Learn Grading: Hierarchy of Grades, Designations and Strike Characters
Posted on 10/13/2020
The language of numismatics can sometimes seem daunting to new collectors. NGC has created the Learn Grading series of articles to help both new and seasoned collectors who want to learn more about how coins are graded and described.
Here we explore some of the most common questions about a coin’s grade:
What's a better prefix: MS or a PF?
This question depends on a collector’s preference.
Circulation issues, which are also called “business strikes,” are coins that are made for commerce or struck in the same manner as coins that are made for commerce. For grades 60 and higher, circulation issues receive the MS prefix to indicate that they are in “Mint State” (Uncirculated). On the other hand, Proof issues are coins that are specially struck for collectors with highly polished dies and planchets. These coins traditionally feature frosted design elements and mirrored fields.
|A 2019 Silver Eagle in Mint State (left) and Proof. Click images to enlarge.|
Typically, far fewer Proofs of vintage coins were struck, meaning a Proof coin is generally much rarer than those meant for circulation. However, because Proofs are designed for collectors to save, a high Mint State example of a business strike may be rarer (and more valuable) than a Proof with the same numeric grade. Collectors should familiarize themselves with mintages, census data and price guide information, which can all be done at NGCcoin.com.
Finally, collectors should be aware that different types of Proofs exist. For example, NGC will attribute Reverse Proofs, Enhanced Reverse Proofs and Modified Proofs as REVERSE PF, ENHANCED REV PF and MODIFIED PF, respectively. In the same year, a coin such as an American Silver Eagle may be struck in the traditional Proof format and then again in a special Proof format in a much more limited mintage.
|An Enhanced Reverse Proof and a Modified Proof coin. Click images to enlarge.|
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What is a Proof Coin?
What number grades are assigned to coins?
Coins are graded on an internationally recognized scale of 1 to 70 that was originally developed by Dr. William Sheldon in the late 1940s. Some numbers are skipped below the grade of 60, which is the threshold for a coin to be considered Uncirculated. For example, there are grades of 50 and 53, but no grades 51 and 52.
A coin’s condition is considered to be better as its numeric grade increases.
If a coin is not Mint State, what prefixes come before the numbers?
For business strikes, any coin below Mint State (60-70) on the grading scale uses one of these prefixes:
- AU (About Uncirculated 50, 53, 55 and 58)
- XF (Extremely Fine 40 and 45)
- VF (Very Fine 20, 25, 30 and 35)
- F (Fine 12 and 15)
- VG (Very Good 8 and 10)
- G (Good 4 and 6)
- AG (About Good 3)
- FR (Fair 2)
- PO (Poor 1)
To see NGC’s Grading Scale, click here.
Are there any other prefixes?
Yes, SP denotes a Specimen and PL denotes a Prooflike coin for certain series.
From its earliest days, the US Mint has occasionally produced coins that fall short of the definition for actual Proofs yet are clearly superior to the normal currency issues. In past generations, such pieces were routinely described as Proofs by coin dealers and catalogers. Since the 1960s, these would-be Proof coins have gradually become accepted under the term "Specimen," which is abbreviated SP on the NGC certification label.
|A 1994-P Nickel, graded NGC SP 70, and a 1956 Canada S$1, graded NGC PL 67 CameoClick images to enlarge.|
The most notable example of coins that can earn PL as a prefix are the Prooflike Canada issues of the 1950s through 1960s. The coins are clearly special and distinct from both MS and PF issues. The Royal Canadian Mint referred to these coins as Prooflike, and the term was adopted by NGC to describe the method of manufacture for these coins. (Generally speaking, however, on NGC certification labels, the term PL will follow the numeric grade of a coin that exhibits mirrored fields that resemble a Proof coin. For example, a Morgan Dollar might grade NGC MS 66 PL.)
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What Are the SP and PL Prefixes?
What is better: +, ★ or +★?
NGC assigns a + to coins at the high end of their assigned grade, approaching the quality requirements for the next grade. On the other hand, NGC assigns its trademarked Star (★) Designation to coins with exceptional eye appeal for their assigned grade. The ★ does not indicate whether a coin is close to the requirements for the next grade.
|LEFT: A 1839 Great Britain "Una and the Lion" 5 Sovereign, graded NGC PF 63+ Ultra Cameo. RIGHT: An 1851 Humbert "887" With "50" $50, graded NGC MS 63★.
Click images to enlarge.
In the NGC hierarchy, the + always takes precedence over any strike character, while the ★ never overrides any strike character. Therefore, when all other factors are the same, the most desirable coin is first the +★ example, followed by the +, and then followed by the ★. Refer to the examples near the end of this column.
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What Are the Plus and Star Designations?
What is better: Cameo or Ultra Cameo?
Many Proofs exhibit varying degrees of “frost” on the design elements. This is achieved when the surrounding fields are polished on the coining die to give them a brilliant finish. NGC uses Cameo and Ultra Cameo designations after the numeric grade to describe the degree of frost present on the design elements. If little or no frost is present, no designation will be used.
|Proof||Proof Cameo||Proof Ultra Cameo|
|Click images to enlarge.|
In the NGC hierarchy, Ultra Cameo is considered superior to Cameo, and Cameo is considered superior to the lack of any designation. Refer to the examples near the end of this column.
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: Proof, Proof Cameo and Proof Ultra Cameo
What is better: PL or DPL?
