Understanding the NGC Grading Label and its Use of Supplemental Designations

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 5/1/2002

Collectors, and dealers too, are sometimes puzzled by the many numbers and characters that may appear on an NGC grading label, and I hope to successfully explain herein each of the various elements. All of the data that appear on NGC’s grading labels are there for various reasons.

Collectors, and dealers too, are sometimes puzzled by the many numbers and characters that may appear on an NGC grading label, and I hope to successfully explain herein each of the various elements. All of the data that appear on NGC’s grading labels are there for various reasons. Some of this information is strictly for tracking purposes, while certain features directly affect a coin’s grade.

Some of these elements are obvious and do not require explanation. Anyone who knows something about coins will understand the denomination, date and mintmark, if any. The abbreviations ‘MS’ and ‘PF’ on NGC certified coins are easily recognized as standing for Mint State and Proof, respectively. Those who collect or deal in varieties will likely recognize certain standardized abbreviations that appear on the labels of variety coins. An example would be ‘DDR’ for Doubled-Die Reverse. On NGC-certified coins, this abbreviation is typically accompanied by a number preceded by the letters ‘FS.’ This is an abbreviation of Fivaz and Stanton, they being the authors of The Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties, a popular reference and price guide for the most widely sought varieties. Along with Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book), this is the only variety guide recognized by NGC for attributing varieties on modern coin series. There is a small additional fee for receiving this variety attribution, and NGC does not automatically apply such varieties to coins submitted for grading alone.

Also appearing on each NGC grading label is that particular coin’s identification number. This consists of six (or more recently, seven) digits followed by a dash and three more digits. The first sequence of numbers is taken from the pre-printed invoice number under which the coins were submitted. (These numbers are entirely random and are not applied sequentially. Therefore, they cannot be used to determine when a coin was graded.) The numbers following the dash may range from 001 to 099 and simply identify the line on which a particular coin was entered under that invoice number. For example, if you submit three coins under invoice number 1234567, the coin on line 3 will be labeled by NGC as 1234567-003.

In addition to a readable identification number, each label includes a barcode that may be read only by a computer. This includes the same sort of information found in written form on the label, but it also permits coins to be processed quickly while in house and scanned by our customers for their own inventory tracking.

While it once was sufficient to simply place a numerical grade on a coin’s label, the growing sophistication of the coin hobby and marketplace has led to the introduction of additional designations. It is with these designations that some confusion may still exist. Certain designations are easy to understand, such as the color designators that follow the numerical grade on copper and bronze coins: BN stands for Brown (or a variety of colors other than mint red), RB identifies a coin having a moderate amount of mint red, while RD on a copper or bronze coin means that it retains all or nearly all of its original mint red color.

In a similar manner, the designations ‘FS’ (full steps) on Jefferson Nickels, ‘FB’ (full bands) on Mercury Dimes, ‘FH’ (full head) on Standing Liberty Quarters and ‘FBL’ (full bell lines) on Franklin Halves are all important supplements to a coin’s numerical grade. For Morgan Dollars and selected other coin types, the designations ‘PL’ (prooflike) and ‘DPL’ (deep prooflike) may appear. These indicate only the degree of reflectivity evident in a coin’s fields and make no implication as to other qualities associated with proof coins, such as frosted devices and superior sharpness. NGC’s use of ‘DPL’ is equivalent to other grading services’ employment of ‘DMPL.’ These abbreviations mean the same thing, and their alternative use is merely a matter of semantics.

All of the above designations are applied automatically to qualified coins at the time of grading and at no additional cost. NGC certified coins that are lacking such designations may be submitted to NGC for possible addition of them at a small fee.

Another pair of designations important to collectors of proof coins are the words CAMEO and ULTRA CAMEO that appear on some of the NGC certified proofs following the numerical grade. Only the earliest impressions from new proof dies will reveal frosted or satiny legends and devices, as these relief elements quickly became polished by the repeated interaction of the dies with the planchets. The terms CAMEO and ULTRA CAMEO simply separate different degrees of the same contrasting effect, and NGC’s UTLRA CAMEO means the same thing as other grading services’ ‘DCAM,’ or DEEP CAMEO. Once again, this is just a matter of semantics. NGC automatically applies these designations to qualified coins at the time of grading at no additional cost. As with all such designations, NGC certified coins may be submitted for review of their CAMEO or ULTRA CAMEO status for a small fee.

It’s very difficult to put into words the difference between CAMEO and ULTRA CAMEO, other than to say that the latter is clearly more pronounced. The dividing line is somewhat subjective, but the important thing to remember is that NGC applies the distinction as consistently as humanly possible and in accordance with widely accepted market standards. For a proof coin to be labeled CAMEO by NGC, it must display contrasting fields and devices on both sides. For the ULTRA CAMEO designation, it must have superior contrast on both sides. One-sided contrast will not earn a coin the CAMEO designation, though it may be acknowledged for its superior eye appeal through application of the NGC Star designation (this is explained more fully below). Likewise, coins that have ULTRA CAMEO contrast on their obverses only will not be so labeled, but their premium value may be recognized through application of the NGC Star (see below).

In recent years the market for modern (roughly 1940-date) coins has matured greatly. Where once these were traded only by the roll or bag, individual pieces are now eagerly sought in the higher grades. With this growing emphasis on quality, two distinguishing designations have been introduced by NGC to segregate these coins not only by grade but by their appeal to individual tastes too. These designations are the letter ‘W’ to indicate a “white” or entirely untoned coin and the NGC star, applied to coins of outstanding appearance. These follow a coin’s numerical grade on the NGC grading label.

The letter ‘W’ on the label of an NGC certified silver, nickel or clad coin identifies the piece as having no toning whatsoever. In common marketplace parlance, such pieces are described as being “white” and there are a number of collectors who desire to own nothing else. For that reason, NGC introduced the ‘W’ to distinguish such coins.

Another innovation of NGC is the star () designation for coins having superior aesthetic value, or “eye appeal.” It does not apply to so-called PQ (premium quality) coins that fell just short of the next grade. Rather, it applies to coins that are what they are in terms of numerical grade, yet are simply more desirable to the trained eye than other coins of the same grade. Among the qualities that can earn a coin the coveted designation are superior luster and beautiful toning. In the case of proof coins, the may be applied to pieces displaying cameo contrast on one side only. While such coins are not eligible for the CAMEO designation, the inclusion of a acknowledges that they do possess superior eye appeal. In a similar vein, a coin already determined to be CAMEO on both sides may receive an additional designation if its obverse displays ULTRA CAMEO contrast. Finally, a coin designated as ULTRA CAMEO may receive a if the graders believe that its degree of contrast is truly superior to the more typical specimen.

Both the ‘W’ and the are applied automatically by NGC’s graders to qualifying coins at no additional cost. As with all of NGC’s designations, coins already holdered by NGC may be resubmitted at a nominal cost to be examined for their ‘W’ or potential.

More in this issue...