NGC Ancients: Grading

A coin’s state of preservation is expressed using a grading system. The adjectival system in use today is fairly universal throughout the world, with only minor variations in the terminology. Adjectival grades are often used in tandem with the Sheldon Scale, a 70-point scale formulated in 1949 to assign collector prices for US large cents. In recent decades Sheldon’s system has been transformed from its original, narrow function to a numerical grading scale for all US coins, which now has gained acceptance for many World coins.

Rather than Sheldon’s 70-point scale, NGC Ancients will use the adjectival system. In the circulated grades the terms will strictly describe the amount of wear a coin has suffered; however, in the uncirculated grades it will take into account the overall appearance of the coin to distinguish among Mint State, Choice Mint State and Gem Mint State.

However, the Grade is only one of four components of the appearance of ancient coins that we evaluate, the others being Strike, Surface and Style.

In ascending order, the grading terms (and their Sheldon equivalents) are as follows:

Grade Abbreviation Grade Sheldon Scale Equivalent
PR Poor 1
FA Fair 2
AG About Good 3
G Good 4-6
VG Very Good 8-10
F Fine 12
Ch F Choice Fine 15
VF Very Fine 20-25
Ch VF Choice Very Fine 30-35
XF Extremely Fine 40
Ch XF Choice Extremely Fine 45
AU About Uncirculated 50-53
Ch AU Choice About Uncirculated 55-58
MS Mint State 60-62
Ch MS Choice Mint State 63-64
Gem MS Gem Mint State 65-70

The grades of NGC Ancients will in some cases be higher than the “net grades” assigned elsewhere in the marketplace. Some coins described as Choice VF in an auction catalog might be graded EF or AU by NGC Ancients if the absence of detail is caused by worn dies and / or a weak strike rather than by actual wear. In such cases, the grade will be assigned accurately and the negative aspects of strike weakness and / or worn dies will be reflected in a low score for Strike.

NET GRADE

Coins submitted for “bulk” grading at NGC Ancients will be evaluated in accordance to familiar standards: all of the independent factors will be taken into account to arrive at a “net grade.” Thus, the coin just described would be netted as Choice VF.

A “net grade” takes into consideration all of the merits and faults of a coin, and expresses it in the form of a single grade. Just as with regular- and express-tier coins, NGC Ancients will use an adjectival grade for its net grades rather than the 70-point Sheldon scale. Oftentimes our net grades will be lower than the grade that would be assigned in our regular grading system because the contributing factors to the appearance of the coin (other than circulation wear) are taken into consideration. Thus, a coin that suffered little or no circulation might be net graded VF or EF because it was poorly struck, was struck with heavily worn dies, or because its surface was damaged.

The Three S's of Ancient Coin Grading: Strike, Surface and Style

STRIKE

NGC Ancients rates the quality of a coin’s strike on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest rating. Each point represents a 20 percent portion of the 5-point scale; thus, those designated by a “5” rating need not be perfect, as that rating incorporates the top 20 percent of the scale.

With the exception of the quality of die engraving (which is separately evaluated as Style), all factors that were in effect at the moment of striking will contribute to this rating. Any other surface characteristics are addressed by the ratings for Grade and Surface.

The primary considerations for Strike are centering, strength of strike, evenness of strike, striking cracks, planchet imperfections and die state. A more complete list of factors, by category, includes:

  • Planchet
    • planchet flaws, deficits or fissures
    • laminations
    • evidence of undertype (overstriking)
    • adjustment marks

  • Dies
    • die state
    • die breaks / cracks
    • die wear
    • die rust
    • die clashing

  • Striking / Production
    • centering, strength and evenness of strike
    • flip-strike
    • rotated strike
    • double-strike / multiple strike
    • cracks
    • edge hammering (in cases when it was performed at mints to close edge cracks

SURFACE

NGC Ancients rates the quality of a coin’s surface on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest rating. Each point represents a 20 percent portion of the 5-point scale; thus, those designated by a “5” rating need not be perfect, as that rating incorporates the top 20 percent of the scale.

With the exception of circulation wear (which is separately evaluated as Grade), all factors that were in effect after the moment of striking will contribute to this rating. Any other surface characteristics are addressed by the ratings for Grade and Strike.

The primary considerations for Surface quality are luster, corrosion, porosity, encrustation, silvering, cleaning, marks, hairlines and scratches. For bronzes — many of which are patinated or encrusted — a host of other considerations are noted, including modern efforts to smooth out an encrusted surface. For ancients that had “silvering” applied to their surfaces as part of the minting process, the amount of that original coating that remains is also a principal consideration.

