Learning how to grade coins is an essential part of collecting

Published : 07/04/12
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If there is one skill in the coin collecting hobby that takes a lifetime to master, it is grading coins.

When a collector is first starting out, the process can seem daunting. Is a coin Uncirculated or does it show some wear? If it shows wear, how much wear does it have? If it is Uncirculated, how nice is it? Add to that the shifting market grading standards, and it’s enough to make one want to exclaim, “I’ll never understand this!”

During the last week I’ve had the benefit of working with 21 students as an instructor at the American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar in Colorado Springs, Colo. It is a week-long summer camp-like immersion in numismatics. Along with two skilled co-instructors and with the help of several roving experts, I’ve been teaching the Introduction to Grading class. It’s been a refreshing reminder that coin collecting is a field filled with specific terminology that needs to be explained, and that the process of learning how to grade coins is a skill where each coin one looks at provides a tiny lesson.

Viewing thousands of coins in time creates a sort of visual memory bank that one can draw from to see how coins wear over time, how coins change looks as they acquire toning and the different levels of quality within Mint State grades.

A collector occasionally will ask: Why do I need to learn how to grade coins? I only buy coins that have been certified by a major third-party grading service.

Yet, as grading students, collectors and dealers all know, there is rarely a one size fits all grade for each coin and there can be tremendous differences in quality between coins of the same grade.

Simply put, if you don’t learn how to grade coins, you are likely leaving some money on the table when you’re buying and selling.

Grading guides have an important place in this, especially for grading circulated coins as they show progressions of wear across grades. But, like in learning a new language, many exceptions exist to the rule that prove confusing for newcomers and provide opportunities for dealers to earn a living by upgrading coins from one grade to a higher one. After all, grading is subjective.

Sharing one’s hobby by educating also helps the educator to learn, as it allows a teacher to see the coin collecting field through the fresh eyes of students.

Perhaps you are just starting out in the hobby; if so, welcome! You are in for a lifetime of learning, collecting and meeting some of the most fascinating people in the world.

If you’ve been around for a while, take a look at the many options around to share your hobby with a new collector. It serves to keep the hobby vibrant and at the same time, hopefully, will remind you why you were attracted to coins in the first place.


Steve Roach


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