US Coins

How the 'perfect' coin label has changed since 1986

The 1986 Statue of Liberty gold $5 series was the first documented to achieve perfection, with specimens graded MS-70 and Proof 70 in late June 1986. Images shown illustrate the grades, but are not the first coins to receive the top grade.

Coin images courtesy of Heritage Auctions and eBay seller NJI Coins.

Question: What U.S. coin was first to be documented “perfect” and the first to be graded Mint State 70 and Proof 70? With literally millions of coins encased in plastic holders today bearing the grades MS-70 and Proof 70, some may question, “Why is this important or worth a mention?’’

Page 1 of the July 30, 1986, issue of Coin World announced the earthshattering news: The American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS), the leading third-party grading service at the time, had given one Uncirculated Statue of Liberty gold $5 coin the lofty grade of Mint State 70 and “four or five” Proof examples were graded Proof 70 out of 50 submitted for grading.

Richard Montgomery, then ANACS director, explained that the obverse and reverse designs facilitated a perfect strike and when struck on flawless planchets had achieved perfection.

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To say that the perfect grade raised some eyebrows is an under­statement. While 70 always had been theoretically possible, few U.S. coins by that time had been graded even MS-67 or Proof 67.

Yet, both a perfect coin and a perfect grade were predictable and inevitable, when we look through the clear lens of history.

In 1949 William Sheldon de­vised a “quantitative grading” scale to de­note the condition of 1793 to 1814 cents, using adjectival descriptions and numbers (1 to 70) to bench­mark. At the top of the range (Mint State) Sheldon identified three numbers: 60, 65 and 70. 

Soon dealers began applying Sheldon’s scale to other denomi­nations and it became the norm during the 1960s. By the late 1970s rising prices, particularly for silver dollars, moved the market to seek more precision. In 1981 the ANA recognized the use of two additional Mint State grades, 63 and 67. But the market wanted more precision, namely formal recognition of a 64 grade. 

Then came 1986, the pivotal year in coin grading. 

Professional Coin Grading Service entered the marketplace in early February, raising the bar by expanding the six Uncirculated grades commonly in use to 11 one-point grade increments in the Mint Stage range. In order to remain competitive, in less than six months, ANACS followed suit.

The grading revolution was front and center in the headlines, but less evident were the revo­lutionary changes underway in coin production at the U.S. Mint.

In next month’s column we’ll explore some of those changes.

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