How to Evaluate a Coin’s Quality

How to Evaluate a Coin’s Quality

By Gainesville Coins
Published October 16, 2019

The price of a coin is primarily determined by four factors: rarity, demand, bullion price, and quality. Only the last, quality, can be controlled by the collector. Because quality so greatly impacts a coin’s value, collectors strive to keep their coins in pristine condition. Maintaining numismatic quality is the best way to protect a coin’s value and make it a worthwhile investment.

When numismatists evaluate a coin’s quality (or grade), they assign it a number on the Sheldon scale, from 1 to 70. A coin in perfect condition would earn a 70 on this scale. To determine a coin’s grade, numismatists consider five components:

  • Luster: This applies to how light reflects from a coin’s surface. It is impacted by microscopic lines in the design. Luster diminishes as the surface of the coin wears away.
  • Color: Both the natural hue of the metal and the vibrancy of any colorization in the coin’s design are important, like for the Toned Morgan Dollar. Chemical cleaning can alter both of these, lowering a coin’s quality.
  • Detracting marks: Obviously detrimental to a coin’s value, detracting marks come from improper handling or packaging. Fingerprints are considered detracting marks. To protect coins from these, it is important to avoid handling coins and using tight plastic holders.
  • Cleaning or mishandling marks: These occur when a coin’s surface is actually damaged due to cleaning, rubbing, or polishing. They can also be caused by “cabinet friction,” the faint rubbing away of a coin’s high points, caused by contact with an envelope or tray.
  • Eye Appeal: While this category sounds extremely subjective, it actually refers to the absence of carbon streaks, striking defects, vinyl damage, and a myriad of other factors that detract from a coin’s overall appearance.

Being able to estimate a coin’s value independently is a useful skill for serious collectors, and can be learned through practice. Both luster and color can generally be evaluated with the naked eye. Coins that appear white, or too shiny, may have been dipped in an abrasive cleaner to remove grime and restore shine.

Along with determining the coloring for “original” coins, collectors will want to familiarize themselves with the natural coloring and patinas for coins struck from different metals. This is an important step to take before purchasing a coin. Some coins, like 19th century US Silver dollars, develop a natural violet tint as they age. These specimens are often more valuable than those that have been cleaned and remain bright silver.

Discerning marks and wear, especially on coins in excellent condition, usually requires special equipment. A magnifying glass or microscope is generally the best way to detect fine lines and damage on a coin’s surface.

Evaluating the quality of coins is an important skill for collectors and investors alike. With practice and patience, anyone can develop the ability to determine a coin’s quality.

This information is provided for general reference purposes and does not constitute professional advice. For detailed coin collecting or investing information, please consult with a professional expert.

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