A Project of the Robert H. Gore, Jr. Numismatic Endowment
University of Notre Dame, Department of Special Collections
by Louis Jordan

Images Coordinated by
James C. Spilman and the Colonial Newsletter Foundation

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FAQ: Grading Colonial Coins

The basic grading categories are: Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, Uncirculated.

With the exception of rare items collectors do not usually desire coins that are less than Very Fine, thus the monetary value of the lower grade items is significantly less that higher grade coins. Additionally, uncirculated coins usually trade at a significant premium as there are so few colonial coins in this condition.

Grading colonial coins is highly subjective. In fact, the American Numismatic Society will authenticate colonials but their grading service, The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America, (listed on the web at http://www.NGCcoin.com/home.cfm ) will not accept colonials for grading purposes. Currently only the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) listed on the web at: http://pcgs.com will grade colonials.

The problem is that many colonial coins were made under conditions that permitted lower minting standards than were followed for coins issued from the British royal mint. In Colonial and Confederation era America dies were used until they were worn out. Some dies were recut to make them last longer while others continued to be used after large cracks developed and may have continued to be used until they broke. Also, many blank planchets were used that were rough or had major striation marks. All of these situations resulted in coins being struck that, at the time of minting, lacked details of the design (due to worn dies) or that had cracks, depressions or other surface problems. The trick is to determine if the problems on a coin were due to circulation wear or were due to the minting defects. Many people use the term surface wear to signify circulation wear. Thus, there are many coins where one person could say there was significant surface wear making the grade only Very Good while another individual might consider the wear due to a worn die and grade the same coin as Very Fine.

A further complication is surface tone and luster. Often individuals grade a coin higher because the tone of the coin is more pleasing to them, some prefer red tones while others prefer brown tones, additionally the hardness or luster of the surface will affect the desirability of an item.

Further some people actively seek errors (not just off centered coins but large die breaks or specific types of striated or clipped planchets) and do not consider the error an impediment to a higher grade for a coin, while others will consider errors a reason to downgrade a coin! Other situations occur because of overstriking. Some circulating coins were used as if they were blank planchets and overstamped as other coins! Sometimes the overstamped coins show traces of the original coin, some collectors will grade these items higher because the undertype can be identified while other collectors downgrade them because the undertype marks detracts from the overtype!

Everyone would downgrade a holed coin but as to how far it should be downgraded is a personal decision.

Finally several coins have one side that is better that the other (split grades) as to what is the better overall grade depends on which side one feels is more important to them.

Overall, with the exception of the Massachusetts coppers, colonial coins were made with far less rigorous quality control standards than official British mint issues. Minters were much more interested in profits from production runs than in the quality of the individual coins they issued. For many collectors the attraction of Colonial and Confederation era coins is in their individual peculiarities (one might even say no two examples are exactly alike). Work is done on differentiating examples by weight, reverse die alignment, the number and length of die cracks and other specifics that distinguish coins made from the same die. Partly this is done in the hope of producing an emission sequence so one can know which coins were made earlier (such as by following the progressive growth of a die crack). These individual features are desired by some as accentuating the unique nature of a specific specimen while others consider unique features detrimental. This makes grading a very personal decision.