Author Kathy Batesel writes about topics she has experienced, worked with, or researched thoroughly.
Understanding Coin Grades
If you've been lucky enough to find an old coin, you may be wondering what it's worth. However, trying to establish its value can be tricky! You find a chart that offers half a dozen prices for the same coin, but you're not sure what you're seeing because it has weird abbreviations like "PF," "BU," and "MS." Even experienced collectors may have trouble distinguishing their coin's value at times.
Coins, like collectibles, can be worth a lot more or a lot less depending on the quality and condition of the item, as well as its rarity. Coins may get worn to such a degree that they have little value, or they may retain crisp details many years after they were minted.
As a longtime coin collector, or numismatist, I've discovered how important it is to be able to estimate a coin's condition before plunking down money to buy it. At auctions, I've seen coins sell for more than double what they were worth!
Keep reading to learn about coin conditions and why BU coins are a good quality to shoot for acquiring if you're planning to collect.
Coin Grade Scale
|Abbreviation||Meaning||Scaled Point Values|
AU / BU
"About Uncirculated / Brilliant Uncirculated"
PF / MS
"Proof" or "Mint Specimen"
Coin grades are rated according to their brilliance, wear, and rarity. High brilliance and low wear make a more desirable coin than one that has scratches, marks, or dull areas. In the United States, the Sheldon rating scales, named after Dr. William Sheldon, a well-known coin collector who developed an improved, standardized method of grading collectible coins, is the most commonly used method basis. Sheldon's standards have been adopted by most professional numismatists and organizations, and are typically supplemented with older grading methods.
The scale is based on a point system of 0–70. A coin that is a 0, 1, or 2 would be considered "Poor" or "Basal" condition. You might not be certain it was a coin. Its design is worn flat, and it may look like nothing more than a metallic disk. At the other extreme are the proof (PF) coins that have received a special treatment at the U.S. mint to give them a high-luster, mirror-like appearance. Nearly all coins fall somewhere between these two points on the scale.
Let's take a look at the three qualities that determine value: Luster, Wear, and Rarity.
Luster refers to the degree of shine a coin shows. You can see in the photo of these pennies that a coin rated around "Very Fine" has lost a great deal of luster, while a BU coin retains a great deal of luster despite having minor defects.
As coins age, they may become "toned" and take on unusual colors. This is called a patina. With silver coins, blue and purple hues are the most common, but bronze shades are also seen. Coins with a great deal of toning may develop a rainbow patina. Toning is the result of chemicals in the atmosphere acting upon the elements in the coin.
Any metal can show toning. Its patina may increase or decrease its value. Unscrupulous or uninformed dealers or people called "coin doctors" - may artificially tone coins. If a coin's patina is detected to be artificially induced, it lowers the coin's worth.
Artificial toning has some valid uses for antiquing jewelry, home décor, and clothing accessories, but should not be used on coins. The video below discusses the process and reveals how coin doctors can manipulate a coin's patina. It also gives you some hints about what to watch for when examining a toned coin.
Like artificial toning, cleaning coins is also a no-no. Coin cleaning does one of two things to a coin, depending on the method used. It either uses an abrasive material that causes scratches on the coin's surface, or it acid-etches the surface material from the coin. Either way, cleaned coins will always be lower in value than an unretouched coin.
Coin Wear Affects Value
When a coin is minted, it features clear, sharp features and a brilliant shine that starts getting damaged long before it reaches the bank that might deliver it into a consumer's hands. Only a small percentage of coins are handled with special care with the intention of selling them as proof coins.
The rest are wrapped in coin sleeves, thrust into bags, and delivered to banks around the country, where tellers break open the sleeves and drop the coins into their designated slots in a cash drawer. At this point, the coins still look as shiny and attractive as a mint coin to the untrained eye, and might still grade as one, but they've already been getting tiny scratches on them that are detectable under magnification.
As the coins are transferred from one person to another, one pocket to another, and one cash drawer to another, the scratches continue to remove material from the coin. Before long, its sharp details reveal flat spots, and its condition would start slipping from an uncirculated, BU quality to an EF or VF grade. As these flat spots worsen, the grade deteriorates further and affects value.
