It seems to be becoming normal in the coin business for sales offers to not include a statement about the condition (grade) from the coin. Look at the picture, the offers suggest. Well, two things. One: it’s a picture, it’s not thing itself. Maybe the picture was “worked on.” Two: occasionally I’ve bought a coin online and it was not the one that was pictured.

Anyway, I’m old school, and I think that a grading description is helpful in deciding whether or not to buy something. And details too. I just bought a medieval Scottish coin that was considerably darker in the hand than it was in the picture. Maybe I should have sent it back. It didn’t have a grade in the description. When I offered it I put a grade on it, and mentioned the darkness. I think most of my customers appreciate my grades, whether they agree with me or not.

Here are the grades I use and their descriptions:



My core business has revolved around coins, and that sector is where I take my notions from about the condition of objects.  I’ve discovered, as I attempt to operate in different collectible fields, that much of the nomenclature is similar, but though the words sound the same, they may mean something different.  I believe that I’ve also noticed that the coin business has the most standardized grading scale of all collectible fields.  For that reason, and from the fact of my long acquaintance with the coin grades, I will tend to use them indiscriminately for all the objects I try to sell to you.  Occasionally this will create misunderstanding, make me look like an idiot, etc.  But what can I do?  I’ll just be a fool.  Maybe you’ll get a bargain.

In my pre-website days I sold almost entirely by mail order, issuing 16-page paper pricelists more or less monthly.  I still do paper lists.  At this moment sales from the paper lists account for about 10% of my business, with the rest coming from this website.  If you want to get the monthly email announcements or paper lists, or if you want an email version sent specially to you please click here and tell me what you want.

In the paper medium I would constantly face space limitations, and thus I developed space saving conventions, like calling an XF item with a scratch, a nick, and a spot “VG,” and pricing it as such.  Maybe it’s not quite accurate, but I usually discount problem items so severely that people don’t seem to complain.  Perhaps as more stuff gets posted on this site I’ll get less taciturn.  After all, my limitations here are of time, not space.

Here are the condition designations I usually use, and what they mean to me:


poor – Identifiable as what it is, with all kinds of possible damage not needing to be described.
fair – A little better, must have all of its identifying marks (date, etc.), but doesn’t need to have much else.  Most damage would not need to be mentioned, except for things like holes.
good (G) – All of the basic design is present, and a few of the details.  Light spots, scratches, nicks, etc. may be ignored, but all serious damage will be mentioned.
very good (VG) – Substantial detail will be present, but there will also be substantial wear all over. Minor damage may be ignored.
fine (F) – All major detail will be present, all defects will be described.
very fine (VF) – All detail will be present, with light general wear all over.  All defects described.
extremely fine (XF) – Wear on the high spots.  There will be traces of the original surface gleaming here and there.
almost uncirculated (AU) – Just what it says.  Might even fool you until you look at it closely.
uncirculated (Unc) – Never been used.  Can have toning or fingerprints or spots, all of which will be described, except that copper, brass, and zinc aged over 50 years or so can have up to 25% light tone without my feeling that they need to be described.  Can have bagmarks, which will not be mentioned unless they are, in my opinion, excessive.

additional modifiers:
+ – “better than,” e.g. F+ is better than F
about (a) – “not quite,” e.g. aF is not quite F

Then there are some special coin designations
nice<choice<gem – Niceness designations in ascending order.
brilliant Unc (BU) – A nice Unc with all of the original shine, basically no toning, and approximately no bagmarks.
gem BU – Nicer yet.
proof – A specially struck piece, usually assumed to be perfect gradewise, but may have defects which must be described. It is entirely possible, though uncommon, to have a proof that objectively grades VF, or even VG.

And some common coin problem designations:
scratch – Means you can see it with a 10x lens.  DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN SEE IT WITH A 20x LENS
bag marks – Small contact marks on uncirculated coins.  Can be nicks, scratches, or rubs.  Must be <2mm and shallow.  As far as the numbers go, bagmarks are allowed up to about MS65.
edge bumps – Someone dropped the coin and now there’s a bruise.  The 10x rule applies.
edge nicks – Little cuts at the edge.  The 10x rule applies.
spots – Only if you can see them with your naked eye.  I’ll mention a tiny little spot on an Unc, but would require a bit more egregiosity on a VF or lower.  If the surface of the spot is raised or sunken then it’s…
corrosion – Which is always bad news.
cleaned – This includes anything that visibly disturbs the surface.  Any kind of abrasion from wiping, any polishing, any chemical treatment that can be noticed is considered to be cleaning.  The only kind of cleaning that can get by without mention is the unnoticeable kind.  If you can notice it, it is bad news, how bad depends on the extent of the “treatment.”

