What Does “Grade” Mean?
Coin grading, to put it simply, is just a way for collectors to determine the condition of the coin, usually a major factor in figuring out the coin’s value. Even though there are grading systems to help numismatists determine a coin’s value, in the end, it’s a subjective assessment.
In general, the coin grading systems evaluate four characteristics of a coin: surface preservation, strike, lustre, and eye appeal.
- Surface preservation deals with the markings on the surface of a coin, how severe these markings are, and where they are placed.
- Strike looks at the level of detail, sharpness, and completeness of the coin’s design. The word itself refers to the process of stamping the design on the coin.
- Lustre evaluates the surface texture’s sheen, brilliance, and contrast.
- Eye appeal is the overall evaluation of the coin, taking into account the previous three characteristics and gives an assessment on the coin’s overall attractiveness.
Note: Systems can have different or more detailed categories depending on the kind of coin it’s meant to evaluated (modern vs ancient coin, proof vs circulated coin, etc).
The Systems of Grading
The Traditional Grading System
The UK’s traditional grading system is based on four main grade tiers: Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, and Uncirculated. As time went on, collectors wanted more precise grading descriptions. So here’s a list of typically used grading tiers, from the lowest to the highest:
- Fair (F/Fair) – The date and any text on the coin is recognisable, but the majority of the other details are not discernible.
- Good (G) – Identifiable date and design, but very worn otherwise.
- Very Good (VG) – Still has a lot of wear but the majority of the major details are clear.
- Fine (F/Fine) – There is wear over most of the raised design but the highest spots are completely worn. The design, date, and any lettering are clear.
- Very Fine (VF) – The fine details of the coin are still there but there are still some signs of wear due to use.
- Extremely Fine (EF) – It still has much of its original mint lustre and its details/lettering are sharp. There’s little wear to indicate that it hasn’t been used much.
- Uncirculated (U/UNC) – It has all of its fine details and most of its original mint lustre. There aren’t any wear marks at all other than minor production marks.
- Brilliant Uncirculated (BU) – An almost perfect coin with almost all of its original mint lustre.
- Fleur de Coin (FDC) – In virtually perfect condition with only minute marks that are from the manufacturing process that can be visible under magnification. Very rare.
Each of these tiers is then subdivided into sub-grades. Notice that these sub-grades are usually written in lowercase, but not always.
- Almost (a)/Nearly (n) – slightly below the grading tier
- Good (g) – slightly about the named grading tier
Note: The main tiers and sub-grades will sometimes vary depending on the seller’s preferences or the certification service used.
How to Read the Traditional UK Coin Grading System
When reading a coin’s grade, many times the seller will state the coin’s grade through a combination of the sub-grade and one of the main grade tiers. For instance, aFDC is “Almost Fleur de Coin” and gVF is “Good Very Fine.”
In terms of increment when using sub-grades, it goes from the main tier, then good, then almost, then the next tier. For instance: “Very Good, Almost Fine, Fine, Good Fine, Almost Very Fine, Very Fine, Good Very Fine, Almost Extremely Fine, Extremely Fine, and so on.” The tiers “Fair” and “Good” don’t usually get sub-grades; it starts from “Very Good” on.
The CGS Grading System
An alternative to the traditional grading system is the CGS scale, or coin grading system. This scale is used by the London Coin Grading Service (sometimes listed a Coin Grading Service UK) and is meant for English milled coins. This service is the UK’s professional grading agency. (There are other coin certification services, with their own grading scales as well, which we’ll elaborate in another guide.)
The CGS scale is based on a 100 point scale, making the CGS grade a kind of percentage of how “perfect” the coin is. In general, the CGS scale aligns with the traditional UK coin grading scale as follows:
Traditional UK Coin Grading
Fair – Very Good (F – VG)
0 – 19
20 – 39
Very Fine (VF)
40 – 59
Extremely Fine (EF)
60 – 77
Other European Grading Services
Other European countries have their own systems of grading as well, however, most of the coins that are of interest internationally will have been graded with the traditional UK System, sometimes known as the European/International Coin Grading System, or the Sheldon System, the coin grading system typically used in the US.
The US Grading System aka the Sheldon System
The Sheldon Coin Grading Scale is the main system used in the United States. Created by Dr William H. Sheldon in 1949, the scale is based on a 70-point scale. The American Numismatic Association’s grading standards are also based on this scale.
The system has two parts: one is the number from 0 to 70, (0 is the worst, 70 is the best) that describes the condition and the other is a one or two-letter abbreviation in front of the number to give an overall description. The numbers 60 – 70 are reserved for uncirculated and proof coins. The accompanying letter abbreviation is MS for mint state or sometimes PR/PF for Proof.
Here’s a list of the typical Sheldon grades:
VG -8 (Very Good)
VF-20 (Very Fine)
EF-40 (Extremely Fine)
AU-50 (About Uncirculated)
AU-58 (Very Choice About Uncirculated)
MS-60 (Mint State Basal)
MS-70 (Mint State Perfect)