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The Sheldon Scale – How Coins Are Graded

Sheldon Scale. Image: Adobe Stock / CoinWeek.
Sheldon Scale. Image: Adobe Stock / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
The Sheldon Scale (or Sheldon Grading Scale) is a 70-point numerical grading system for evaluating Mint State and Proof coins, replacing the adjectival system that preceded it.

The scale was first conceived in 1949 and later adapted from U.S. large cent specialist Dr. William H. Sheldon’s pricing guidance published in Penny Whimsy. In Penny Whimsy, Sheldon articulated his observations about the 18th-century coins. Like much of Sheldon’s work, it was pseudoscientific, and besides, it was restricted to 1794 cents and their values at the time of the book’s original publication.

Troubled numismatist Walter Breen, a close associate of Sheldon’s, worked on the formula for Penny Whimsy. He felt that the grading scale was irrational and was not built to cross over to any other series. He also found it unnecessarily complex.

The coin market yearned for more clarity in coin grading and saw the potential for a universal grading system in Sheldon’s work. Dealers began to blend adjectival grades with numerical grades from the Sheldon Scale in the mid-1970s. Dealer Abe Kosoff was one of the first dealers to openly embrace the Sheldon Scale for coins other than early coppers.

The American Numismatic Association (ANA) controversially adopted the Sheldon Numerical Grading Scale in 1977 after the Board of Governors agreed to produce The Official ANA Grading Standards of U.S. Coins with Western Publishing. ANACS used the scale to grade coins. After receiving criticism from many of its members, the ANA Board of Governors voted to retain the grading system at the 1982 ANA Convention held in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Sheldon 70-point Grading Scale was further institutionalized in 1986 with the founding of Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), and in 1987 with the founding of Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (later Company), or NGC. Today, more than 100 million coins have been encapsulated using the 70-point grading scale, although numerous improvements to the system have been made over the years, including the addition of star and plus grades.

What Do the Grades in the Sheldon Scale Mean?

Grades 01 to 58 describe the stages of wear from Poor (P) (only enough detail remaining to identify the coin’s type and date) to About Uncirculated (AU) 58 (only the slightest amount of wear on the coin’s high points with all detail visible).

Grades 60 to 70 denote that a coin is in Mint State (MS), with the lowest grade, 60, being reserved for Mint State coins with significant issues (such as weak strikes, heavy bag marks, hairlines, or significant breaks in luster).

These issues are reduced as the grading scale advances to 70, with MS70 denoting a coin with no post-production flaws or abrasions visible under 5x magnification.

The Sheldon Scale – Grade by Grade

PO-1 – Poor

1875-CC Liberty Seated Half Dollar graded PCGS Poor-1. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1875-CC Liberty Seated Half Dollar graded PCGS Poor-1. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $168 on March 6, 2024.

Nearly all of a coin’s details have been worn flat in the grade of Poor. Enough detail exists to identify the date, the type of coin, and sometimes the mintmark.

FR-2 – Fair

1916-D Mercury Dime graded PCGS FR-2. Image: Heritage Auctions. This example sold for $517.50 on July 1, 2008.
1916-D Mercury Dime graded PCGS FR-2. Image: Heritage Auctions. This example sold for $517.50 on July 1, 2008.

In Fair, additional detail is apparent, but most of the design is worn flat. The rims are worn flat.

AG-3 – About Good

1895-S Morgan Dollar graded PCGS About Good. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1875-CC Liberty Seated Half Dollar graded PCGS Poor-1. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $240 on March 6, 2024.

Main features are outlined, but no hair or feather details will be evident. The rim is worn, and the legends can be partially visible. LIBERTY will be at least partially visible.

G-4 – Good (4)

1918/7-D Buffalo Nickel graded ANACS Good-4. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $576 on April 2, 2024.
1918/7-D Buffalo Nickel graded ANACS Good-4. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $576 on April 2, 2024.

Good coins have legible dates and inscriptions and reveal only the outline of the other devices. Some details may be visible.

G-6 – Choice Good

1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollar graded PCGS Good-6 Good-4. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $125 on March 6, 2024.
1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollar graded PCGS Good-6 Good-4. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $125 on March 6, 2024.

Good-6, being slightly better than Good-4, reveals mostly flattened devices with some remnants of visible detail.

VG-8 – Very Good

A "key date" 1914-D Lincoln cent graded PCGS VG-8. Image: Stack's Bowers.
A “key date” 1914-D Lincoln cent graded PCGS VG-8. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

A Very Good-8 coin is better than Good but not quite Fine. These coins exhibit complete inscriptions and some details on the devices. About half of the secondary detail is worn off.

VG-10 – Choice Very Good

1852-O Liberty Head Quarter Eagle graded PCGS Very Good 10. This example sold April 3, 2024 for $504.
1852-O Liberty Head Quarter Eagle graded PCGS Very Good 10. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $504 on April 3, 2024.

In Very Good-10, hair and face detail may be partially visible. The rims are full, and the inscriptions are complete.

