Intermediate Coin Grading Class Notes

I recently attended the ANA’s Summer Seminar for the second time, taking Intermediate Coin Grading (grading 2) this time.  I brought along my trusty iPad, and because I type at a nearly inhuman speed I took some pretty extensive notes that I thought I might share in the hopes of helping others.  This class was taught by two current coin graders, one employed by PCGS and the other NGC — you just can’t ask for better instructors.  Steven Feltner (PCGS guy) and John Schuch II (NGC guy) were great, and I wrote down nearly everything they said whether it was new to me or not.

These are my unedited notes, and I’m sure they’re lacking in proper sentence structure; they may also seem to refer to a specific coin that’s not mentioned, and while I did my best to go back and at least throw in the type of coin I may have missed a few. You’ll just have to forgive me in exchange for all the tips and tricks hidden in there.


My notes from the ANA Summer Seminar 2014 Intermediate Coin Grading Class:

  • SUNDAY – Class Day 1
  • Soft look at a coin 10″ away, then hard close look, then soft look again.
  • Loops rarely used, and generally only to look at a specific problem area. One said he uses a loop maybe 3% of the time.
  • Always use loops on bust coins/tiny coins like 3cn silver, pretty much don’t loop on anything else unless you think there’s a problem.
  • Be sure to rotate the coin to 90 degrees and rotate to check it again, you’ll see brand new things.
  • “There are 3 things to look for on uncirculated coins is 1) luster 2) luster 3) luster” -Steve
  • Unc silver is SILVER, not that dull gray
  • Walkers are generally very weakly struck.
  • “The reverse never helps but always hurts” – Steve
  • Coins can often be hard to tell between 58-62, distinguishing between stacking damage, etc. and wear
  • Let first luster impression gives you a good starting point for the grade
  • No designations on proof coins (FS FH FBL FB etc) for strike, only designations involving color
  • Commemoratives are almost always gem & up
  • Don’t confuse “ugly mint toning” as a negative, it can be a really great sign of originality.
  • **go through the pre-auction viewings for boxes of coins, free learning. (advice)
  • “Repetition is the foundation of clarity” – John
  • For Indian Cents, in XF the feathers on the headdress should be flattening out and worn, and the copper would change to “tootsie roll brown” as John calls it
  • An indian cent in 5 brown would have a nice sheen, glossy shimmery
  • “If you have to net more than 2 grades, kill the coin” – Steve
  • “Killing the coin” Means saying “Cleaned, unc detailed” etc
  • Go to grade on a light buffalo nickel is a 65
  • Often unstruck planchet ticks will happen to the rear back leg of the buffalo, those aren’t contact marks that’s a common problem
  • Light cleaning may be a couple whispy lines, but still market acceptable where someone will buy it and be happy (little cleaning, little haze, little luster) … CLEANING designation often happens when it gets patchy
  • Don’t let spotty toning detract too much from luster, luster trumps a ton
  • “Understanding strike issues — she was just born ugly” John
  • “He’s a Plus-Nazi” –Steve on how John rarely gives out plus designations
  • 1925-S Peace notoriously weakly struck with huge gaps 64 is $1000 coin 65 $20,000 coin
  • “Toning adds a little and forgives a lot!” Steve
  • On Walkers wear will turn gray when held perpendicular under the light while everything else will stay silver
  • Things John goes off of for Morgans: On the reverse, looking at the eagle’s outstretched wings, when the lines in the feathers start to disappear adjacent to the eagle’s beak, he calls it Fine.
  • XF Morgans will still often have hair detail … and on an xf coin only the tips of the wings are going to start to degrade
  • Really get into the habit of rotating coins to 90 degrees at least once
  • Walkers get wheel marks a lot that hide really well, but if you rotate it that 90 degrees you’ll find it
  • Wheel mark comes from when it goes through a counting machine, if a coin gets stuck in there for a moment the part of the machine gets stuck and leaves a distinct square shaped patch.
  • If you rotate a coin with reflection to check for PL and see grainy reflection, it’s not a PL which should be watery
  • Be careful to watch for an area of unstruck planchet on Lincolns that’s on the side of his shoulder going down into his arm