Most business strike coins have minimally reflective fields, even in Mint State (MS) grades. When a business strike coin’s fields exhibit a higher-than-normal degree of reflectivity, the coin is said to be “Prooflike” (or “PL”) because it is reminiscent of a Proof coin. If the fields are deeply mirrored, the coin is said to be “Deep Prooflike” (or “DPL”).
In the NGC hierarchy, Deep Prooflike is considered superior to Prooflike, and Prooflike is considered superior to the lack of any designation. Refer to the examples near the end of this column.
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: Prooflike (PL) and Deep Prooflike (DPL)
What is better: BN, RB or RD?
When copper coins are struck, they typically display distinctive red luster. Over time, this red luster fades and eventually turns to a rich brown patina. NGC uses three primary strike characters after the numeric grade to describe the amount of red and brown present on the coin's surfaces: "RD" (for red), "RB" (for red brown) and "BN" (for brown).
|Click images to enlarge.|
In the NGC hierarchy, RD is considered superior to RB, and RB is considered superior to BN. For the coins that use them, these particular strike characters are more important than anything else besides the numeric grade and the Plus designation. Refer to the examples near the end of this column.
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What are BN, RB and RD?
Are there other strike characters?
Modern coin grading was standardized in the late 1980s by third-party grading services. At the time, much of the market involved US coins, and collectors placed a premium on certain design elements, which were often unimpaired by a poor strike or wear. These include:
- Franklin Half Dollars: "FBL" for Full Bell Lines.
- Standing Liberty Quarters: "FH" for Full Head.
- Mercury Dimes: "FB" for Full Bands
- Roosevelt Dimes: "FT" for Full Torch
- Jefferson Nickels: "6FS" for Six Full Steps and "5FS" for Five Full Steps, with 6FS being superior.
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What Are Full Bell Lines? 💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What Is the Full Head Designation? 💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What Are Full Bands and Full Torch? 💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What Are 5FS and 6FS?
For the coins that use them, these particular strike characters are more important than anything else besides the numeric grade and the Plus designation. They are grouped separately in the NGC Census.
Can various strike characters be combined?
Yes. Sometimes, a coin has more than one strike character, such as a Jefferson Nickel with Six Full Steps (6FS) that is also Deep Prooflike (DPL). The NGC Census combines the strike characters for such a coin into the abbreviation "6DP." To see abbreviations for more combinations, click here.
What is the hierarchy within NGC grades?
Here are some examples, which illustrate that the ascending order of importance is numeric grade, +, color (RD, RB, BN), cameo contrast and ★:
A Proof Coin NGC PF 68 NGC PF 68★ NGC PF 68 Cameo NGC PF 68★ Cameo NGC PF 68 Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68★ Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+ NGC PF 68+★ NGC PF 68+ Cameo NGC PF 68+★ Cameo NGC PF 68+ Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+★ Ultra Cameo
A Business Strike Copper Coin NGC MS 68 BN NGC MS 68★ BN NGC MS 68 RB NGC MS 68★ RB NGC MS 68 RD NGC MS 68★ RD NGC MS 68+ BN NGC MS 68+★ BN NGC MS 68+ RB NGC MS 68+★ RB NGC MS 68+ RD NGC MS 68+★ RD
A Proof Copper Coin NGC PF 68 BN NGC PF 68★ BN NGC PF 68 BN Cameo NGC PF 68★ BN Cameo NGC PF 68 BN Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68★ BN Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68 RB NGC PF 68★ RB NGC PF 68 RB Cameo NGC PF 68★ RB Cameo NGC PF 68 RB Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68★ RB Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68 RD NGC PF 68★ RD NGC PF 68 RD Cameo NGC PF 68★ RD Cameo NGC PF 68 RD Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68★ RD Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+ BN NGC PF 68+★ BN NGC PF 68+ BN Cameo NGC PF 68+★ BN Cameo NGC PF 68+ BN Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+★ BN Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+ RB NGC PF 68+★ RB NGC PF 68+ RB Cameo NGC PF 68+★ RB Cameo NGC PF 68+ RB Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+★ RB Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+ RD NGC PF 68+★ RD NGC PF 68+ RD Cameo NGC PF 68+★ RD Cameo NGC PF 68+ RD Ultra Cameo NGC PF 68+★ RD Ultra Cameo
Important: Although higher grades typically sell for higher prices than lower grades, there can be exceptions for certain strike characters when they are seen infrequently within a series. For example, some PF Cameo and PF Ultra Cameo Morgan Dollars may sell for higher prices than non-Cameo Morgan Dollars in a higher numeric grade. Consult the NGC Census and NGC Price Guide to learn more about relative rarity and value.
Are NGC Details-graded coins worse than those with numeric grades?
NGC uses a Details grade for coins that are genuine, but which have a surface problem (or problems) that preclude a numeric grade. Populations for NGC Details-graded coins can be found in the NGC Census by a clicking on a box with the letter “D” in it below the coin description.
|LEFT: 1666-FG Frederik III 3 Speciedaler, graded NGC VF Details. RIGHT: 1792 Washington President Pattern Silver Half Dollar, graded NGC XF Details.
Click images to enlarge.
The NGC Details grade will include an adjectival grade, such as AU for About Uncirculated, followed by a brief description of the issue precluding a numeric grade. Generally speaking, a coin that earns a numeric grade is considered superior to one with a Details grade in the same grade range.
💡 Learn more: Learn Grading: What is an NGC Details Grade?
Related link NGC’s Learn Grading series
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