Difficulties in grading old coins

For many collectors the topic of coin grading is a vexing one – it often seems so subjective and inconsistent. Of course, the most common and obvious targets for their ire are the dealers and auctioneers who, by way of describing their wares, are forced to commit their opinions of grade to paper.

No ‘absolute’ grading standards exist – to date, coin grading is not a science.

It is a ‘subjective’ art at best, although there are attempts at standardising as per the chart below. It refers to ‘business’ or ‘regular’ strikes, not ‘proof’ strikes. This is what I would describe as a good start but not a definitive work.

Ireland 2012 proof coin - dogs (Irish Wolfhound)

A ‘proof’ coin usually struck from a specially prepared coin die on a specially prepared planchet. Proofs are usually given more than one blow from the dies and are usually struck with presses operating at slower speeds and higher striking pressure. Because of this extra care in the minting process, proofs usually exhibit much sharper detail than regular, or business, strikes

As a collector moves through their numismatic journey (an on-going self-education) they will, no doubt, begin to question the grading techniques of their peers, dealers and auctioneers. As a general rule, it is often said that when one is buying coins they are under-graded and when one is selling coins they are (typically) over-graded.

  • This old maxim adequately covers the dilemma of trying to buy low and sell high
    • Buyer: I’m really looking for something in a better grade than this
    • Seller: One rarely sees this coin is such a high grade

That being said, the chart below represents an interpretation of what the most commonly seen acronyms actually mean – or are supposed to mean!

A basic guide for grading coins (with European and American acronyms)

A basic guide for grading coins (with European and American numismatic acronyms)

Taking the top section (uncirculated) as an example, we note that it varies from “Flawless” to “no wear at all – but may be heavily ‘bag marked’ and/or toned” but what does this mean to a collector? Or, a beginner or an investor with little accumulated numismatic knowledge?

A beautiful 'toned' Morgan dollar from the USA but is it circulated or uncirculated? And, is this coin more valuable as a 'toned' item or uncirculated?

A beautiful ‘toned’ Morgan dollar from the USA but is it circulated or uncirculated? Does the ‘toning’ distract the viewer from accurately grading? And, is this coin more valuable as a ‘toned’ item or uncirculated?

In my opinion, the chart above is incomplete.

  • The top grade = flawless but it does not mention any flaws below this, i.e. only “wear”, “toning” and “bag marks”
  • No mention is made of the following :-
    • planchet defects / flaws
      • adjustment marks
      • broad strike
      • burnishing
      • cabinet friction
      • cast blanks
      • clipped planchet
      • de-lamination
      • drift mark
      • flow lines
      • lamination
      • metal stress lines
      • planchet striations
      • struck thru error
    • die flaws
      • clashed dies
      • die striations
      • die wear

For explanations of the above terms, see

  • An Illustrated Glossary of Numismatic Terms for Coin Collectors

The above chart refers only to “full strikes” – a numismatic item that displays the full detail intended by the designer. Weak striking pressure, worn dies or improper planchets can sometimes prevent all the details from appearing, even on uncirculated specimens.


An interesting anomaly arises here – is “a lack of fine detail” is a regular / business-struck coin down to wear that occurred after minting, i.e. due to circulation / handling, or is it due to “die wear” before minting?

Modern Coins

We should, at this stage, have a better way to grade modern coins !

  • In my considered opinion,
    • modern coins should be graded on both sides, i.e. two grades
    • an optional third grade should be noted for any ‘edge’ design details
  • National numismatic associations should make it their priority to produce a guide for grading their country coins and this guide should include the following :-
    • an image database for each coin type
    • a set of images representative of each grade for each coin
    • a set of concise, unambiguous explanatory notes for each grade (by coin)
    • this guide should be published on their respective websites

This was attempted during the 1970’s but the cost of photography and printing was prohibitively expensive and the result was inconsistent imagery + low dissemination rates amongst collectors. With today’s relatively inexpensive digital photography, high quality imaging technologies and free internet publishing, the time may be right to implement such an initiative.

Slabbing is not the answer – there are too many coin grading organisations and their grades are inconsistent. It has gotten to the point where the graders are being graded … on how ‘lenient’ they they are, how easy it is to get an appeal upheld and a variety of other attributes which I do not wish to become a contributor to.

In my opinion, they are

  • a ‘money-making’ racket designed to take advantage of inexperienced collectors and unknowledgeable investors
  • a movement that does little for the advancement of numismatic knowledge


Older Coins

Further difficulties arise when one is appraising older coins, i.e. coins that were produced using old technology. For example, modern coins are produced on precision-engineered, high tech equipment in clean environments using modern dies and modern metal alloys, whereas older coin-makers did not have these advantages, e.g. the moneyers who produced coins by hand in medieval times or the early colonists trying to create a new economy in far way lands.

Older coins, particularly coins struck in adverse economic and/or economic conditions, can be prone to crudely-produced dies, inconsistent metal alloys and/or variable strike pressures/angles during the minting process.