  • Steven wrote his contact info onto the back of one of John’s cards and was joking about how the ink would burn through (PCGS info on an NGC card)
  • Stone Mountain commems come notoriously weakly struck on the leg, 6 and 7 needs a nice fully struck rounded leg usually
  • The Texas commems come notoriously weakly struck, and Texas commems are extremely common in 5/6 that’s just the normal line, so if it’s going to be lower than a 5 it needs to have a problem.
  • There is a diagnostic for an authentic hawaiian half dollar.  The king’s arm is coming off to the right, and he needs to have a die line in his arm pit. If it has that, bueno. If he doesn’t have it, it’s no Bueno
  • For Proof type 2 1913 Buffalo Nickels and possibly 1914s but 1913 type 2 for sure … on the reverse at 9 o’clock, you should see a raised line that looks like a cut. It’s not a cut, it’s a die gouge and it’s a diagnostic for Proofs.  Also look for how sharp the edges are.
  • Monday – Class Day 2
  • Keep in mind technical vs market grading
  • On 50c Commems, streaky toning is quite common and can be a sign of originality
  • On the Connecticut, the eagle’s top feather is the high point to look for rub (on the rev)
  • On the Ike, to the right of his cheek/the end of his jaw/right in front of his ear, I thought were ticks but it turns out those are planchet flecks and do not hurt its grade (as that’s a die issue)
  • Ike’s are very common in 67 – 69
  • You’re more likely to see 60’s (which are hard to come by) on gold than other coins. 60 is something of a ‘non grade’.  I mean this coin really looked like it had just been wrecked.
  • Whizzing a coin will often come in circular motions, and will often pull metal from the surface of the coin that builds up into devices that looks like a little spike.
  • Don’t think of 58 as a grade where the coin has to be phenominal … really it’s just got a little too much wear to bump to a 2.  We come back to that 58/62 mark.
  • 1944-D’s Merc Dimes basically start out at 6, and 7 isn’t uncommon (from bank roles).
  • Mercury Dime Full Bands Trick: Turn the coin 90 degrees so the bands are vertical, and “pretend you’re in a canoe”.  If you can paddle the canoe though the bands, it’s FB. If you have to stop your canoe, it’s not FB. – Steve’s trick
  • Mercury times will often have cartwheel luster just in the field above her head
  • On bust coinage, the “struck through grease look” is actually just the planchet and the way it flows, very very common. Look out for it.
  • “When you’re rotating a coin, do a dance with it, almost like a salsa.  Salsa with your coins!” –John
  • Hair and design wears away more for a 50 on wheaties, where you get a cavern that almost tends to form on lincoln’s cheek for 45
  • “All CC morgans are sharply struck and flashy, so I expect something from them” (-Steve), most are 4’s and 5’s (when unc), and they’re often held to a bit more of a standard than others
  • On gold coins look for patches that change from gold to white … that’s signs of it getting messed with.
  • Gold being the last color in the toning is suspicious
  • The luster on 2.5’s and 5 Indians is a little different… the difference in color across the headdress is just the luster pattern and very common.
  • The highpoint on 2.5 and 5 Indian’s is the fields.
  • Color change on gold can absolutely be part of the luster patterns so don’t automatically AU coins with this change.
  • The difference between cleaning and die polish: Cleaning leaves grooves in the metal while die polish leaves raised lines.
  • Darker patches in the copper are not necessairly wear
  • For an XF 45 on the Draped Bust Dollar, the line that goes from her bust up into her shoulder needs to be more complete for a 45, in addition to a little more detail on her hair and cheek and eagle feathers
  • Hairlines on a mintstate coins destroy a mintstate coin.  Patches of hairlines that almost look like a cleaning may as well be cleaning.  Hairlines on a proof coin are what determines its grade half the time, functioning almost like dings.
  • CAC does not sticker cameo, + or stars, they only do the grade.
  • On many 1904 $20 counterfeits, there will be a triangle depression right next to the arrows next to the curled part of the scroll with ‘unum’
  • “This is a counterfeit coin, so anyone who liked the luster — you like fake luster” –Steve
  • The pine/oak/willow tree coins were often made on rocker presses which meant that the dies were literally bowed and would rock across the coin, leaving the outer devices more strongly struck than the center because of the way the pressure worked.
