DIFFICULT COINS TO GRADE
– A GRADER’S TOUGH TEN
By SCOTT A. TRAVERS
COPYRIGHT © 1988, 2003 BY SCOTT A. TRAVERS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Coin grading is a subjective process of evaluation —
but it is a consensus of subjectivity which makes it somewhat
To an outsider looking in, the grading process at
leading grading services is scientific. Graders examine
submitted coins in a circular, computerized room reminiscent
of the Starship Enterprise. A grader can view a coin under a
halogen lamp or under a stereoscope.
The desired result is a consensus grade. And, for a
grader to enter his grade into the computer in order to be a
part of that consensus, he has to carefully scrutinize every
coin that comes his way. Each and every aspect of a coin’s
grade has to be carefully considered. Strike. Luster. Toning.
Surfaces. Eye appeal.
Some coins have to be scrutinized more carefully than
others. At one grading service I worked at, it’s recognized that
coins are graded on a continuum. There are high 65s, low 65s and
right-in-the-middle 65s. At that service, an internal coding is used to
differentiate among these grades. For example, a high-65
would be referred to as MS-65A; a low-end 65 as 65C; a right-
in-the-middle 65 as 65 (or 65B). Sometimes, my 64A is another
grader’s 65C — or vice versa.
This intense scrutiny of each and every coin submitted
to that service and this service’s striving for accuracy and
consistency have made it clear to graders that at that service, all
coins submitted are treated equally. It’s just that some
coins are more equal than others.
Certain specimens are every grader’s nightmare: coins
that could be either 65C or 64A; incuse-design gold coins
that could be either 63A or 64C (with a price difference
between the two of $5,000); and coins that realized mind-
boggling prices at auction but don’t deserve grades
commensurate with those prices.
The 10 types listed here are among the most difficult
coins to grade.
(1) LINE COINS. When a grading service is popular, its
65-or-better grade (or even 64-or-better grade) is
highly coveted. But in order to maximize his profit, the coin
trader likes to pay a 64 price for a coin and send it in
for encapsulation as a 65. Most traders can’t do this, but
some inner-circle high-volume traders can — and do. Some of
these traders have the finest grading minds of our time. And
they use their minds to find and send “line coins” to be
Line coins are coins that qualify to be graded, say, MS-
64A or MS-65C. Either grade would be fair, but many traders
have paid a price commensurate with the lower grade and are
hoping to receive the higher grade from the service.
On business strikes, it usually comes down to the
quality of the surfaces; this is what determines whether a
line coin gets the next highest grade — although impaired
luster can reduce the coin’s chance for the next grade.
(2) LAW-BREAKERS. If you were to assign a technical
grade of MS-67/64 (the obverse being a 67; the reverse
being a 64) to a coin, any old-timer would tell you that the
overall grade would have to be MS-64, for conventional wisdom
used to be that a coin couldn’t be assigned an overall grade
that was higher than the lowest grade of any one side.
Wrong. The overall grade might well be MS-65. The
obverse can “carry” a coin. But if it were the other way
around — MS-64/67 — the final grade probably would be MS-
An MS-65/65 coin with some weakness of strike might be
graded MS-64 — or lower — to reflect marketplace
standards. The service I worked at grades in such a way that coins
can be traded sight unseen — without offer-makers even looking at them.
And a weakly struck coin graded MS-65 could restrict the
fluidity of the system.
(3) SUPER COMMON COINS. Some unscrupulous dealers have
been attaching hefty price tags to coins which are
common but have high grades. For example, I saw one dealer
at a show with a 1964 Kennedy half dollar graded Proof-67 by
a leading rading service for which he was
asking $500! The coin is worth a mere fraction of that price.
When someone sends in a common coin worth $4 — and has
paid $20 to get it graded — that modern coin with a 67 or
68 grade is not going to be sold for $5 or even $25; often,
the asking price is going to be in the hundreds!
I resent giving these modern, common coins wonder-coin
grades — even if they are deserving of them.
(4) INCUSE-DESIGN GOLD. Coins with incuse designs are
difficult enough to grade. Gold retains its mint luster
indefinitely, and these gold coins have characteristics that
make it difficult to tell whether or not there is wear on the
But let’s say you’re looking at a $5 Indian submitted
for grading. You examine it carefully and are certain it has
no wear. In fact, it looks like a 65. You’ve seen many
dealers pay 65 money for coins identical to this one, but you
wouldn’t want it for 65 money. It grades 64A or 65C. You
think the 65 grade is probably fair. Then you think about the
economic consequences: The 64 price is $5,400; the 65 price
(5) COINS WITH SENSATIONAL EYE APPEAL. If you have a
magnificent proof Barber quarter — one with a cameo
contrast between its watery fields and snow-white devices —
but the coin has a tiny hit on the obverse, can you still
grade it Proof-65? Probably. Personally, I don’t like seeing
the 65 grade assigned to such coins, but it’s the consensus
If you have a proof Liberty Seated half dollar with
light hairlines that make it a technical 63A, can phenomenal
toning make it a 64? Yes, as long as the eye appeal isn’t
counted for more than one-quarter of a point.
(6) RARE DATES. If you come across a shimmering 1936
Walking Liberty half dollar in proof (a relatively rare
coin) and it is identical in every respect to 50 1942 Walking
Liberty halves which were just graded Proof-64, does the 64
grade apply to the 1936, too? If the ’36 is a technical 64A,
compensation for the date by one-quarter of a point is
acceptable. Thus, the Proof-65 designation is acceptable.
Compensation for rarity is satisfactory, as long as you
don’t go overboard and upgrade a technical MS-62 coin to MS-
(7) SMALL COINS. Graders spend more time examining
small coins than any other kind. We have to be extremely
careful about looking for imperfections, and even have to
exercise more care in holding these coins. This is not to say
that larger coins don’t get complete consideration; it’s just
that smaller coins require closer scrutiny.
A tiny mark on a three-cent silver piece is weighted
differently from a mark of the same size on a Morgan dollar.
The three-cent silver is tiny itself, and even a tiny mark
can be a considerable detraction.
(8) AUCTION COINS. A public auction serves as an
important symbolic representation of the concept of
consensus grading. If a dozen major players all are willing
to pay the MS-65 price-guide level for a given rarity,
chances are that its marketplace grade is MS-65.
But what happens if that MS-65 looks like an MS-64A?
Personally, I would grade it MS-64, even if I knew what it
brought in the auction. But auction prices realized can and
do have an effect, even if it’s a subconscious one, on the
(9) PROBLEM COINS. Coins with PVC on them or coins with
imperfections or coins that are bent or tampered with —
these are “no-grade” coins.
Sometimes, however, it becomes a problem to determine
whether a coin is, in fact, a no-grade, or whether it simply
should have its grade lowered to reflect the imperfection.
For example, a Morgan dollar which under normal circumstances
would grade MS-64 might be assigned the grade of MS-62 or MS-
63 because of a rather eye-catching ding on its rim.
But a Walking Liberty half dollar which normally would
grade MS-67 but has a deep gouge on the obverse — a gouge
so deep that it nearly travels through to the other side —
would be no-graded.
(10) PERSONAL COINS. Some dealers who have graded at
grading services say they know the grading standards are tight, but
they have no problems with the grades assigned — except the
grades assigned to the coins which they themselves submit
(which they, of course, are not allowed to grade).
It all comes down to the old axiom: If it’s yours, it
appears just a bit nicer than the coin which belongs to
somebody else. But the grading process at the leading services is
designed to maximize the use of idependent, arm’s-length
grading to assure fair and just grading opinions for everyone.