Take the guesswork out of coin collecting with our guide to coin grading. For a coin to be certified, it has to be both authenticated and graded. How to get your coins graded and certified is a two-step process. First step: The coin has to be determined to be genuine and unaltered. Second step: The coin has to be graded or rated on a scale of one through 70, where one is the lowest and 70 is perfect.
Coin Grading Services
Whether you’re collecting through an online coin auction or through one of the top 10 apps for coin collecting, it’s important to know what you’re buying. Fake, altered, or doctored coins were a major coin market danger in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the advent of third-party grading services.
Grading services were designed to assist consumers in differentiating between high-quality coins where the difference in value between one coin with a small scratch and its counterpart without a scratch could have a multi-thousand-dollar value differential. Since grading services guarantee that the coins they graded were genuine, these services had the effect of basically ridding the coin hobby of fake coins. After all, not only does a grading service have to warrant that the coin it’s certifying is genuine, but it has to make that determination definitively before grading it. Grading a fake coin just isn’t an option.
An altered coin is a real coin that has been tampered with in some way. The uncertified coins for sale that have the greatest risk of being altered are coins with rare dates and mint marks that are in high demand.
The popular 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent is one example of a rare-date coin occasionally found altered. The V.D.B. is the designer’s initials, Victor David Brenner, seen on the coin’s reverse. The “S” mint mark seen on the front or obverse under the date stands for San Francisco.
Alterations usually are in the form of an “S” mint mark added to a common 1909 V.D.B. Lincoln cent. Sometimes an “S” can be added to the obverse; other times it can be carved out of the field in an unused or empty area underneath the date.
Another variation of an altered 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent is the initials “V.D.B.” added to the reverse. Often, these are authenticated by closely examining the “B.” If the center or midsection of the “B” is slanted, the coin is usually genuine. But if the center or mid-section of the “B” is straight, the coin is altered.
Cast counterfeits are cast impressions of copies of real coins. So a cast counterfeit is a copy of a copy. That’s why cast counterfeits are grainy and relatively easy to recognize.
Cast counterfeits are widely seen of extreme rarities such as the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle gold piece. Only one example is legal to own.
Many cast counterfeits were made to spend in commerce and to fool local merchants, not sophisticated grading services.
Die-struck counterfeits are the most difficult counterfeits to detect. A die is a metal object engraved with a coin’s design that’s used to stamp out or strike coins. These are struck from two dies, just like genuine coins. Even some top coin experts can be challenged when it comes to identifying a die-struck counterfeit.
Authenticators learn how to identify die-struck counterfeits by examining many real coins and becoming familiar with their characteristics. These authenticators also try to familiarize themselves with the characteristics of specific die-struck counterfeits.
Leaders in the coin hobby are careful not to fully explain the characteristics of the most commonly counterfeited die-struck counterfeits because that would educate the counterfeiters on how to hone their skills and remove those identifying characteristics in the next round of manufactured fakes.
The Coin Grading Scale MS-70 to MS-65
The definitions here refer strictly to business-strike coins.
Mint State 70 A Mint State-70 coin must be perfect in every respect, with no imperfections visible under a five-power magnifying glass.
Mint State 69 The MS-69 designation is reserved for perfection’s threshold examples. Under five-power magnification, a tiny flaw might be visible.
The MS-69 designation can be used only if the coin has full and vibrant luster and, in general, if it has all the characteristics of the MS-70, with the exceptions mentioned.
Mint State-68 A coin graded MS-68 must appear perfect under five-power magnification, except for a nearly imperceptible scratch, nick, or flaw which appears in a non-grade sensitive area (e.g., the hair).
Upon first glance, an MS-68 will appear to be perfect, and even some experts may have trouble finding the imperfection.
The MS-68, like the MS-69, may show some nearly imperceptible rim flaws.
Mint State-67 An MS-67 is a wonder coin that has luster, strike, and meticulously preserved surfaces that leave the viewer in a state of euphoria.
Mint State-66 An MS-66 coin is in the same high level of preservation as its MS-65 counterpart but possesses some unusually superior or MS-67 characteristics.
Mint State-65 MS-65 is an important benchmark grade, as it is the minimum grade for a “Gem.” An MS-65 cannot have excessive nicks, scratches, marks, or flaws of any kind.
The Coin Grading Scale MS-64 to MS-60
Mint State-64 A cursory glance at a coin deserving this grade would indicate that a grade of MS-65 is in order.
But close inspection of an MS-64 coin reveals a detracting overall characteristic, such as the lack of full Mint bloom or an excess of surface marks. An MS-64 coin can be lightly fingerprinted or can exhibit weakness of strike in important areas.
Mint State-63 An MS-63 coin will often have claims to be 65, except for the presence of noticeable marks visible to the unaided eye. An MS-63 may have toning that is not universally appealing and may be nearly fully struck, but, perhaps, not 100% fully struck.
Mint State-62 An MS-62 coin is an above-average Mint State example. It is a coin that does not overwhelm the viewer with scratches, abrasions, and other detractions. Coins in this category possess all of the characteristics of their 63 counterparts, except that they are slightly deficient in quality of surface or Mint bloom.
Mint State-61 An MS-61 coin must have no wear on its highest points. It must not have been circulated. Scratches, abrasions, and other imperfections will appear on coins of this classification.
Mint State-60 An MS-60 coin must have no wear on its highest points. It must not have circulated. The MS-60 example will fall just short of being classified as a damaged coin. Occasionally, an MS-60 will be found without that one detracting flaw, but the coin will possess multiple horrendous flaws, pits, and deep scratches. MS-60 is the lowest grade that a coin can be assigned and still be considered Mint State.
The Coin Grading Scale Below AU-58
About Uncirculated-58 An AU-58 coin must appear in Mint State at first glance. On close examination, light friction will be visible on the highest points. Imagine a perspiration-soaked thumb rubbing the coin, and envision the aftermath.
Below AU-58, the generally recognized grading service grades in the circulated range are as follows, from highest to lowest:
• About Uncirculated-55
• About Uncirculated-53
• About Uncirculated-50
• Extremely Fine-45
• Extremely Fine-40
• Very Fine-35
• Very Fine-30
• Very Fine-25
• Very Fine-20
• Very Good-10
• Very Good-8
• About Good-3
• Poor-1 – This is the lowest grade. A coin grading one is so well worn and has passed through so many hands that it is barely identifiable as to its type.
This article about coin grading previously appeared in COINage magazine. To subscribe click here. Article by Scott Travers.