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Grading Ancient Coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
FEW TOPICS IN CLASSICAL numismatics provoke more ferocious argument than the grading of ancient coins.

Among collectors of classic American coins the 70-point “Sheldon Scale[1] is universally accepted as a standard. Machine-made modern coins in the highest grades have literally, never been touched by human hands. Ancient coins, made by hand, and mostly buried in dirt for centuries, can hardly be judged by the same standards.

Ancient gold coins spent most of their working lives stashed uneventfully in vaults or strong boxes, while ancient silver and copper alloy[2] coins circulated vigorously for decades or even centuries, accumulating wear and tear in the process. Complex chemical reactions in soil (or within ceramic pots where so many ancients were buried) develop stable – or unstable – surface layers on the metal (called “patina” by numismatists) that greatly influence the appearance, and hence the value, of a coin. “Split grading” is often appropriate, because obverse and reverse sides of an ancient coin may have been struck with dies in different states of wear[3] and experienced quite different conditions of preservation.

The Lowest Grades

EID MAR BrutusThe lowest traditional grades, of “Fair”, “Good”, and “Fine” (roughly corresponding to 5, 10, and 15 on the Sheldon scale), are generally not considered collectible[4]. These coins are basically slugs–so severely worn that there is little left to appreciate. Identification may be problematic.

Exceptions are particularly famous coins, and issues of famous or notorious historical figures. Even the most severely damaged EID MAR denarius of Brutus (43 BCE), would find a ready buyer, and anything recognizable as a coin of Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII (51 – 30 BCE) is in high demand. Very worn coins are sometimes “smoothed” or “tooled” to improve their appearance. In the past, this was considered quite acceptable by collectors, especially when the work was done skillfully. But most professional numismatists today regard it as deceptive and unethical.

Very Fine vs Extremely Fine

An EF (extremely fine) coin is, in practice, the highest grade coin you can hope to come across. Excepting coins given the holy-grail grade of FDC … which probably no universal body of numismatists will agree on by the way, the EF coin is as good as it gets. To achieve this grade it should have only a touch of wear (if not outright mint state), be well centered, struck from new dies, be whole in every way and basically say “Hey, I’m beautiful and perfect. Buy me.” (Suarez, xx)

VF and EF Ancient Coins - Coin Grading“Very Fine” and “Extremely Fine” are the most commonly collected ancient coin grades. VF corresponds roughly to 20 – 35 on the Sheldon scale and EF to 40 – 50. It takes some time and effort to appreciate the difference between these grades. When you have seen many, many examples of the same basic coin type in a wide range of grades, recognizing the distinction becomes almost automatic. VF coins may show a lot of wear from circulation, especially on the high spots, but all the “devices” (elements of the design) and most of the inscriptions should be present. EF coins are complete and fully legible.

Severely off-center strikes, or ancient damage such as edge clipping, piercings, test cuts, banker’s marks[5] or “graffiti”[6], should be noted and graded as detriments (cataloguers often use terms like “about VF” or “near EF”). A true EF coin might retail for three or more times the price of a VF example of the same type.

Mint State and Beyond

Theodosius II, 402-450 AD. Gold Solidus - Mint State

“Mint state” corresponds to 60 – 70 on the Sheldon scale. While ancient gold coins in such high grades are commonly encountered, such flawless silver coins are scarce, and bronzes are exceptionally rare. In 2008, an incredibly well-preserved bronze sestertius of Hadrian set a record auction price for an ancient coin – over $2 million.

The term “luster” (or “mint luster”) is often encountered in descriptions of high-grade ancients. Luster is hard to describe but unmistakable when you see it. It’s a reflective property of the coin surface, most visible when the coin is rotated at varying angles in strong light.

Here is the technical description of the exalted grade of Mint State 70 on the Sheldon scale:

The perfect coin, as minted. Has no trace of wear, handling, scratches or contact with other coins from a (5x) magnification. Coins in this grade are almost non-existent in older coins with very few examples known. Copper coins are bright with full original color and luster. Eye appeal is exceptional.[7]

The French phrase Fleur de coin (“flower of coinage”, often abbreviated FDC) is used (some say widely abused) by catalogue writers to describe ancient coins that are miraculously preserved, perfectly struck, and with flawless surfaces.

NGC Grading and Encapsulation

NGC Graded Ancient CoinsThe Numismatic Guaranty Company (NGC) encapsulates ancient coins in plastic holders, a practice that has been quite controversial among collectors. The NGC holder has four soft prongs that position the coin within a hollow space, making it possible to view the edges – a feature of considerable importance to experts.

For NGC, classical numismatist David Vagi devised a five-point numerical grading system that evaluates the “strike” and “surface” of the coin separately.

“Strike” refers to how well the coin was made at the mint, while “surface” describes how well the coin has survived the ravages of time. The highest possible grade would be 5/5. NGC uses a few additional descriptors on the holder label, including a star for coins with exceptional “eye appeal” and “Fine Style” for coins struck from particularly artistic dies:

The Style of an ancient coin may be defined as the visual impact of the design, based upon quality of its composition and engraving. Like beauty, style is in the eye of the beholder, and there are vastly different ideas about what constitutes “good art.” Nevertheless, there is a rational basis for analyzing the style of an ancient coin by comparison with other ancient coins, and with ancient art of different media.[8]

The Eyes Have It

The technical grade of a modern coin is a critical factor in determining its value (along with rarity, of course,) but less critical for ancients.

From Forum Ancient Coins:

For ancient coins, eye appeal is much more important than grade. Eye appeal really is whatever looks good to you! Every collector has the best possible skill in judging their own eye appeal. Nobody needs an expert or a number to tell them what they like.[9]

* * *


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheldon_coin_grading_scale

[2] In classical numismatics, copper alloy coins are invariably described as “bronze” (an alloy of copper with up to 15% tin). Many ancient “bronze” pieces are nearly pure copper, but some contain a significant amount of zinc (which technically makes them “brass”). Some rare issues from Bactria were copper-nickel alloy, and late Roman bronzes were often alloyed with lead.

[3] Reverse dies, which received the hammer blow and were cut with shallower relief, tended to wear out or break sooner than obverse dies, which were carved more deeply and fixed in an anvil.

[4] Numismatics is the only study where “Good” means “Bad.”

[5] Ancient money-changers would sometimes mark a coin with a small distinctive punch to indicate they had handled or verified it. This is particularly common on Persian sigloi and Roman Republican denarii. The “chop marks” applied by Chinese merchants to trade dollars served a similar function.

[6] Graffiti are crude symbols or letters (often just an “X” or cross) scratched into the surface of a coin with a sharp point. Some issues are plagued with graffiti. This was done at various times and places for reasons that are largely unknown.

[7] https://www.pcgs.com/News/How-United-States-Coins-Are-Graded

[8] https://www.ngccoin.com/specialty-services/ancient-coins/grading.aspx

[9] http://www.forumancientcoins.com/numiswiki/view.asp?key=Grading%20Guidelines%20for%20Ancient%20Coins


Bressett, Kenneth E. and David Q. Bowers. The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins (7th ed.). Atlanta, GA (2013)

Sayles, Wayne. Ancient Coin Collecting, 2nd edition. Iola, WI (2003)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values. London (1978)

Suarez, Rasiel. Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins. Asheville, NC (2005)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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