GRADING ANCIENT COINS
Nothing is better than LEARNING how to grade ancient coins oneself. There is little more frustrating than to see an otherwise enthusiastic collector looking straight at the written grade on an entry or tag and then failing to look at the actual coin except in passing. Much like people who look for a 'certificate of authenticity' without looking at the actual object to which it purportedly refers. I have actually seen a person (at a large U.S. coin show) pick up a coin which was in a 2 x 2 holder, read the title, read the price and, at all times with his thumb over the coin itself, he turned to the dealer, held out the coin and asked him "what grade is this coin"? I kid you not! Instead of LOOKING AT THE COIN, this person illustrated his own ignorance in perhaps the worst possible way.
You really MUST learn how to grade coin yourself and then learn how to price according to grade. This will ensure that you will not be fooled into unwittingly purchasing an overgraded piece and by the same token you will not be fooled into paying some exorbitant price for that same overgraded piece. Knowledge is power, and, in the matter of buying ancient coins, greater knowledge will most definitely save you money. Buy a few books to gain a greater understanding of the basics of these coins. More importantly, once you buy them, read the books!
Commensurate with this is learning the differing grading standards which do exist from organisation to organisation or from country to country. For example, certain establishments consistently overgrade (according to my own quite high standards) while others, on the other hand, tend to sometimes undergrade. American grading appears, for the most part, to differ from European grading. Even companies in the same city may have slightly different standards on the grading of similar coins. Learn how to grade yourself and then you will learn about these differences - in fact I would hope that they would ultimately become obvious.
As Struck: No discernible wear. ONLY the most exceptional of coins carry this grade. There must be no signs of wear, no corrosion, no problems of any sort to qualify for this grade.
Virtually As Struck: Almost no discernible wear at all. Generally this will be the highest grade encountered. See also 'gEF'.
good Extremely Fine - gEF: Almost no discernible wear at all. Generally this will be the highest grade encountered. See also 'Virtually As Struck'.
Extremely Fine - EF: Minute but discernible wear only on the absolute high points. (NB: Do NOT use 'Extra Fine' or 'XF', the use of either of these is indicative of ignorance or laziness, neither is good).
about Extremely Fine - aEF: Very little wear on the highest points. Still very sharp.
good Very Fine - gVF: High points worn only a little, details still quite sharp but low points may be beginning to show signs of a little wear.
Very Fine - VF: High points worn but remain substantially visible, low points showing wear.
about Very Fine - aVF: All details still quite clear but highest points worn flat and low points worn but still easily discernible.
good Fine - gF: Overall wear to all of coin but a little loss of detail to the lowest points.
Fine - F: Some areas worn flat but most detail present.
about Fine - aF: All outlines and legends more or less present with some signs of detail showing through.
Very Good - VG: Most legends and/or outlines present but no real detail.
Good - G: Heavy flattening on all surfaces, outlines apparent but may not be very clear.
fair/poor - f/p: Rarely used. Almost no discernible detail, virtually flat.
The qualifier 'about' is interchangeable with 'almost' or 'nearly', eg: aF = nF, aEF = nEF, though 'a' is the preferred prefix and is the most often encountered.
Note the difference between 'Good' the grade and 'good' the qualifier to the grade. 'Good' the grade is actually quite bad, while 'good' the qualifier indicates 'better than' the grade to which it is attached.
Sometimes a '+' may be attached to the grade to indicate that the grade is the top end of the grade stated. Using more than a single '+' is excessive and superfluous and is often indicative of anything from a basic misunderstanding of the subject, to ignorance, to what can only truly be termed stupidity (the latter is often encountered from particular sellers on certain internet auction sites). Note that it can truly only be used on whole grades or grades preceded by the qualifier 'good' - to indicate that it is not quite the next highest grade, eg: F+ (not quite gF), gVF+ (not quite EF). The '+' should never be used with the qualifiers 'about' or 'almost' or 'nearly', eg: aF+ (should never be used to indicate not quite F), aVG+ (should never be used to indicate not quite VG). One should never use 'gG' 'aVG' or 'gVG', they are all quite nonsensical.
