Just Starting Out

In-Between Grades

Published June 3, 2024 | 4 min read

By Al Doyle

The introduction of third-party grading in 1986 revolutionized numismatics, especially in how individual coins are evaluated. In what seems like the distant past, collector coins at all price points could be found in 2 x 2 white cardboard holders stapled together. The grade appeared on the holder in shorthand (VG for Very Good, F for Fine, VF for Very Fine, and so on). Occasionally, a “+” sign was added for coins that were (in the seller’s opinion) superior for the grade.

Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Company added precision to the process. Intermediate grading meant a circulated coin could be deemed Fine-12 or -15. Collectors of Extra Fine (EF) pieces were able to obtain EF-45 “slabs” as well as traditional EF-40 pieces.

The Very Fine (VF) realm offered even more choices. Do you want a VF-20, -25, -30, or -35 Bust half dollar or Braided Hair cent? All of these options have been available for 38 years. 

Those who wish to acquire About Uncirculated (AU) coinage also have a wealth of options, as in AU-50, -53, -55, and -58. Discriminating collectors are drawn to AU-58 “sliders,” as they are uncirculated coins with a bit of rub on the high points. In some cases, AU-58s can bring prices comparable to mint-state (MS) specimens. 

The ability to purchase “premium quality” coins for the grade even extends to well-worn pieces. Will it be a Good-4 or -6? The same dilemma applies to the Very Good-8 or -10 grades. One of the main guidelines in coin collecting is to buy the coin based on its appearance and eye appeal rather than the grade on the holder. This is why many discerning collectors prefer attractive AU coins over baggy Mint State-60 pieces.

Exceptions to the Rule

The price of moving up a bit on the condition scale usually won’t be substantial, but there are cases where small differences in grade will be costly. Any 1916-D Mercury dime is worth serious money, as in the $875 estimate one popular price guide places on a heavily worn About Good-3 specimen. Moving up a lone point to a still well-used Good-4 piece will cost at least an additional $375. This explains the large number of nearly complete Mercury date-and-mintmark sets.

Early U.S. issues along with some mintmarked Barber coinage can have significant price differences between grades. However, Morgan dollars win the championship in this department. This happens due to a combination of lower mintages, high usage in circulation, silver-dollar melting, and weak strikes.

In 1883-S goes for around $225 in AU and over $1,000 in MS-60. Does $400 to $450 for an 1884-S Morgan in AU sound expensive? It’s chump change compared to the $10,000-plus price for that date in MS-60. Something around $150 is sufficient to obtain the 1886-O in AU. Add a zero to that price if you must have an uncirculated piece.

The 1883-S Morgan dollar at left, graded AU-53, and the one at right, graded MS-60, sold a month apart in 2022. (Photos: Stack’s Bowers Galleries [coins] & Getty Images/Paket)

The 1892-S Morgan is in the $200 range in VF. Plan on spending over $500 to move up a level on the grading scale. You’ll need to plunk down well over $2,000 for an eye-appealing AU. However, that is a bargain compared to the $40,000 or more that mint-state examples bring.

Figure on spending $225 for a 1901 Morgan in EF. The cost rises to over $400 in AU, and that is as high as the average collector can realistically go. Acquiring an uncirculated example of this rare date requires at least $4,000.

Do your homework before deciding which coins to collect to avoid sticker shock.

A version of this article appears in the July 2024 issue of The Numismatist (money.org).