F-12 – Fine

1846 Liberty Seated Half Dollar graded ANACS Fine-12. This example sold for $168 on April 24, 2024 for $504.
1846 Liberty Seated Half Dollar graded ANACS Fine-12. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $168 on April 24, 2024.

In Fine-12, half of the coin’s detail should be visible. For example, the visible detail on the Liberty Seated type (pictured above) will typically be on the gown and the eagle’s feathers. All lettering will be visible.

F-15 – Choice Fine

1892-S Morgan Dollar graded PCGS Fine-15. This example sold for $100 on April 24, 2024.
1892-S Morgan Dollar graded PCGS Fine-15. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $100 on April 24, 2024.

In Very Fine-15, more than half but less than 2/3 of the design details will be visible. All inscriptions will be clearly visible and sharp.

VF-20 – Very Fine

1937-D Buffalo Nickel graded PCGS Very Fine-20. This example sold for $840 on April 24, 2024.
1937-D Buffalo Nickel graded PCGS Very Fine-20. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $840 on April 24, 2024.

About 2/3 of the detail is visible on the coin at Very Fine-20. Inscriptions will be visible and sharp. On a coin like the Buffalo Nickel, with its thin inscriptions, some distortion on the letters is expected. The buffalo’s horn will usually be visible.

VF-25 – Very Fine (25)

1807 Draped Bust Half Cent graded PCGS Very Fine-25. This example sold for $264 on April 24, 2024.
1807 Draped Bust Half Cent graded PCGS Very Fine-25. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $264 on April 24, 2024.

In Very Fine-25, the hair will be worn, but more than 2/3 of the details will be visible. Wear will be apparent throughout the coin, but key details are easily identifiable.

VF-30 – Choice Very Fine

1889-CC Morgan Dollar graded ANACS VF-30. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1889-CC Morgan Dollar graded ANACS VF-30. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Even worn throughout, with more than 2/3 of the details visible. What differentiates Very Fine-30 from Very Fine-25 is the overall eye appeal of the coin, given its circulated state.

VF-35 – Choice Very Fine

1807 Draped Bust Half Cent graded PCGS Very Fine-25. This example sold for $264 on April 24, 2024.
1807 Draped Bust Half Cent graded PCGS Very Fine-25. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $264 on April 24, 2024.

In Very Fine-35, most of the design detail will be visible, although the high points will show even wear throughout. Rims, denticles, and inscriptions will be sharp.

EF-40 – Extra Fine

1857 Flying Eagle Cent graded PCGS EF40. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $168 on April 24, 2024.
1857 Flying Eagle Cent graded PCGS EF40. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $168 on April 24, 2024.

Light wear will be present throughout on coins graded Extra Fine-40. Typically, this wear will be on the high points of the relief, like the center of the eagle’s breast in the image above. Light wear on the wreath will be present, and some finer details may be worn.

EF-45 – Choice Extra Fine

1835 Capped Bust Quarter graded PCGS EF45. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $408 on April 24, 2024.
1835 Capped Bust Quarter graded PCGS EF45. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $408 on April 24, 2024.

In Extra Fine-45, light wear is visible on the highest points of the relief. Other design details will be clearly defined. Coins may have dull surfaces or appear slightly “dirty” from  use.

AU-50 – About Uncirculated

1893-S Morgan Dollar graded AU-50. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1893-S Morgan Dollar graded PCGS AU-50. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $24,000 on March 26, 2024.

An AU50 coin will be missing between 50% and 100% of its original mint luster. Most of the coin’s details will remain, but wear will be obvious to the naked eye.

AU-53 – About Uncirculated

1929-D Walking Liberty Half Dollar graded AU-53. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1929-D Walking Liberty Half Dollar graded NGC AU-53. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $240 on March 13, 2024.

Light wear on the coin’s highest spots and luster disturbances cover most of the coin.

AU-55 – Choice About Uncirculated

1871-CC Liberty Head Double Eagle graded AU-55. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1871-CC Liberty Head Double Eagle graded PCGS AU-55. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $108,000 on March 26, 2024.

Light wear will be present on the coin’s highest spots, but most of the coin’s luster is intact.

AU-58 – Choice About Uncirculated

1826 Capped Bust Half Dollar. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1826 Capped Bust Half Dollar. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $2,640 on April 2, 2024.

A coin showing only the slightest evidence of wear, typically on areas of highest relief. The coin will have 90% of its luster intact and may appear uncirculated except under certain lighting conditions.

MS-60 – Typical Mint State

1874-S Liberty Head Double Eagle graded NGC MS60. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $2,640 on April 24, 2024.
1874-S Liberty Head Double Eagle graded NGC MS60. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $2,640 on April 24, 2024.

A coin in Mint State-60 is strictly uncirculated with no signs of wear. Heavy marks will be present on the coin due to incidental contact with other coins after production. Occasionally coins graded MS60 will show signs of an old cleaning that falls within market acceptable tolerances. It is not unusual for a coin graded AU58 to have better eye appeal than a coin graded MS60.

