Coin grading standards are listed in accordance with the ANA standards, these are just general guidelines, grading is both an art skill and a science, it takes the knowledge through reading and experience combined with practice to become good at it. It is one of the most important skills a coin collector can master.
The Sheldon grading scale is an adjective and a numeric 1-70 scale with 70 being perfect, it was originally designed to help price early large US cents where coins with almost no detail were selling for $1 and coins that were virtually in perfect shape were selling for $70 thus numerical grades were giving accordingly to reflect these coins prices.
the scale adjectives were added and assigned a numerical grade as follows:
Perfect Uncirculated (MS-70): As minted with no flaws of any kind visible. full luster and full strike.
Superb Gem (MS-67, 68, 69): Only the slightest distractions allowed at this level of preservation, above average strike and full luster.
Gem Uncirculated (MS-65, 66): only minor distractions such as bag marks and coin contact, full luster and above average strike.
Choice Uncirculated (MS 63, 64): An uncirculated coin with moderate distracting marks, severe marks, if any, should be minimal and not on focal areas. this is the most common grade for uncirculated coins.
Uncirculated (MS-60, 61, 62): Marks and hits are noticeable and plentiful, strike could be below average, luster could be poor, this is not a typical grade for uncirculated coins.
Almost Uncirculated ( AU-50, 53, 55, 58): The coin now shows faint rub or friction at the highest point of the design, sometimes hard to detect and distinguish between it and softness of strike. coin in this grade should have decent to full amount of mint luster, in general a very attractive coin that almost resembles an Unc. coin. Also known as About Uncirculated.
Extremely Fine (EF-40, 45): Friction now goes into the fields of the coin and more evident on the highest surfaces of the design and shows as wear. this grade also referred to as XF.
Very Fine (VF-20, 25, 30, 35): Wear is getting more evident on the coin, almost all details should still be evident on the coin.
Fine (F-12, F15): The coin shows medium level of wear with high points worn flat, but few details are still showing on the rest of the coin.
Very Good (VG-08, 10): Now showing signs of medium to heavy wear all over the surfaces but some details will still be visible in the protected areas.
Good (G-4, 06): Rims start to be worn flat and general design is evident and outlined with little details left.
About Good (AG-3): Rims now worn into field, but the design is still outlined with little to no details left.
Fair (FR-02): Almost worn out, with only outlines of the images on coin left, the writings and rims may be worn flat or completely gone.
Poor (PO-1): Barely recognized and heavily worn, only hints of design and date available to recognize the coins type and date.
PROOF (PR, sometimes abbreviated as PF) coins are not a grade of preservation, but rather a method of striking and minting a coin, which requires polished planchets and/or polished dies and high force of striking power, sometimes many strikes are needed to achieve the Mirror like finish on the coin surface.
Grading Proof coins is similar to regular (business strike) coins, with coins lower than PF-60 considered Impaired Proof.
A really good source for coin grading basics is a series of videos by PCGS* on YouTube*, I highly recommend watching these videos as a series from the 101 basics and tools to the newest series 103.
* PCGS is a trademark and a division of Collectors Universe.
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