US Versus European Grading Standards

What is coin grading? 

Coin grading is the practice of determining the condition or level of preservation of a coin. A grade is ascertained by taking into account a number of factors which include strength of strike, wear, scratches and colouration. Once assessed a coin will be assigned an adjectival grade (Uncirculated, Extremely Fine etc) or a numerical grade with an adjectival abbreviation (PF70, MS70, XF45 etc). 

 

What are the differences between adjectival and numerical grading? 

Adjectival grading also known as “the old system” is an assessment mainly used in Europe and grades range from Uncirculated//Mint State through Extremely Fine, Very Fine, Fine, Good, Fair and Poor. In more recent times additional adjectives were added before these grades, theses are Brilliant which applies to uncirculated coins showing no or little post-production marks and full mint bloom, Almost/Near for a coin which is better than the average for the preceding grade but not quite at the at the standards of the next highest grade and Good (not to be confused with the grade) for coins which are better than the average for the grade but not quite at the standards for the next highest grade. Examples of these newer adjectives include Brilliant Uncirculated, Good Very Fine and Almost Extremely Fine. 

The numerical system, also known as “The Sheldon Scale'', is named after William H. Sheldon who pioneered the system for grading early US cents. This scale was adapted for use in all world coins and starting in the 1980’s, is the standard used by third-party grading companies. This scale ranges from 70 - 1 with 70 being a perfect example through to 1 which is a coin whose date and type are legible leading to correct identification. Each number correlates to an adjectival grade and its purpose was to address the fact that not all grades are equal. What does this mean? For example, a coin with no post production marks and full mint bloom is Uncirculated, a coin with some post production marks (ie bag marks) and some breaks in its mint bloom is still technically Uncirculated despite these marks and the impact they have on the eye appeal of a coin. 

The key difference is this US system introduced the grade About Uncirculated which is between the Uncirculated and Extremely Fine grades. The US system also allows for coins with multiple and large hairlines, abrasions and marks to qualify as Mint State (grades MS64 - MS60) whereas with the European system these coins would be Almost Uncirculated or Extremely Fine.  


What are the grades? 

For the purpose of this article, the headings are the grades used by US third-party grading companies and each discusses the spectrum of that particular grade and its European counterpart.The table below shows exactly how these differing US and European standards correlate.  


Uncirculated - MS/PF70 - MS/PF60

An Uncirculated or Mint State coin is just that, a coin which has not been in circulation and therefore shows no wear, damage or evidence of circulation. This ranges  from 70 - 60 on the Sheldon scale, 70 is a coin with a good strong strike which shows no imperfections at 5x magnification ranging through to 60 which is a coin with an average or weak strike with numerous abrasions, hairline scratches or marks. Coins with these “defects” can still be described as Uncirculated or Mint State as they are a symptom of their production and transport to banks before entering general circulation. 

When a mint strikes coins they are ejected from the coining press into large containers and transported in cloth bags, coins in these will make contact with each other leading to bag/contact marks, banks will also use automated counting machines which can leave friction marks and of course mishandling by collectors which can lead ailments such as album friction marks or cabinet friction marks depending on the storage method and competence of the collector. 


About Uncirculated AU58, AU55, AU55 & AU50

About Uncirculated is a coin which shows a very limited amount of wear and consists of the grades 58, 55, 53 and 50 with the abbreviation AU. According to third-party grading companies this only minimal wear on the high points through to slight wear on more than 50% of the design. This is where some confusion can arise as these “American” standards encroach into the Extremely Fine and Very Fine grades in European Adjectival grading. With these standards, once a coin shows any wear on its high points the highest attainable grade is Extremely Fine. The lower About Uncirculated grades where there is evidence of wear on 50% of the design or softness on the high points can correlate to Very Fine with European adjectival grading. This makes it vitally important for collectors to be aware when using British publications or price guides to value third-party graded coins or vice versa.  

 

Extremely Fine XF45 & XF40 

Extremely Fine refers to a coin where a coin starts to exhibit minor wear on some to most of its details. Fine details such as hair on portraits and drapery on figures start to look flat and lose their original definition. The grades XF45 and XF40 translate to Almost Very Fine and Good Fine using European standards and again, collectors should be aware of these differences when valuing coins. 


Very Fine VF30, VF25 and VF20 

Very Fine coins show wear on all of its high points but the main design elements such as faces and figures are still sharp and legends will be clear and legible. Coins described as Very Fine by Third-Party Grading companies translate to Good Fine and Fine when using European standards.


Fine F15 & F12, Very Good VG10 & VG8, Good G6 & G4, About Good AG3, Fair FR2 & Poor PO1

Coins in these grades are typically undesirable to most collectors unless they are of the highest rarity and virtually unknown in higher grades. Coins graded F15 coins show considerable wear on all of the design with the recessed areas starting to show wear, the letters and digits will still be sharp. Very Good is when letters and digits start show softness, Good coins exhibit wear on the rims and About Goods have the rims worn into the fields. Fair coins still show some details and the rims should be visible despite wear. Poor is the lowest grade, coins of this grade have lost almost all of there detail but the date and type is still identifiable. Coins of F15 fall into the Almost Fine European grade, with F12, VG10 and VG8 translating as Good. G6 and G4 translate to Fair and AG3, FR2 and PO1 representing the lowest European grade of Poor. AG3 will fall into the higher spectrum of the Poor grade but additions adjectives are not used below the Fine grade, ie. there is not such thing thing as Good Poor or Almost Fair. 

 

This table shows how the US Sheldon correlates to European grades.
 

Sheldon Scale

European Adjectival Grade

MS/PF70 - MS/PF66

Brilliant Uncirculated/Fleur De Coin

MS/PF65 - MS/PF64

Mint State/Uncirculated

MS/PF64 - MS/PF61

Almost Uncirculated

MS/PF61 - MS/PF60

Good Extremely Fine

MS60 - AU58

Extremely Fine

AU55

Almost Extremely Fine

AU55 - AU53

Good Very Fine

AU50

Very Fine

EF45 

Almost Very Fine

EF40 - F35

Good Fine

VF30 - VF25

Fine

VF20 - F15

Almost Fine

F12, VG10 - VG8

Good

G6 - G4

Fair

AG3, FR2 & PO1

Poor

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