MS-61 – Typical Mint State

1800 Capped Bust Eagle graded PCGS MS61. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $52,800 on March 26, 2024.
1800 Capped Bust Eagle graded PCGS MS61. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $52,800 on March 26, 2024.

A coin graded MS61 will have numerous marks. In addition to marks, graders look for hairlines and other signs of an old cleaning, as long as these fall within market-acceptable tolerances. The strike quality of the coin at this level is often weak, with poor luster and below-average eye appeal.

MS-62 – Typical Mint State

1860 Indian Head Cent graded PCGS MS62. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $288 on April 24, 2024.
1860 Indian Head Cent graded PCGS MS62. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $288 on April 24, 2024.

Hits and hairlines will be visible on coins graded MS62. For larger coins, these hits may appear in focal areas. The strike can be weak to full as can the luster. In MS62, some issues, be it hits or weaknesses of luster, inform the grade.

MS-63 – Choice Mint State

1935-D Washington Quarter graded PCGS MS63. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $192 on April 24, 2024.
1935-D Washington Quarter graded PCGS MS63. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $192 on April 24, 2024.

Numerous small marks will be present on coins graded MS63. This grade is considered Choice Mint State and a step up from the typical Mint State coins of MS60 to MS62. The fields on MS63 coins will be relatively clean, and in many cases, MS63 coins can have attractive qualities that are impaired only by some minor issues.

MS-64 – Choice Mint State

1854 Braided Hair Half Cent graded PCGS MS64. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $870 on April 24, 2024.
1854 Braided Hair Half Cent graded PCGS MS64. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $870 on April 24, 2024.

This in-between grade was conceived as way to split the difference between MS63 (Choice) and MS65 (Gem). A few minor issues, or one or two significant ones, may be present. Eye appeal will usually be good, and the surfaces will exhibit minimal hairlines.

MS-65 – Gem Mint State

1923 Peace Dollar graded PCGS MS65. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins.
1923 Peace Dollar graded PCGS MS65. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins.

When the third-party grading services began operation in the mid-1980s, the grade MS65 was more highly regarded than it is today. The first of the Gem grades, coins in MS65 will exhibit only slight defects and an occasional scattered mark, though generally not in focal areas. Gems should be well-struck coins with average or better luster. Spotting is permitted on copper coins, as long as it is minor.

MS-66 – Gem Mint State

1901 Indian Head Cent graded PCGS MS66RD. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $1,320 on April 24, 2024.
1901 Indian Head Cent graded PCGS MS66RD. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $1,320 on April 24, 2024.

Defects will be minimal on coins graded MS66. In the image above, a small tick is visible behind Liberty’s eye, and another minor hit is apparent near the top of the first three feathers. The coin is clean of defects elsewhere, save a scattered copper spot here or there. MS66 coins will have above average or better eye appeal.

MS-67 – Superb Gem Mint State

1943 Lincoln Cent graded NGC MS67. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $192 on April 24, 2024.
1943 Lincoln Cent graded NGC MS67. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $192 on April 24, 2024.

MS67 is considered a superior uncirculated grade with minimal marks or distracting features. Any hits at this grade will be very light and hidden. In the case of larger coins, these flaws may be present in the unprotected areas of the field. In some instances, one of two hits in a focal area on an otherwise pristine coin may permit a coin to be graded MS67.

MS-68 – Superb Gem Mint State

1997-D Washington Quarter with white background.

MS68 coins are typically free of distracting imperfections or flaws, except for modern commemorative or bullion coins, which may look poor because their surfaces are typically flawless. The strike will be sharp and the coin will have superior eye appeal.

MS-69 – Near-Perfect Mint State

1986 American Silver Eagle graded PCGS MS69. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $216 on January 10, 2024.
1986 American Silver Eagle graded PCGS MS69. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $216 on January 10, 2024.

A coin graded MS69 will be nearly perfect with only the slightest flaws. These flaws may only be visible under magnification. In the case of a large coin, like the American Silver Eagle, some MS69 coins will appear to the untrained numismatist to be virtually indistinguishable from MS70 coins.

MS-70 – “Perfect” Mint State

2019-W Lincoln Cent graded NGC MS70. Image: Stack's Bowers. This example sold for $240 on April 1, 2024.
2019-W Lincoln Cent graded NGC MS70. Image: Stack’s Bowers. This example sold for $240 on April 1, 2024.

Coins graded MS70 is perfect as struck and will exhibit no flaws, or Mint-made defects under magnification up to five times. Typically only seen on ultra-modern coins, bullion coins, and commemorative issues.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I have a growing collection of US circulated coins with obvious minting errors. Do you have a glossary or index of any and all minting errors found and there relative worth? Im not trusting of some so called self proclaimed experts on YouTube or other media sites. If you have a fee for the publication of such a glossary or reference index I will gladly purchase. I won’t resell it or reproduce it or even share it with others privately. I will keep it safe and private. I need it for personal use. I just need to know what is what of it all so I can sort out the winners from average currency. Please and thank you.

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