And of course there are the number designations provided by the grading services that produce the “slabbed” coins that form a sector of the market.  I do not specialize in slabbed coins, and generally do not have a great deal of respect for the acumen of the graders, finding that I disagree with them more than half of the time.  But I do sell slabs when they come in.  A number of grade-extending designations have come into use for USA coins: DMPL, etc., and while it is possible to make a lot of money by catching a DMPL that the previous owner has missed, I can’t get the energy together to convince someone that the coin I want to sell them is worth $13,000 instead of $250.  In all cases I try to avoid odious puffery, preferring sweet dreams at night to the stomach ache of wondering if someone’s going to try to return a five-figure item tomorrow after I’ve already spent the money.  My goal in grading is simple: no returns.

A note on zinc and tin: I write this after a new customer expressed disappointment with a zinc coin of the 1940s because it was tarnished.  Customer claimed that the tarnish, according to my own published standards, made it only F-VF.  Got my dander up just a bit.
    Zinc tones in normal air all by itself.  If it was ever taken out of the original roll, or if it came from the bank in a bag it will be tarnished right there in the sealed bag.  You can have a perfect uncirculated zinc coin with the entire surface even gray.  That is actually normal for zinc.  Any luster at all is extraordinary.  Full luster is BU, rare, and in most circumstances worth at least double the regular catalog value for Unc.  Exceptions to the pricing guidelines that I can think of include Peru 1c of the 1960s and possibly Denmark 1, 2, 5 ore, also of the 60s.
    Notwithstanding, I demand at least a trace of luster of my uncirculated zinc coins, otherwise I’ll call it AU.  The returned coin is possessed of about 60% luster.  The customers are always right except when they’re wrong.  I am pleased to have the coin back in my inventory.
    Tin will develop pimples and crumbling at the edges, which of course spoils the coins.  Sometimes that’s the only way they come though.  Tin coinage is almost exclusively a southeast Asian phenomenon.  Many tin coins of the 19th century and earlier from Malaya, etc. are known only from their contemporary and/or modern counterfeits, often made of a lead alloy.


poor – Identifiable, big pieces missing, the rest worn until barely identifiable.
fair – At least 90% present, but unpleasantly bad, tape repairs, holes, tears, etc. that wouldn’t need to be described for this grade.
good (G) – 95% there, but can be missing corners, have big tears, can be badly worn, faded, graffiti, etc., not needing to be described.  Repairs of any quality would be described.
very good (VG) – All there with substantial wear, dirt, etc.  Usually limp, but will not have any missing pieces, and only one or two minor edge tears, or tiny hole in the body at the folds.  Pinholes or staple holes need not be mentioned for this grade.  Any other problems will be described.
fine (F) – All major detail will be present, all defects will be described. No holes or tears in this grade.
very fine (VF) – Two or more hard folds that break the surface, minor dirt.
extremely fine (XF) – Only one hard fold (breaking the surface), traces of dirt perhaps.
almost uncirculated (AU) – Not more than one light, soft fold, NOT breaking the surface.  Perhaps a bent corner.
uncirculated (Unc) – Never been used.

Some special paper terms:
foxing – Dark spots or areas due usually to oxidation, therefore, technically, a bit of burn.  In pricing terms, foxing usually knocks it down a grade.  Bad foxing leads to crumbly fragility.
proof – In paper, a special printing rather than a pseudo-grade.

IRONED NOTES: This has been a fairly common practice in various locales over the years.  To me an ironed note is usually a VF pretending it’s an AU, so I’ll just call it a VF. Generally speaking I’m not going to bother to mention it.  Usually it doesn’t “hurt” the note I don’t think, not as long as we don’t pretend it’s Unc.  Of course if the item has charisma I’ll describe in detail.