NUMISPHERE - About Coin Grading

At Numisphere we use a descriptive grading system based on grades of preservation that have long usage in North America. We do not assign numeric grades as the third-party grading services do. There are two reasons for this: first, we find it is difficult to assign numeric grades consistently, even when the same person does the grading; and second, numeric systems tend to imply a higher level of science and objectivity than is frequently the case.

An explanation of the grading terms we use follows.

BU - Brilliant Uncirculated
We reserve this grade for coins that have the appearance of being freshly minted (or as they say in Germany - Stempelfrisch). These coins will show no signs of circulation and have full mint luster. BU coins may have what are commonly known as "bag marks" - small nicks or scrapes that result from coming into contact with other coins in the stacking or bagging process. Coins with more than the average number of bag marks are sometimes referred to as "baggy". BU coins may or may not be fully struck, and certain issues, depending on the condition of the dies and the minting technology available at the time of striking, show more evidence of striking weakness than others. BU coins may also be toned, but not in such a manner as to obscure the underlying luster. We will note any significant toning on a BU coin in our description. Sometimes we will refer to a BU coin as "choice" or "gem". A choice BU coin will have better than average strike and surfaces. A gem BU coin will have an exceptional strike and virtually no distracting bag marks. Gem BU is roughly equivalent to MS65 or better in the numeric system, choice BU to MS63/64.
UNC - Uncirculated
An Uncirculated coin will have no readily visible signs of wear, but due to conditions of environment or light handling it will have lost some mint freshness and thus differs from a BU coin. For example, copper or bronze coins sometimes develop a brown patina that can obscure the natural mint luster. Such a coin may not qualify for a BU grade, even though it has not been circulated. UNC coins may have some spotting or verdigris, or exhibit some dirt or grease from poor handling. On occasion, they may have faint hairlines from light brushing or wiping. When these factors detract from the eye appeal of a coin, we attempt to note them in our description.
AU - About Uncirculated
An coin grading About Uncirculated will generally show some signs of light wear over the highest points of the coin. In most cases it will still exhibit mint luster, particularly in the protected areas. There will be little or no loss of detail in the devices due to wear. Coins graded choice AU are very close to UNC or BU coins, and sometimes can only be distinguished from the latter under magnification.
EF - Extremely Fine
An EF or XF coin will have wear that is readily apparent to the naked eye. Some minute details of the design may have worn off, but all major design elements will still be discernable. Legends will generally be bold, and there may still be luster in the more protected regions although this is not necessarily the case. An EF coin may have contact marks from circulation, or small rim defects (bruises or nicks). Where these are distracting we make an effort to note them in the description.
VF - Very Fine
VF is a very broad category of preservation (in the 70 point numeric scale it covers a full 20 point range). A VF coin will have noticeable loss of detail in one or more areas. Legends will show some wear but still be easily discernible. Because the VF range is so broad, we sometimes use the terms "good" or "choice" to further describe a VF coin that is better than average. A good VF should correspond to VF30 on the numeric scale, a choice VF to VF35 or thereabouts.
F - Fine
A Fine coin will be worn to the point that some smaller devices may be evident only in outline. Generally, with a Fine coin around 50% of the detail will be worn away. Legends may be quite soft but should still be complete, and rims should be full and not worn down to the level of the coin surface at any point.
VG - Very Good, G - Good, etc.
We usually do not market coins grading less than Fine, unless they are key dates, scarce, or very difficult to find in higher grades. Suffice it to say that coins grading VG or worse will show major wear over most of the coin. Such coins in more modern series are generally not considered collectible and worth bullion value only.
PR - Proof
The term Proof is not strictly speaking a grade of preservation, but a method of manufacture typically involving special dies, planchets, and procedures. Proof coins are usually never put into circulation, however they can be damaged or lose some of their brilliance due to improper handling or storage. Such a proof coin is sometimes said to be "impaired". A gem Proof coin will have an exceptional strike, full brilliance, and unblemished fields.
SP - Specimen
Like Proof, the term Specimen is not a grade of preservation, but is applied to a coin from a special, limited striking. Like Proofs, Specimen coins are typically not released into circulation and are sometimes packaged in sets that are sold to collectors. However, Specimen coins are more like business strikes in appearance than Proofs, the latter usually being struck on highly polished planchets. The US Special Mint Sets of the 1960's can be considered Specimen sets, as also the French "Fleur du Coin" (FDC) sets.
PL - Prooflike
A Prooflike coin is a business strike or Specimen that has some of the characteristics of a Proof - most often highly reflective ("mirror-like") fields and heavy contrast between fields and devices ("cameos"). A coin may be Prooflike by design (for exampe, the Canadian prooflike Specimen sets) or as a result of normal variations in the minting process.

Sometimes we will describe a coin as "about extremely fine" (aEF) or "about very fine" (aVF). We use this designation for a coin which is perhaps just a shade short of the indicated grade, but much closer to that grade than the immediately lower one. The closest numeric equivalent to our "aEF" would probably be XF40; i.e. a grade on the border between VF and XF.

Notwithstanding the above general guidelines, the grading of foreign coins, particularly older ones, must begin with an understanding of the conditions of original manufacture, that coins are often poorly or crudely struck to begin with, planchets and dies can be defective, and so forth. It would be silly to rigorously apply grading standards developed for US or European coins struck in the 19th and 20th centuries to Islamic coins struck in the 18th century, or to Chinese coins manufactured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when coin milling technology was still a recent development in China.