Understanding the Grading of Ancient Coins

The modern coin grading system started in 1949 with the Sheldon Scale, a 70-point system that was created to classify the condition of US large cents. Over the past few decades, the system’s use was expanded dramatically to include other modern coins.

The modern coin grading system started in 1949 with the Sheldon Scale, a 70-point system that was created to classify the condition of US large cents. Over the past few decades, the system’s use was expanded dramatically to include other modern coins. Accordingly, most collectors are at least vaguely familiar with numeric grades, especially Mint State 70 and MS69, the two highest on the scale. Today, ancient coins are graded on a related scale, but adjectival terms are used instead of numeric grades. The adjectival terms directly correlate to numeric counterparts, though they lack the precision of the numeric scale in several cases. For example, ancient coins graded 30-35 on the Sheldon Scale are all graded Choice Very Fine.

 The highest grade given to surviving ancient coins is Good EF (Extremely Fine), EF+, or Superb EF, each of which means the same thing. These coins are exceptionally well preserved and often look not much different from how they looked when they were first struck. The details remain crisp, giving the holder the opportunity to examine every aspect of the design. Although the holder may see very slight wear with the naked eye, most wear would only be apparent when the coin is viewed under magnification.

The next step down on the scale would be Extremely Fine, which can be abbreviated “EF” or “XF.” These coins are almost as well preserved as coins in Good EF condition, but they have minor wear that is more noticeable. This wear may only affect the finer details for the piece to qualify for this piece, and the details of the coin must remain sharp. Put another way, the details virtually match those of higher grade pieces, making these coins ideal for collectors who want to be able to examine ancient coins but who are not concerned about exceptional quality in terms of wear. One example of a coin in this state is our Histiaea Silver Tetrobol, which came from Euboea, a Greek Island.

Coins that are in slightly worse condition are classified as Good Very Fine, VF+, aEF (About EF), or Near EF. Coins that receive this grade were certainly circulated in their day, though not so much that their designs are terribly affected. These coins have more wear than EF coins, but still do not have much. The designs on the coins remain clear, but the details are not nearly as sharp as coins with higher grades.

Coins that have wear on fine details but that have clear portraits are classified as Very Fine (VF). In this state, the legends have begun to suffer some deterioration. While most of them should remain legible, some may not be. This grade is a good option for collectors who would like to be able to own a particular coin and still make out the designs but who are less concerned with being able to appreciate every detail of the piece. If you would like to see some examples of coins in this state, check out our Silver Denarius of Trajan of the Roman Empire or a random Silver Denarius from the Roman Republic, the latter of which is a century, or more, older than the first. Notably, the first of these coins comes from about a century after the birth of Christ, while the latter comes from one of the three centuries preceding it.

 Good Fine, F+, aVF, or Near VF is used to describe coins on which wear has taken its toll on some of the details. For coins in this condition, the holder would still be able to make out the designs, but the finer details are no longer noticeable. Coins that receive this grade or lower typically have appeal mainly to collectors who are more interested in the history of the coin and/or the civilization from which it comes than in the designs of the coin itself.

Coins in F+ condition are still a bit better off than their Fine (F) counterparts. Coins in Fine condition still have noticeable major design elements that are clearly identifiable to the naked eye. Although portraits can still be identified clearly, most of the details have been blurred. Examples of coins in Fine condition are our Bronze Prutahs of Pontius Pilate and the Widow’s Mite Bronze Prutah. The Widow’s Mite is famous for its mentions in Mark 12 and Luke 21. The Bible story speaks of God’s tremendous appreciation for a woman giving the little that she has for its relative value to her, as opposed to the greater absolute contributions of those who are financially better off.

Near the bottom of the scale is Very Good (VG) or Fair classification. This grade indicates that a coin has only major outline details. There is very little detail within those outlines, but the coin can still typically be identified simply by looking at it.

The highest classification for coins that may still be identifiable is Good (G). On these coins, only slight features are visible, though they retain major device outlines. Few, if any, details can be seen even under magnification.

Finally, a coin that is in Poor (P) condition has no features remaining at all. At this point, it is impossible to identify the coin just by looking at it. At best, it could be considered a slug.

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), one of the leading coin graders in the industry, assigns coins “net grades.” The net grade considers more factors than those listed above, such as the strike, surface, and style of a coin. This means that coins sometimes receive lower grades in their adjectival classifications than they would on the modern scale due to problems such as poor strikes.

 Collectors who are considering collecting ancient coins or who are just starting to do so would do well to keep this guide handy. Otherwise, those who are used to grading scales for modern coins may be confused by ancient coins and their grades, especially net grades. Look through our examples of coins in some of these conditions to get a feel for what to expect with each grade. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, consider picking up the next – or first – coin of your ancient collection.

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