Read below to see what else should and should not be taken into account when grading coins.
The only factor that 'grade' refers to, or should refer to, is the actual wear that has been occasioned to the metal through its use in circulation at the hands of the Ancients. There are other factors that have to be taken into account but these DO NOT affect the grade of a coin - only the price!
These other factors include corrosion (present or since removed), pitting, cracks or splits, porosity, strike, die wear, damage or other problems. These all affect the end price of a coin - NOT THE GRADE!
There are yet more factors that affect the price of a coin, including style, patina, toning, colour, centering, flan shape, flan weight and so on. There are positives and negatives to each of these and there are individual tastes for each of these. For example; some collectors like untoned bright and shiny silver coins - I do not! Some collectors like certain styles - beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as it were. Some collectors are finicky about 'perfectly' round flans, to others it matters little or not at all. These all relate to the aesthetics of a coin, or the price of a coin, but not the grade of a coin.
Strike and die wear are two factors that are all too frequently mistaken for coin wear. If a flan is struck with worn or damaged dies then the resultant coin will exhibit characteristics that would often be incorrectly represented as coin wear. To then grade that coin as, say, VG because of the wear of the die that struck the coin is not correct and may be misleading. The coin may actually be 'as struck' but the detail that it expected to be present is not there and it is in matters such as these that much confusion can present itself. The same with a coin that is not fully struck up. In these cases the striker of the coin failed to hit the dies hard enough for all of the metal of the coin to be pushed into all of the detail of the die. In these cases the coin may have very little actual wear but through a misunderstanding of the subject matter the coin will often be described as worn when in reality it is not.
Metal flow is another similar matter (related to strike) that needs consideration when grading coins. When one looks at a coin that has a high profile design on both sides it may be observed that these coins sometimes lack certain details in the areas corresponding to the highest points of the design. Again, there may be little actual wear but simply because there is a lack of design it is assumed that it must therefore be due to the coin being worn. If the flan is not thick enough or the strike not strong enough to push all of the metal into all parts of the die then the resultant coin will lack details to the highest points on one side or the other (sometimes both sides). This does not reduce the grade of a coin, which is determined by wear only, but does need to be noted when fully describing the coin.
Something of considerable annoyance to me is the use of the term 'uncirculated' in reference to ancient coins. The term simply should not be used, and, I believe, cannot properly apply. Ancient coins, whatever their form or origin, were produced to circulate immediately upon being struck. The fact that some coins may have occasionally been lost or deposited almost immediately after being made does not sufficiently counter this argument. There were no commemorative proof or uncirculated sets as we have in modern times. These coins have, by virtue of leaving their place of minting, passed into circulation and have thus been 'circulated'. A far more appropriate term to use in the case of ancient coins encountered in the highest state of preservation is 'virtually as struck' or perhaps, rarely, 'as struck'.
Certificates of Authenticity.
Most Certificates of Authenticity COULD refer to almost any object with which they are presented. There are, however, some very good exceptions. One such exception may be where a photograph of an item is on the certificate, it is well described and there is a definite and tangible link to the item to which it refers. The certificates offered by the illustrious author David R. Sear are a case in point. He includes such information as: a photograph (scan) of the item in question, date of issue of certificate, a detailed description of the item including its weight and dimension, and where possible any additional reference(s). He also puts his name and signature to the certificate and stands behind his statements. These are certificates that are well and widely accepted.
The next thing to consider is the authority. Is the certificate signed, and, if so, who signed it? What, if anything, is the person's qualification to judge such items and how firm is their ability and reputation? If ALL of these things stand up to scrutiny, then, and only then is a certificate worth anything at all. In any case such an item referred to on a certificate should be readily identifiable as such anyway - by any other reputable authority on the subject. Which brings me back to my original statement, most Certificates of Authenticity are, as a rule, NOT WORTH THE PAPER UPON WHICH THEY ARE WRITTEN!
I wish you well in all your collecting pursuits. - Walter Holt, M.A.