THE 10 MOST IMPORTANT GRADING TIPS
By SCOTT A. TRAVERS
COPYRIGHT © 1994, 2003 BY SCOTT A. TRAVERS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
With the advent of independent third-party
certification, many coin buyers and sellers thought all their
grading worries were over.
No longer would they have to scrutinize each coin they
bought and sold to determine its level of preservation. No
longer would they need to concern themselves with grading
pointers, grading tips, grading advice–these mattered now
only to the experts at the leading certification services.
From now on, all Mint State-65 coins would be created
equal, as long as they got those grades from the Professional
Coin Grading Service (PCGS), the Numismatic Guaranty
Corporation of America (NGC) or ANACS.
In short, buyers and sellers no longer would need to
think for themselves and exercise their own common sense.
This is not entirely true.
Certification services have made–and are continuing to
make–tremendous contributions to standardizing and
stabilizing coin-grading standards. In the process, they have
dramatically reduced the risk that buyers might suffer
significant financial loss because they purchased coins that
But certification services aren’t infallible. And though
they strive mightily for consistency, they–like the coins
they grade–inevitably fall short of total perfection. Some
coins graded Mint State-65 by PCGS, NGC or ANACS are indeed
better than others; some might even qualify as Mint State-66.
Others, by contrast, might get a lower grade if broken out of
their holders and resubmitted.
Over a period of time, subtle shifts in standards or in
their application can result in the existence of whole groups
of coins that are undergraded or overgraded relative to the
rest of the coins from a given grading service.
For example, in 1994, David Hall, founder and president
of PCGS, admitted on my radio program–a weekly talk show
called One-Hour Coin Expert–that during its early years,
his company was reluctant to assign the grade of Mint State-
or Proof-68. He candidly agreed that a number of the coins
graded Mint State- or Proof-67 by PCGS during that early
period might well receive a grade of 68 if submitted today.
And that could increase their current market value by many
thousands of dollars.
Just because a coin is in a holder and just because that
holder carries a grade assigned by a certification service,
there’s no reason why you–as a buyer or seller–can’t and
shouldn’t resubmit that coin to your own personal grading
service … your own common sense and your own store of
knowledge … and render an expert judgment of your own.
Knowledge is more than power; in the case of rare coins,
it also can mean enormous profit.
With that in mind, here’s my personal list of the top 10
coin-grading tips of all time:
(1) Check the high points for wear.
Even if a grading service certifies a coin as Mint
State-63, that doesn’t mean it won’t come back with a lower
grade–possibly even AU-58–if you resubmit it. A coin should
stand on its own merits; you should buy it for itself and not
for the plastic.
Look at the very highest points of the coin. If they’re
lighter in color than the rest of the coin, or if you see
friction, the coin may not be mint-state; it may be about
Telltale signs of wear are indicated by the color of the
high points. On coins made of copper, the high points after
friction are dark brown. On coins made of nickel, the high-
point color after friction is dark gray. On coins made of
silver, the color is dull gray. And on coins made of gold,
the high-point color after friction is dull, dark gold.
(2) If it’s ugly, don’t buy it.
Use your common sense. Blotchy toning, obvious scratches
and spots which penetrate the surface of a coin are
unattractive. And if a coin appears unattractive to you, it
probably will appear that way to other people, too.
Therefore, you should stay away from it.
Even coins with very high grades–coins which have been
certified as 67, 68 or 69 by a major certification service–
are subject to personal taste, and you should always rely on
yours. Rare-coin grading is subjective, and so is the beauty
Among the few characteristics which is universally
attractive is concentric circle toning. If you observe this
on a coin, you should view it as a highly positive feature.
(3) Examine grade-sensitive areas.
Some flaws are more obvious than others. On Morgan
silver dollars, for example, a scratch on Miss Liberty’s
cheek is immediately apparent because that part of the coin
is so smooth and open. By contrast, a scratch in her hair
wouldn’t be noticed as readily because it would be
camouflaged by the intricate details in that portion of the
High, exposed areas such as Miss Liberty’s cheek are
said to be “grade-sensitive,” and you should be more hesitant
to purchase any coin with an imperfection there–even though
that coin may carry a grade of Mint State-65 or Proof-65 or
above from PCGS or NGC.
If you have a choice between one coin graded Mint State-
66 with a scratch on the cheek and another coin in the same
grade without that scratch on the cheek, always opt for the
latter. Everything else being equal, it’s always best to
purchase coins whose flaws are in non-grade-sensitive areas.
Grade-sensitive areas for all the major U.S. coin series
are identified and illustrated–with color grading maps–in
an excellent book by James L. Halperin called How to Grade
U.S. Coins. To underscore my enthusiasm for this book, I
wrote its introduction.
(4) Look beneath the toning.
This is probably the most important point of all. It’s
also the easiest way to determine whether a coin has
Toning can cover up a multitude of imperfections–
scratches, hairlines, tooling, thumbing and chemical
alteration, to cite just a few. Many times, coins with
imperfections are artificially retoned to conceal these
flaws. By examining these coins closely under a magnifying
glass, you can detect not only the hidden imperfections but
also the artificial toning.
(5) Examine every coin under a halogen lamp or a high-
intensity pinpoint light source.
