HomeCoinsCertified CoinsCoin Grading - A Closer Look at Details Grading

Coin Grading – A Closer Look at Details Grading

What to know before you buy a coin with a Details grade

By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……

When it comes to grading rare coins, and interpreting the labels on certified coins, no subject can be as confusing as “ Details grade ”. During the course of a week, I receive numerous calls from collectors and other dealers asking for assistance placing a value on details grade rare coins.

For coins with so-called “straight grading”, or those without problems noted on the label, the task is relatively easy. You can check price guides, population reports, and auction records. These tools, along with decades of experience, usually yield enough information to make a purchase decision.

The job becomes much more difficult for coins that have been “net graded”, another term for Details grading. These include coins that may be described as Uncirculated Details – Obverse Cleaning. Others might say About Uncirculated Details – Reverse Repair. The combination of grades and notations seem almost endless, and make the task of assigning value extremely tricky.

For many years, coins with problems were returned in plastic bags otherwise known in the hobby as “body bags”. This grim term and result irritated countless submitters, who had paid fees to have the coins encapsulated. The decision was made to holder coins with problems, but to make notations why the coin had not received a “straight grade”.

Many dealers and collectors cheered this development for a variety of reasons:

  • First, no one likes wasting a grading fee for a coin that had unnoticed problems.
  • Another important issue is that most advanced coin collectors have their coins in third-party grading holders. It is impractical to fill an important hole in your collection with an uncertified coin.
  • When trying to economize, it is much safer to include a net grade coin that has been authenticated. Also, some coins are simply too expensive for most collectors in straight-grade holders. A four-dollar Stella would be a great example of this. Certified coins with problems sometimes sell for $30,000 to 40,000. By contrast, the lowest-grade examples that have been graded usually sell for six figures.

One of the reasons that pricing net graded coins is so difficult is the wide range of quality that may be found with same description. As mentioned above, NGC is very diligent identifying coins with problems. A coin with faint hairlines may be unnoticeable to a novice collector, but would result in the coin being net graded Uncirculated Details – Cleaning.

The problem is that coins with more advanced or harsh cleaning could have the same label description. For now, stages of cleaning have not been quantified for the rare coin market. The same can be said for coins with scratches, environmental problems, rim nicks and assorted repairs.

As mentioned above, one of the most common questions I am asked about coins that have been Details graded is how to determine value. This can be very difficult because every coin is different. The degree of cleaning or other impairments can vary from light to very harsh.

In general, the value of a Details-graded coin is usually set at least one grade lower but sometime two or more grades. For the best advice on the value of these types of coins, you should consult a professional numismatist. Another suggestion is to compare actual auction records to photographs of similarly described impaired coins that have sold in recent years.

When comparing auction records, it is critical to examine the coins carefully. Coins with minor problems might bring only a minimal discount. Coins with severe problems usually sell for severe discounts. Remember, these two coins could be described exactly the same on the label. When purchasing expensive Details-graded coins, you need to do your homework.

Not all coins are eligible for Detail grading. NGC will not holder coins that have material applied to the surfaces or active surface decomposition. This includes coins that are deemed to have questionable toning, active corrosion or traces of PVC residue on the surfaces. Issues such as PVC and carbon spots can become worse over time. When sealed in an airtight holder, it could make the situation worse. These coins can sometimes be professionally conserved and later encapsulated.

Artificial or questionable toning is an issue that is among the most perplexing for some submitters. Keep in mind that NGC makes every effort to ensure that coins they encapsulate are original and not the result of some coin doctor’s lab experiments.

Remember, for every coin NGC grades, they risk their reputation and sometimes place hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line for a $100 grading fee! If color, toning, or surfaces come into question, NGC has no choice but to err on the side of safety. This is for their protection and that of the many buyers who purchase NGC products in the future. Unfortunately, some coins that you know came from an original source will sometimes be sent back as “no grades.”

As tempting as it may seem to save large sums by purchasing a coin that has been Details graded, you should closely consider the coin’s resale value. Coins with problems are much less liquid, and bring considerable discounts in the marketplace. Lesser coins are usually not the best investment in the long run. I have seen countless collections from bargain buyers who would have been much better off if they had avoided problem coins.

The advice “buy the best you can afford” is timeless and almost always the best course of action.

Jeff Garrett bio

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Numismatic Guaranty Company
Numismatic Guaranty Company
NGC was founded in 1987, and for coin grading, its opening heralded the introduction of a new standard of integrity. From the beginning NGC focused on only one objective, a standard of consistent and accurate grading. As NGC has grown to become the leader in third-party grading services, we have maintained a steadfast and uncompromising commitment to this standard. The knowledge, integrity and dedication of NGC's team of grading experts ensures you a level of grading consistency unparalleled among grading services. This record of consistency, built over the years, has helped to foster greater stability throughout the rare coin marketplace.

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  1. “The advice “buy the best you can afford” is timeless and almost always the best course of action.”

    Depends upon the price spread between two coins, even if numerically graded. Sometimes financially it might be better not to buy at all.

    The best someone can afford doesn’t make it a financially prudent purchase, especially given the exorbitant price spreads between many coins two grades apart which are frequently in actually essentially identical. It is the financialization of the “hobby” which leads buyers to act otherwise.

  2. I completely understand the justification of a “Details” designation, and will not argue that this is not an important component of the grading process. What I object to is the fact that NCG and PCGS don’t assign a numeric grade to their “Details” graded coins as they do with all other non “details” coins. An AU50 coin is markedly different in quality and value than a AU58 coin, even with a “details” grade. The same holds true with any other grade range. These grading companies are doing a disservice to us, their customers, who pay the same fees for a sub-par, ambiguous non-numeric result. I would like someone to explain to me why these companies are unwilling to assign a numeric grades to “details” coins. By fixing this, a tremendous amount of the “details” value ambiguity would be alleviated.

  3. Could someone PLEASE EXPLAIN this to me – a comment that Mr. Garrett made in this article:

    “A coin with faint hairlines may be unnoticeable to a novice collector, but would result in the coin being net graded Uncirculated Details – Cleaning.”

    But author Mr. Q. David Bowers’ new “Official Red book” on Morgan Dollars 6th Ed. (just off the press, in March, 2019), said this about Mint State/Unc Morgan dollars, page 80: MS-62 -“Hairlines”: “May have a few scattered to a noticeable patch.” MS-61 -“Hairlines”: “May have noticeable patch or continuous hairlining over surfaces.” MS-60 -“Hairlines”: “May have noticeable patch or continuous hairlining throughout.”

    WOW! UTTERLY CONFLICTING (AT LEAST TO ME!) Please help! If I get Morgans sent in for grading, and I’m thinking, based on this article, with a small, nearly unnoticeable tiny group of hairlines – to an otherwise high-luster, beautiful MS coin, that it will come back “Details”, it’s highly discouraging. But the official Redbook says hairlines can still be Mint State, even hairlines, “throughout”? SO WHAT IS THE REALITY?

    Any help is appreciated.

  4. I have found over the years with the many coins that I have both PURCHASED and SOLD…that if I LIKE THE COIN, GENERALLY someone will come along that likes it and buys it from me. This applies to coins in third-party holders that are both DETAILS GRADED or STRAIGHT GRADED.

  5. Correction in the last sentence in my comment above: I meant it to say “This applies to coins in third-party holders that are EITHER straight graded or details-graded. In other words If I like the coin…someone else will as well.


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