What Are My Coins Worth? – An Introduction to Coin Grading
One of the first things that a beginning coin collector does is try to determine how much a coin is worth, and he almost immediately encounters are the words “grade” and “condition.” Just what is a “grade” and what determines what grade a coin receives is a topic of debate among collectors throughout their collecting lives. Is it an art or a science? Can it be learned? Can I learn to grade my own coins?
Good questions all, and more easily asked than answered.
The condition of a coin is one of the components of how collectable and how valuable a coin is. The other main components in determining value are rarity and demand. Age is often only a minor consideration in determining the coin’s value. A rare new coin may be much more valuable than a common old coin. A coin in excellent condition is often worth far more than a coin in bad condition. And a rare coin in bad condition may be worth more than a common coin in beautiful condition. And naturally, if nobody wants a coin, its value isn’t very high (But demand or desire for a coin often fluctuates, so the same coin that is worth $50 today may be worth $20 or $75 next year!)
William H. Sheldon devised the grading system that is commonly used by numismatists today. Prior to Sheldon’s system coins were simply described by such terms as “good,” or “fine,” or “extremely fine.” But these terms were somewhat vague, and there was no real standardization of what a “fine” coin should look like.
Sheldon devised a numerical scale which ran from 1 to 70. The higher the number, the better a coin’s condition was in the opinion of the grader. A detailed description of the grading system is beyond the scope of this article, xlm news but may be addressed in the future.
So what is usually considered in determining a coin’s condition?
1. Whether or not a coin has circulated. An uncirculated coin is usually assigned a higher grade than a circulated coin. Unless a coin is certified as uncirculated by a reputable third-party grading service the determination of whether a coin is considered uncirculated is often the result of examining the attributes described below.
2. The Quality of a Coin’s Strike. This occurs at the time a coin is minted. A coin can be said to be strongly struck or weakly struck. Among the factors determining the quality of a coin’s strike is the pressure with which the coin is struck, the quality of the planchet used to produce the coin, and the quality of the die used to strike the coin. This will determine how crisp the design elements appear on the coin. This can vary greatly from type to type, from year to year, and even from mint to mint. So comparing the strike quality of a Lincoln Cent to that of a Winged Liberty (Mercury) Dime is not very helpful. But looking for variations within a type (among 1919 Lincoln Cents, for example) is a determining factor in value. A particularly well-struck coin may bring a premium. A relatively weakly struck coin is not considered as desirable.
3. Current Surface Condition vs. Original Surface Condition (Often referred to as “Surface Preservation.”). What I am referring to here is the presence of nicks, scratches, gouges, and other types of damage to the surface of a coin. Some coins are more susceptible to damage in certain areas. The absence or presence and the extent of this damage is what a grader is looking for. And the damage considered acceptable in some coins is almost ruinous in others. Another phenomenon I have noticed is that some collectors consider damage to the obverse (heads) side of the coin more serious than damage to the reverse (tails) side of the coin.
4. Luster. The best way I can describe this is the “texture” of the coin’s surface. Some people refer to it as how shiny a coin is. This can be very misleading because a coin may have been cleaned, which can produce a shiny appearance, but the surface of the coin has been marred in the cleaning process (or even have had the original surface molecules of the coin completely removed), which results in a lower degree of luster. In addition, certain surfaces and certain coins have different surface features. A satiny, mirror-like, or frosty surface may be the norm in specific coins. The more of the original surface which remains, generally speaking, the better a coin’s luster.
5. Color. Although it sounds simple, this is often a difficult concept, and is often quite subjective. Certain coins maintain their original color as they age. Some coins naturally change color, or “tone,” despite the fact that no physical damage has been done to them. Some collectors pay premiums for “well-toned” silver coins which may acquire all the colors of the rainbow on a single surface of the coin. Some collectors would never touch a toned coin, and are very dismayed to find that over time their “perfect” silver dollar has been “ruined.”
6. Eye-Appeal. Again, this can be considered a very subjective part of Coin Grading, although many collectors will tell you that this is not the case. Just as the words imply, this is an overall perception of how attractive a coin is. Coins with low eye-appeal are not considered as marketable or collectable, and are therefore considered of lower value.
There are resources in the form of books, magazines, journals, websites, and even software which can help in determining the grade of a coin. Some of these even include photographs of individual coins in various grades so that it is possible to compare a coin in your possession to the photograph to help determine its grade. Once a coin’s condition or grade has been determined there are may resources that are available to help you determine the value of a coin in the marketplace. Everything from the Official Red Book, to monthly magazines, to the website of the Professional Coin Grading Service can help with that. There are even websites like Coinflation, which will help you determine the value of a coin if you decide you just want to melt it down for the silver or gold it contains!
The very best “resource,” however , is experience in actually looking at large numbers of coins and understanding exactly what it is that numismatists are looking for.