Whether you’re buying coins as a collector or as investments, it’s important for you to know what you’re paying for. What seems to be a slight difference to the untrained eye can be very significant to an expert and can affect a coin’s value substantially.

Do you have to be an expert to keep from getting ripped off when buying coins? Not if you understand how coins are graded. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Coin Grading Standards Set in Place Post-1949

Before 1949, coin buyers were pretty much on their own. They could go to coin dealers or coin shows and get appraisals, but those were often subjective and not always in the buyers’ best interests. “Buyer Beware” was the rule.

In 1949, Dr. William H. Sheldon published “A Quantitative Scale for Condition” as a way of grading U.S. Large Cents produced before 1857. Its principles were extended to other coins, but shortcomings were noticed fairly quickly. It took until 1977, when The Official American Numismatic Association’s Grading Standards for United States Coins was published, to clearly define and set standards for grading coins. It retained Sheldon’s 70-point grading scale and its abbreviations that, with updates, are still used by buyers and sellers today.

Sheldon’s 70-Point Grading Scale Guide

Grades 1-15

Indicate coins with substantial wear and are the lowest priced.

Grades 20-45

Coins range from Very Fine (VF) up to Extremely Fine (XF) and show only moderate to minor wear.

Grades 50-58

Coins are considered About Uncirculated (AU) with minimal wear and significant “mint luster.”

Grades 60-70

Coins are in Mint State (MS) and show no signs of wear. MS 70 represents perfection and is almost impossible to find in older coins.

For more detailed information about the Sheldon scale, see this article on the U.S. Mint website.

For general information about coin collecting and investing, here are some books no collector should be without.

Whether you’re a seasoned collector or just getting started, be sure to browse the selection of U.S. and foreign coins and banknotes available online from The Great American Coin Company®. Our inventory is constantly changing, so be sure to check back often.

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