Learning to grade by books and photographs is a key start to
understanding coin grading, but images of the obverse and reverse of a
single coin can only provide so much information.
issue with rare coin grading guides — including Coin World’s Making The Grade —
is that they show a single coin that is typical for the grade. As any
collector can tell you, not all coins are typical.
Generally the coin market uses market grading, where a coin’s grade is
based on both wear and consideration of how it will trade in the
marketplace. Eye appeal, an assessment of a coin’s attractiveness, is
a key component in market grading, even for circulated coins.
Occasionally I’ll purchase a coin for its educational value to
share in my presentations to collector groups. Last year I bought at
auction an 1872 Seated Liberty silver dollar graded Fine 15 by Numismatic Guaranty
Corp. It was formerly in the collection of St. Louis numismatist
Eric P. Newman and the lot included his original brown paper envelope
for the coin where it’s graded Very Good, carrying a handwritten price
Traditionally, collectors look at pick-up
points on circulated coins in certain grades as a kind of shorthand to
determining the grade. These are specific areas where wear can be
seen. Some of the traditional grade markers include full LIBERTY
visible on the headband of Liberty Head 5-cent pieces and Barber
dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars.
Seated Liberty coins should have a readable LIBERTY across the shield
to grade Fine 12 or better. The “Red Book” (A Guide Book of United
States Coins) defines a Fine 12 Seated Liberty dollar as having
“all seven letters of LIBERTY visible, though weak.” Making the
Grade notes that some letters may not be visible on Fine Seated
In the case of my 1872 Seated Liberty
dollar, just four letters of LIBERTY are visible, but the remaining
elements are clear and bold and the eye appeal is generally positive.
The market accepts this coin as a choice Fine coin, although by the
traditional technical grading standards employed by Mr. Newman decades
ago when he purchased this coin, the grade was lower.
example where market grading has sharply changed value perceptions
over the past few decades can be found with the Indian Head 5-cent
piece, or “Buffalo nickel.”
Traditionally, Very Fine 20 examples should have a full horn on the
reverse’s bison. However, especially for certain Denver and San
Francisco Mint issues that are weakly struck, even Mint State examples
may lack a full horn. Thus, market grading looks at the totality of
wear on a coin, adding for good eye appeal when appropriate, to create
a market grade.