BASIC GRADING FOR BEGINNERS
Our current PO1 to MS70 grading scale has its roots in a system designed years ago for Large Cents. The Large Cent system was informally adopted by the entire numismatic community. Howebver, grading is both the blessing and curse of coin collecting. Here's my approach, which, I believe, is somewhat standard.
(New collectors -- never buy and coin you don't like and never pay more than your gut tells you -- that way you'll never be tripped up by grading questions. AND, practice, practice, practice your grading skills.)
When grading, I ask myself a series of six questions:
Question #1 -- does the coin have problems? Many numismatists (me included) feel that a problem coin cannot be graded. Cleaning, dipping, staining, scraping and so forth are 'problems.' Problems are inflicted on a coin after the minting process is complete. Shysters clean coins. Skilled shysters clean coins so it is difficult to tell that they have been cleaned. If a coin looks funny, it probably is. If the coin looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Question #2 -- is the coin a proof coin? Proof coinage falls into a separate category from normal business strikes. Proof coins do not display mint luster (see next question); they do display a mirrored surface.
Question #3 -- is the coin uncirculated? This is usually easy to answer. Those 'almost unc' pieces are the ones in question. A circulated piece shows definite wear. That is, it shows metal eroded away by circulation. An uncirculated piece (almost always) shows mint luster. Mint luster is not shiny-ness. Mint luster is a 'creamy-ness' (there are probably better words) that is evident when you take a coin and look at it from different angles under a point souce of light. Rock a coin back and forth under a good light and look for highlights eminating from the mint luster. Remember that mint luster comes from microscopic radial striations in the metal's surface. An uncirculated coin displays mint luster on all parts of the coin, especially the fields. Look for evidence of wear by checking the high points for luster. If it is there, the coin is an unc. If the high points do not reflect light like the rest of the coin, the coin is probably AU.
Question #4a -- how worn is a circulated piece? This is easy. There are detailed grading guides on this subject. It is easy to tell the difference between, say, between a G-4 and a VG-8. Likewise, it is easy to tell the difference between an XF-40 and an AU-50. Just look in the grading guides.
Question #4b -- how badly marked is an uncirculated or proof piece? This is a little tricky. The grading guides attempt to help, but experience is the best teacher. An 'average' number of marks usually gets you an MS63. Look at 100 unc Morgans and you get to know what 'average' means. Look at 100 unc Mercs and you'll come up with an 'average' for them. To qualify for a '5' (that is, MS65), your coin better have darn few marks -- and no prominent ones, either. A small collection of small marks is better than a pristine coin with one big blemish. Grading uncs is much more an art than grading circs. Take the plunge and assign a grade. It's your grade that matters to you. Not anyone else's!
NOW, the grading is over. After answering these four questions, you should have a number. Is it a G4, a VF20 or an MS65? You are done grading, but you are not done describing the coin.
A coin is not fully described until it has a grade and its attributes are articulated. 'Attributes' are different than 'varieties.' You can find 'varieties' in the Red Book (e.g., 'with arrows', 'VDB' and 'small motto' are varieties). You can find attributes in the answers to Questions #5 and #6 below.
Question #5 -- how are luster, strike and eye appeal? Three primary attributes are luster, strike and eye appeal. Exceptionally lustrous uncs deserve mention over normal luster. Uncs with exceptionally crisp strike also deserve special mention. Finally, exceptional eye appeal can be found on both uncs and circs. Eye appeal is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.
Question #6 -- are there any other attributes? Check over the exhaustive (and exhausting) list below.
[Color & Toning]
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