  • The high point of the 2.5 Lib is the hair/ear, not the cheek
  • Creaminess = beautiful patina film “that looks like see through whipped cream” according to John
  • John keeps using the term “Moose” to describe gorgeous “monster” 7-ish coins.
  • Moose: As the animal, majestic and imposing. Awe inspiring in it’s formidable presence. -John
  • 1924 Saint’s can come in 4-5 different looks
  • Orange Peel absolutely does not affect grading.
  • On $2.5 and $5 Indians, in the little cave under his ear behind his jaw in front of his head dress, look for tooling marks right against the feathers — counterfeit.
  • There are 4 different mint marks on a 16-D Merc
  • Student “It’s been dipped a lot of times, can you still grade it?” John: “Well, did you grade it?” (maybe you had to be there for this to be funny)
  • PVC Toning has a kinda greenish cast and can actually be pretty
  • Tuesday (Class day 3)
  • Full Head designation on SLQ, all 3 sprigs are fully defined and the line from the crown comes unobstructed down the length of her jaw, AND there’s an ear hole.
  • “How many of you are extremely depressed that there is no such thing as a proof SLQ? …. it HAUNTS ME.” –Steve
  • The sun is tertiary for marks, Walkers can absolutely gem if it has marks on the sun.
  • If it has a planchet issue (that is as struck) it’s still going to keep it out of higher holders like 6-7 even though it is otherwise worthy.
  • “When you look at a 7 it’ll scream at you” – Steve
  • Remember that haze may not be on the coins when they’re slabbed and may build up after in the holder
  • Grade the coin, not the date & and what you know or think is typical for that series/date/mint/combo
  • “When the Buffalo’s butt starts to become a triangle, we go to XF” -John
  • When $10 Indians get to AU 50 the headdress feathers start to flatten out, in XF the wings start to really flatten and go away fast.
  • When you first look at a coin you should get 3 grades in your head… is it 4-5-6, then narrow, etc
  • Wednesday (Class Day 4)
  • Roller marks — gray/tan lines in unstruck metal that can be seen over liberty’s ear/eagle’s breast (on Morgans) that is as made and do not count against the grade.
  • 1878 is one of the most common dates for an Omega $3 gold
  • For the Omega $3, inside the loop of the R of Liberty is the Omega Sign
  • In the 1907 $20 Saint the Omega sign is just under of the eagle’s talon on the claw side.
  • “I hate to poop on the 5 parade, but …” -John (as we’re discussing group coin grades)
  • Don’t ever take clashes into consideration when grading.
  • Tooling marks are kinda half-moon looking things
  • “You look perdier than a new set of snow tires” (to a coin) -John
  • In the grading room at NGC they take International Talk Like a Pirate day very seriously
  • When you whizz a coin it strips away the surface so it can never have unc details, only AU details
  • **Remember too, Steve’s bit about “Is it pleasing”.  It’s amazing how much that one simple phrase helped me.

I’ll take a moment to expand upon the last bullet point, because it’s something that Steve actually said on day one and throughout the class that perhaps helped me the most.  Steve would pick up a coin and talk aloud as he was grading it, and the first thing that would come out of his mouth would be something like “Is this coin pleasing? Yes/no”.  Or, “I see there’s a mark here, but it doesn’t bother me too much” or “it bothers me quite a bit”.  It was a relaxed narrative that made grading more of an abstract look at the coin in terms of “pleasing” or “not pleasing”, and going off of your gut instinct about it.

Now, maybe my fellow numismatists out there already look at coins in that manner, but I certainly didn’t.  I’m a very analytical person, and I would pick up a coin and analyze it. I would attempt to quantify marks and scratches in terms of size/location/severity (“This mark is approximately 1/3 the length of the obverse …”) and while it worked well enough, let’s just say that Steve’s method is better.  Way, way better.


And that’s the end of my notes for Intermediate Coin Grading.  I learned a lot, reinforced a lot of basics and gained a lot of confidence.  I hope that you’ve also taken something away from my notes and if you have be sure to thank Steve Feltner and John Schuch II, the two best instructors a coin nerd could ask for!






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