Here are samples of just how much these factors can affect a coin's value:
|AG-4||EF-40||MS-(55-60) / BU (55-60)||Notes:|
1927 1-cent Lincoln (wheat) penny
Value range due to colors
1930 Standing Liberty quarter
1971 Kennedy half dollar
MS68 and higher can command $80–$115
Rare Coins Worth More
It's no surprise that rare coins are worth more. The U.S. Mint much larger quantities than were needed for 19th century Americans, so older coins tend to be rarer than newer ones. Coins with a higher value are usually minted in lower quantities than coins with a smaller denomination. However, the production runs for a single coin design can vary a lot from one year to the next.
Other factors that can affect rarity include whether the coin was struck in error or had a design flaw that was not discovered until after the coin was struck. Errors are usually removed from circulation and destroyed before they leave the U.S. Mint, so they can be quite rare.
Coins called "Doubled Die" or DD, may have a ghosted imprint of the strike because the belt didn't move it out of the way before the die stamped the metal a second time. Sometimes, DD coins are the result of stamping a new year on a coin minted previously, too.
The die itself may have an error. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1937 buffalo nickel that was produced in error at the Denver Mint with only three legs instead of four. A small number of them made it into circulation, and in terrible condition can still command a few hundred dollars, with values going as high as $67,500 for one that is in proof condition.
Many of the new state quarters have made it into circulation with errors. In time, these will increase in value more rapidly than those that have no errors, but because of the high number of them that became available, they are not rare enough to expect soaring prices in a short time.
How to Estimate Your Coin's Value
You can get a general idea of a U.S. coin's value by looking it up on the Professional Coin Grading Service's online price guide. If you may need to look up multiple coins, the "red book" is the one relied upon most often by dealers. Most coins discovered in circulation are in the Good to Fine range. If the PCGS list reveals that your coin might be a rare coin with a high value, consider ordering a professional certification of its grade.
Both the Numismatists Guaranty Corporation (NGC) and the PCGS provide standardized and approved methods for grading coins that are recognized and honored by dealers and collectors. Other services are available, but there are also disreputable companies. You could get an inaccurate grading by selecting a company that is not certified by one of these two agencies. Depending on your needs, costs range from $14 to around $600.
When you're considering purchasing coins, strive to buy the best grade you can afford. If you believe it might be a BU coin, and discover it's merely an EF quality, you will still be in pretty good shape as long as you bid one step lower than what you believe the coin's grade might be.
Develop your skills by reviewing how dealers have graded the coins they're selling, and comparing them to the descriptions found in the red book. (The red book will describe how much wear is acceptable for a certain grade, making it much easier to learn!)
When I purchase coins, I always consider the coin to be one grade lower than the seller represents, and I bid accordingly whenever there has not been a certification of the grade by one of the two companies I mentioned above. However, I have attended auctions where I previewed Morgan dollars that were worth about $13–18 each that sold for more than double that value to people who did not understand how to grade their coins. The coin dealers did the same thing I did—dropped out of the bidding early!
With care, attention, and good resources, you can turn coin collecting into a fun and profitable hobby that you can enjoy for a lifetime as I have.
© 2012 jellygator
jellygator (author) from USA on October 12, 2014:
Probably true, but that's why people read and learn, right? Thank you for stopping and commenting, Blackspaniel1!
Blackspaniel1 on October 10, 2014:
Unfortunately, if you rate a coin BU it is likely a potential buyer will assume it is MS-60. Other words are often used with higher grades. If you do not specify, buyers assume the lowest possible grade described by the wording.
jellygator (author) from USA on September 13, 2012:
Thanks, Wilderness! If you ever have any coin questions, send them my way and I'll do my best to answer them.
Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on September 13, 2012:
I've always been interested in coins, and so is my son, but neither of us know anything about grading. A useful hub, and one I will have to share with him.
jellygator (author) from USA on September 06, 2012:
Thanks, Teaches. I feel like your son did, even after more than three decades of collecting coins!
Dianna Mendez on September 06, 2012:
My son used to collect coins. He enjoyed researching the value of each one and often would just flip through the portfolio to see them. I didn't realize they had grading scales. This was an interesting read. Voted up.
jellygator (author) from USA on September 06, 2012:
Thanks, Judi Bee!
Judi Brown from UK on September 06, 2012:
I had no idea what "BU coin" meant. Very interesting!