Learning How to Grade – Part 3
By Peter Mosiondz, Jr.
Originally Appeared in Canadian Coin News
In our previous installment of “Learning How to Grade” we spoke about circulated coins and the basics of learning how to grade them.
In this, our third and final installment, we turn our attention to Uncirculated coins.
Although there are eleven Uncirculated grades that can be used; i.e. from Mint State-60 (MS-60) through MS-70, we’ll discuss just. We’ll list them in descending order of valuation and, in many instances, demand as well. As indicated, the abbreviation MS refers to a Mint State or Uncirculated coin.
Perfect Uncirculated (MS-70): Absolute perfection in every respect. The coin must have a full strike; i.e. no evident weakness on any portion of the design or lettering. It may not exhibit any mark or blemish whatsoever, not even under 10x (ten-power) or higher magnification. It must display its original and full mint luster while exhibiting the complete brilliance of color as it had when it left the die. Some will tell you that an MS-70 coin may have some delicate toning. I disagree with that theory for the simple fact that the coin did not have one iota of toning when it left the die. Those who might disagree with my conjecture are certainly welcome to do so. After all, in numismatics we always agree to disagree. Healthy dialogue and varied opinions are what give added spice to our wonderful hobby.
Superb Uncirculated (MS-67): At first glance, and a quick one at that, this coin may appear to the unaided eye to be a Perfect Uncirculated (MS-70) specimen. The enthusiastic owner leaps with joy at the prospect of adding a perfect coin to his collection. In fact the coin may have all the attributes of the perfect grade with one exception. Under 5x (five-power) or greater magnification it will display one or two very minor blemishes. They will appear away from the portrait and possibly “hidden” in some heavily detailed area. But a blemish is still a blemish. For this grade some light and eye-appealing toning is permissible.
Gem Uncirculated (MS-65): This is a coin that is noticeably superior to the grades which follow. One almost shouts “Wow!” when an MS-65 coin is viewed for the very first time. However, once the coin is examined under low-powered magnification, say 5x (five power) or less, several minor flaws are evident. These could be slight bag marks or surface ticks of some type but they must not detract from the overall visual appeal of the coin. In other words, the coin must render itself to be aesthetically pleasing. Any such marks should appear in non-detracting areas. If several marks were to be found on the portrait’s cheek, for example, the coin would not merit this lofty grade designation. The strike must be strong and the luster must be complete. Attractive toning is permissible.
Very Choice Uncirculated (MS-64): Perhaps one of the greatest bargain coins in numismatics today and the grade that I most often seek in my collecting endeavours. This coin does not quite measure up to MS-65 standards, perhaps having one or two ticks or bag marks more than would be allowed for the higher grade. These blemishes would not be considered major or bothersome in any regard. By this is meant that the marks or blemishes should not be the first item that your eyes set upon as if they were the whole focal point of the coin. In addition, the mint lustre may not be 100% complete. Attractive toning is allowed. The strike will be strong although there could be a minor weak area. Good eye-appeal is a must as well.
Choice Uncirculated (MS-63): Surface marks are greater than mentioned above for the next two higher grades. These blemishes will be evident without any magnification. Although the marks will be more numerous, again they should not be detracting. The strike will be average or slightly better. The mint lustre will be far from complete in most cases and the toning may be darker or a tad unpleasant in one or two small areas. There are some nice MS-63 coins out there. Do not denigrate them. Some fine collections have included a vast number of coins in this grade. They are usually available for much less than the prices for MS-65 and MS-64 pieces.
Typical Uncirculated (MS-60): This coin is Uncirculated by the strict definition of the word but will exhibit much visual unpleasantness. Large amounts of heavy bag marks are the rule for larger silver coins such as the half-dollar and dollar denominations. This type of coin with its plethora of bag marks has earned the slang nickname “baggy”. When first viewed it is apparent that this coin could not possibly merit a higher grade, say that of MS-63. Occasionally the coin will possess one or two heavy gouges. These could be the result of jostling about in a mint sack of coins or being dropped to the pavement of hard surfaced floor by a not-so-careful collector. Some MS-60 coins can be so unattractive that an About Uncirculated example would bring a higher price in the marketplace due to the fact that the lesser graded coin has that much more eye-appeal and is only a slight rub away from being an Uncirculated coin, possibly MS-63 or greater. The strike will be weak or average and if there is any resultant mint luster it will be minimal at best. In short, although this is an Uncirculated coin it is not usually an attractive coin.
There we have it; concise descriptions of six popular Uncirculated grades. As I said earlier, there is a possibility of eleven grades ranging from MS-60 through MS-70. Just how anyone can split a hair so precisely is beyond this numismatist’s comprehension. Add to the mix the use of “plus” (+) signs after these numbers and the old but still evident “PQ” (Premium Quality) designator and it’s no wonder that a collector’s head can spin.
Please keep in mind that this is merely a generalization. You will have to examine as many graded Uncirculated coins as you can to learn the differences between grades. Try to examine many third-party certified coins as well. Also, a small silver coin such as the five-cent piece cannot have as many bag marks or blemishes as the much larger Silver Dollar for the same grade due to the latter’s much larger surface area.
Two key points to remember when contemplating the purchase of any coin is to ask yourself “Is this coin appealing to me?” and then “Do I agree with the seller’s grade or the grade on the third-party holder?”
As mentioned many times, The American Numismatic Association’s Grading Standards for United States Coins will provide not only additional guidelines in the grading of Uncirculated coins but will give you many valuable collecting tips as well.