep Cameo Proof coins those that have been exceptionally struck.
Deep Mirror DM An exceptionally struck business strike coin with mirrored fields.
Proof Like PL A business strike coin that has mirrored fields and what appears to be frosted elements like a proof coin is called Proof-Like.
Deep Mirror-Proof Like DMPL An exceptionally struck business strike coin that has mirrored fields and frosted elements that make it look like it was a proof coin. Coins graded with the DMPL attribute are likely amongst the first coins struck with a particular pair of dies.

eBay Coin Grading Policy

Since buying coins on eBay is very popular, this section is a concise explanation of their coin grading policy.

Although eBay allows coins to be sold that are not graded, it is required that any single coin with a starting price, reserve price, or “Buy It Now” price of $2,500 or more must receive a numeric grade from an approved grading company. That grade and the grading service that assigned the grade must be included in the description for the coin. Listing for bullion, collection, lots and set are exempt from this requirement.

eBay coin grading policy: https://pages.ebay.com/help/policies/currstamps.html

Approved grading services include ANACS, Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (NGC), Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), and Independent Coin Graders (ICG). Coins graded by any other service can be listed but must be listed as a raw coin.

Last updated August 6, 2017

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