If an uncirculated coin is one that has not yet been ‘handled’ by the public, then a poorly struck or crudely manufactured coin that has not yet been ‘handled’ by the public is also uncirculated.

For example:

Ireland. Large Shilling, August 1689. James II Gunmoney

Ireland. Large James II gunmoney shilling, August 1689. Usual surface porosity, better than average strike for issue, still the grade given is a bit generous, i.e. there is evidence of considerable wear on the hair (curls) on the obverse and some wear on the crown (reverse). NGC graded this coin as MS-63. I would have graded it at AU-55, although it is still one of the better examples I have seen for this date.

The above coin was produced in a private mint in Dublin that was taken over by James II to produce a ‘fiat’ coinage from scrap metal (varying alloys of brass). Production was hurried as very high volumes of coinage was required to completely replace the existing currency (which was either hoarded or secreted out of Ireland). Due to scrap metal shortages and price inflation during war time, new denominations were over-struck on previous gunmoney pieces – hence the donor coins could be worn whereas the over-strike may be considered uncirculated.


Less than 50 years prior, the so-called War of the Three Kingdoms was raging in Scotland, England and Ireland (effectively a civil war between King Charles I and his various parliaments). During this war, a new type of coinage emerged in Ireland and Britain – siege money, or coins of necessity. They, too, were produced from scrap metal and/or donor coins but the dies were locally produced and very crude. Unlike the later ‘fiat’ currency of James II, they were made from specie and were weighed carefully – some might say too carefully as they mostly ended up in the melting pot, i.e. they had an intrinsic value close to their face value. Donor coins and the silver plate from which they were made was often well worn, therefore the ‘over-struck’ design that should be graded, not the base (planchet) disc.

Duke of Ormonde’s gold coinage of 1646-7, Double Pistole, Dublin, two different dies

Duke of Ormonde’s gold coinage of 1646-7, Double Pistole, Dublin, two different dies – is the example on the right poorly struck, or is this due to adjustment marks (removal of excess metal from overweight planchets), or was it due to a badly worn die?


In medieval times, dies were produced by hand and metal alloys were even more prone to error than they are are today. In the absence of timely replacements, dies were often repaired by hand and used over much longer periods than later dies. This situation lends itself to uncirculated coins with design variations due to die wear, die damage and manual die repairs – quantifying what equals uncirculated in these situations is even more difficult since all coins were relatively poorly struck.

The highest standard was required for international trade or for the payment of foreign mercenaries, i.e. if coins were only required locally, the standard of design dropped … and and, quite often, so too did the silver content!

No where better illustrates this than the Hiberno-Norse series of coinages. In the beginning, the silver content was equal to the Anglo-Saxon imports and the coins closely imitated their designs – only the legend differed (Sihtric, king of Dublin). The Viking coins of Dublin were acceptable for trade throughout the Viking world and those of its trading partners.

Hiberno-Norse Sihtric III AR Penny 3h Phase I coinage, Long Cross type Dublin mint Faeremin, moneyer Struck c1000-1010

Hiberno-Norse Sihtric III silver Penny, Phase I coinage. Long Cross type, Dublin mint Faeremin, moneyer. Struck c. AD 1000-1010. 

The Hiberno-Norse coinage quickly degraded to crude copies of the ‘long cross’ type of Aethelred and by about 1030 AD they contain minimal legends of vertical strokes instead of letters.  During the following 100 years the coins became increasingly crude though for the most part still recognisably inheriting their design from the ‘long cross’ coinage.

Hiberno-Norse Penny Phase VI coinage, Long Cross type Uncertain mint signature and moneyer

Hiberno-Norse Penny Phase VI coinage, Long Cross type. Uncertain mint signature and moneyer. Struck c. AD 1095-1100 to approx. AD 1150 

By the time we get to the final phase of the Hiberno-Norse series, the silver content has dropped considerably and the coin weights are so low that the coins are very thin semi-bracteates and bracteates.

  • The first group are double sided with designs derived from the ubiquitous long cross design, but they are generally so thin that the designs from each side are heavily ‘ghosted’ on the other side – which makes grading difficult.
  • The second group are pure bracteates (coins struck on one side only – often with the reverse exhibiting the same design in incuse relief). They are on larger flans than the earlier coins and sufficiently thin that the incused design is quite clear on the reverse as well.
Hiberno-Norse, silver Penny Phase VII coinage. Domnall mac Taidc Ua Briain – Brotar mac Torcaill. Struck c. AD 1130-1150

Hiberno-Norse, silver Penny Phase VII coinage. Domnall mac Taidc Ua Briain – Brotar mac Torcaill. Struck c. AD 1130-1150

To add to the difficulties in grading, some of these coins are so rare, they only exist as individual examples and, therefore, there are no better (or worse) examples to compare them to.

How do we grade a poorly struck medieval coin?


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