Factors contributing to the analysis of Surface may be segregated according to the three main phases of an ancient coin’s “life”: circulation / use, burial and recovery / conservation:

  • Surviving minting characteristics
    • luster
    • silvering

  • Circulation, use and post-recovery
    • graffito
    • clipping or edge filing
    • edge damage / chips
    • test cuts
    • banker's marks
    • countermarks
    • gilding
    • surface marks and scratches
    • edge hammering (post-mint alteration)
    • inlays
    • piercing and plugging
    • wavy / bent planchet
    • smoothing of surface or patina
    • adulteration of patina
    • re-cutting, tooling or re-engraving
    • inking
    • polishing
    • cleaning hairlines
    • mounting or jewelry marks

  • From burial
    • crystallization
    • graininess, porosity and pitting
    • encrustation
    • horn silvering
    • patination
    • salvage (evidence of sea recovery)

STYLE

Since the dies used to strike ancient coin dies were hand-engraved, style can vary greatly from one die to another, even among coins from the same series. The Style of each coin will be carefully evaluated, and any coin of superior style will be awarded the designation “Fine Style.”

The Style of an ancient coin may be defined as the visual impact the design, based upon quality of its composition and engraving. Like beauty, style is in the eye of the beholder, and there are vastly different ideas about what constitutes “good art.” Nonetheless, there is a rational basis for analyzing the style of an ancient coin by comparison with other ancient coins, and with ancient art of different media.

There are three main approaches to evaluating style:

  • An “absolute” approach rates style from a single perspective, with coins being judged against some kind of universal standard(s).
  • The “relative” approach distinguishes a range of styles within a given series. As such, the best coins within a stylistically mediocre series would rate higher than average coins from a fine style series, even though the latter might generally be considered more attractive than the former.
  • The third seeks a balance between the absolutist and relativist schools of thoughts, incorporating the best qualities of each. This is the approach that has been adopted by NGC.

The possibility of a coin being of fine style is, by definition, determined by the dies from which it was struck. However, even if a coin’s dies are of fine style, the appreciation of its artwork often is inhibited by aspects of Strike and / or Surface. Thus, in some cases two coins from the same pair of exceptional dies will not both receive a “Fine Style” designation.

Additional Grade Qualifiers Used by NGC Ancients

Star Designation

Coins of exceptional appeal are eligible for a Star () designation, a feature introduced in 2001 by NGC that has since become a valued aspect of NGC-encapsulated US coins.

The Star designation does not indicate that a coin is of higher technical grade than stated on the label (nor, even, that it is at the high end of the spectrum for that grade). Instead, it indicates that the coin has exceptional eye appeal, usually derived from some impressive aspect(s) of the strike, surface or style. However, since ancient coins are produced from individually prepared dies, the Star designation often will be awarded based upon some remarkable aspect of a design, and it may be derived partially (though not exclusively) from an important pedigree that adds significantly to its appeal to collectors.

Surface Features

The surfaces of ancient coins can be affected by a wide variety of features, some meritorious and others detrimental. NGC Ancients will factor these features into the 5-point ratings of Surface and Strike, and it will record noteworthy surface features in space available on the label. Such notations will usually appear beneath the column at the right of the label that contains other grading data, though if it is necessary to indicate multiple surface conditions, the description may extend to the lower line on the left side of the label, beneath where the attribution and description text appears.

Below are samples, by category, of features that typically will be described:

  • Planchet
    • planchet flaws, deficits or fissures
    • laminations
    • undertype
    • adjustment marks

  • Dies
    • die break
    • die wear
    • die rust

  • Striking / Production
    • centering, strength and evenness of strike
    • flip-strike
    • rotated strike
    • double-strike / multiple strike
    • cracks
    • edge hammering (in cases when it was performed at mints to close edge cracks)
    • luster
    • silvering

  • Circulation, use and post-recovery
    • graffito
    • clipping
    • edge damage / chips
    • test cuts
    • banker’s marks
    • countermarks
    • gilding
    • surface damage, scratches
    • edge hammering (post-mint alteration)
    • inlay
    • piercing and plugging
    • wavy / bent planchet
    • smoothing
    • inking
    • cleaning

  • From burial
    • crystalization
    • porosity (from exposure to harmful elements and / or poor alloy)
    • encrustation
    • horn silvering
    • patination
    • salvage (evidence of sea recovery)