When looking beneath the toning of a coin or otherwise
searching for imperfections, it’s essential that you use the
right kind of lighting. I first pointed this out in an award-
winning article published in COINage in 1979. I later
elaborated on this in my best-selling book The Coin
Collector’s Survival ManualTM.
A halogen lamp is especially beneficial when looking at
proof coins. It will help you spot hairline scratches, which
can detract considerably from a proof coin’s overall grade. A
tensor light is adequate for mint-state business-strike
Ordinary light sources such as floodlamps or bare
filament lights–the kind commonly used in chandeliers–make
coins appear more attractive than they actually are. For that
reason, if you’re looking at coins at an auction-lot viewing
session, you should always make sure there’s a halogen lamp
or a tensor light source nearby.
(6) Resubmit upper-end coins–coins which are high-
quality for the grade–and coins graded 67 by PCGS.
You stand a reasonably good chance of getting a higher
grade if you resubmit such coins–especially if you acquired
them in 1986 and 1987, when the grading services were
extremely tough in assigning grades.
As I mentioned earlier, David Hall has publicly admitted
that a number of PCGS coins graded 67 a few years ago might
well come back today at a higher grade. The difference in
price between a 67 and its 68 counterpart can be tens of
thousands of dollars–so this could represent a $20,000 gift
for you, just for taking the trouble to crack a coin out of
its holder and resubmit it.
(7) “Read” every coin.
This is a point on which I elaborate in the The Coin
Collector’s Survival Manual™. Looking at a coin is similar to
proofreading a letter. And individuals who possess book
knowledge combined with practical experience at buying,
selling and trading coins have learned how to look
at a coin and size up its flaws rather quickly, just as
expert editors have learned how to scan a manuscript for
errors and typographical mistakes.
Often, a coin’s imperfections won’t be noticeable at a
glance, or even after somewhat closer perusal by an unskilled
observer. This may happen, for example, when a coin has one
feature so overwhelmingly attractive that it causes you to
lose sight of everything else. Let’s say you’re shown a
Saint-Gaudens double eagle with blazing golden luster; the
luster may be so intense that it causes you to overlook a
bump or a ding on the rim, which in turn might cause the coin
to be downgraded.
You should learn how to read all the key information on
every coin you handle and properly identify all the
imperfections. Don’t be dazzled by any one feature of a coin,
no matter how attractive it may be, to the point where you
miss important details in the “fine print.”
(8) Look for hairlines.
A proof coin with overwhelmingly beautiful toning can be
powerfully appealing. And, to the naked eye, its surfaces may
appear pristine and original. But even on gorgeous proofs
such as this, and even on coins in very high grades, you may
very well find hairline scratches–and the number of hairline
scratches is a very important element in determining the
grade of a proof coin.
Once again, I suggest that you consult The Coin
Collector’s Survival Manual™. The book contains excellent
photographs illustrating hairlines on a proof coin. These
photos, which noted numismatic researcher and author Kenneth
E. Bressett was kind enough to provide to me, are the best of
their kind I’ve ever seen.
Spotting hairline scratches is easier on brilliant
modern proofs–proof Mercury dimes, for example. It’s
somewhat more difficult on older coins with heavier toning–
say, Liberty Seated half dollars from the 1880s with
concentric-circle toning. On coins such as these, the toning
may cover the scratches.
(9) Beware of the rub.
Checking for wear on the high points of a coin is
relatively easy–and that’s a good thing, since wear, after
all, is the single most crucial factor in determining grade.
Detecting rub on a coin is considerably more difficult, for
rub is far more subtle. It’s also far more hazardous to the
health of that coin.
As the term suggests, a “rub” is a small area on a coin
–possibly no bigger than a thumbprint (and possibly caused
by a thumbprint)–which bears evidence of friction, showing
that the coin has been rubbed. The effect of such a rub can
be devastating. Suppose you had a gem, pristine, magnificent
coin, blazing with luster, and just one time a perspiration-
soaked thumb rubbed ever so slightly across its surface. Even
if the coin otherwise might have been graded 65, 66 or 67,
that rub could knock it all the way down to AU-58.
To identify rub, you need a good, solid tensor or
pinpoint-light source, and you have to tilt and rotate the
coin under that lighting. You then need to envision a pencil-
drawn circle fully formed. If the coin reflects light in a
fully circular pattern, it’s probably mint-state. But if it
reflects light in a generally circular pattern but the
pattern is disturbed in any way, then the coin may have a
rub. Using the same analogy, that pencil-drawn circle would
have just a couple of segments erased. The Coin Collector’s
Survival Manual™ illustrates this with excellent photographs.
(10) Remember that grading standards have changed since
the early 1980s.
A lot of people still own coins which they purchased in
the early 1980s and which were graded at that time by
reputable dealers or by the ANA Certification Service. But
many of these people tend to forget–or never even knew–that
grading standards have tightened since then and become more
Even coins purchased from reputable dealers in 1981,
1982 and 1983 may not meet the rigorous, consistent,
impartial standards established in the late 1980s and being
observed today by NGC, PCGS and ANACS.
There you have them: my 10 top coin-grading tips. They
may not make you rich, but they’ll go a long way toward
helping you avoid losing your shirt!