Humans have been collecting and cataloging coins for approximately 2000 years. The first coins that were collected were from the Roman Empire. Although people were interested in obtaining and preserving them, there is little mention from this early period about the actual conditions of these coins. By the time the human history was in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, many books had been written about coins. Rather than remarking on their condition, most of these texts center around the method and machinery used to create the coins that had been unearthed. It’s not until the mid-1700’s that any mention of a coin’s appearance and wear are ever discussed. But even then, coins were collected more on their type than appearance. By the turn of the 19th century, only wealthy individuals could afford to store and admire coins that they did not intend to trade, melt, or otherwise spend. But it is in this privileged environment that the science of coin grading and comparison began. In the late 1850’s the still-young United States began to more carefully regulate and design its’ currency. People took notice of this and began to pull some of their favorite coins from circulation, especially the Large Cents that had been supplanted by the Flying Eagle-type Small Cents. Some people would even try to collect Large Cents from each date they were produced. As collectors began to complete their penny sets, a desire to replace a coin they already had with a better looking one also arose. Thus, the earliest coin dealers emerged to help people find (and buy) these better specimens. Naturally, a distinction was made between a “rather poor” coin and a “pretty good” coin. Eventually, these distinctions evolved and the terminology of “uncommonly fine” and “quite uncirculated” were added to the vernacular.
In the 1940’s coin collecting had become popular and lucrative enough that a consistent coin grading system was needed. The original scale was presented in 1949. During that year, Dr. William H. Sheldon’s Early American Cents was published and included a guide intended to grade Large Cents. By 1953 this scale had already become outdated. But it was not until the 1970’s that the American Numismatic Association adjusted and edited the scale. Although it is vastly different from the original version, the scale adopted in the 1970’s and used today is still referred to as the Sheldon scale. Following are all grades (and their abbreviations) used by coin dealers, collectors, and grading services. A brief explanation of what condition a coin needs to be in to meet these grades is also included. It should be mentioned that even now, as it was when people first started assigning grades to coins, this scale continues to be refined and adjusted.
(P-1) Poor – Difficult to identify; must have date and mintmark; highly damaged.
(FR-2) Fair – Worn almost smooth but lacking the damage Poor coins have.
(G-4) Good – Details are mostly gone; heavily worn such that inscriptions merge into the rims in places.
(G-6) Good- Heavily worn but major designs visible. Outline shapes present with very little central detail. There may be faintness in some areas, but most lettering should be readable.
(VG-8) Very Good – Very worn, but all major design elements are clear, if faint.
(F-12) Fine – Very worn, but wear is even and overall design elements stand out boldly.
(VF-20) Very Fine – Moderately worn, with some finer details remaining. All letters of inscriptions should be legible with full, clean rims.
(VF-35) Very Fine-Light wear on the high points of the designs, but there is still an excellent overall sharpness. Considerable mint luster will still show in the protected areas
(EF-40) Extremely Fine – Lightly worn; all features are clear but major features should be bold.
(EF-45) Extremely Fine – Very light overall wear on the coin’s higher points, though all of the design details are very sharp. Mint luster is still prominent on many areas of the coin’s surface, though mainly in protected areas.
(AU-50) About Uncirculated – Slight traces of wear on high points; little eye appeal with contact marks.
(AU-58) Very Choice About Uncirculated – – Minor hints of wear marks, no major contact marks, almost full luster, and good eye appeal.
(MS-60) Mint State Basal – Uncirculated but that’s all; an unappealing coin with no luster, obvious contact marks.
(MS-61) Mint State – Attractive but typical example of a new coin of its type with a strike that is average for the series. A number of surface marks, but not too many, too large nor too awkwardly placed so as to be a distraction.
(MS-62) Mint State – Above average strike. While the luster is usually attractive, it may be somewhat subdued or there may be some dull areas.
(MS-63) Mint State Acceptable – Definitely uncirculated, with contact marks and nicks, slight luster with appealing appearance. Strike is weak to average.
(MS-64) Mint State Plus – Strike at least typical for the series, if not better. Surfaces will have only slight marks that will not distract from the overall appeal. Luster will usually be better than typically seen on Mint State coins of its type.
(MS-65) Mint State Choice – Uncirculated; strong luster, minor contact marks. Above average strike and excellent eye appeal.
(MS-68) Mint State Premium Quality – Uncirculated with perfect luster, no visible contact marks to the naked eye, exceptional eye appeal. Strike is sharp and attractive.
(MS-69) Mint State All-But-Perfect – Uncirculated with perfect luster. Sharp, attractive strike, and very exceptional eye appeal. A perfect coin except for microscopic flaws (under 8x magnification).
(MS-70) Mint State Perfect – The “perfect” coin. There are no microscopic flaws visible at 8x magnification. Sharp strike and perfectly-centered. Perfect luster and outstanding eye appeal.
These grades can be slightly confusing at first. A way to simplify this is to realize these grades as three separate categories: the first category is for circulated coins only, the second category is reserved for About Uncirculated (AU) coins, and the third category is for Uncirculated (Mint State, or MS) coins. Visualized this way, the AU scale of coins does not continue into the MS scale (MS-60 to MS-70). The MS category exists as a completely separate scale of grades beginning with the MS-60 Uncirculated coin. So, while being Uncirculated, this might be a fairly unattractive coin. By comparison, an AU-58 coin that grades “beneath” it has attractive eye appeal and nearly full luster. It should be mentioned that while the descriptions of the various grades can be memorized, recognizing them when a coin is presented literally takes years of practice and experience.