In the West there are two main systems of grading coins. The British adjective scale which uses explanatory descriptions for a coin's grade, and the more complicated American 70-point Sheldon scale used by some professional grading companies for slabbing coins. Most dealers, Numista and Krause use the simpler adjective scale.
The grade of any coin is somewhere between two extremes on an infinite scale ranging from 'basal' at the worse possible condition, through to fleur-de-coin or FDC for a perfect mint condition example (such as an encapsulated proof coin, for example). Along this scale are various degrees of wear and tear which have been named for simplicity. In the simplest accepted system of coin grading, frequently used among English speaking collectors in the West, there are eleven named grades, into which a coin may fall. These are as follows:
BasalA round metal disk which is vaguely recognisable as having been once a coin, but so badly worn the design has gone.
PoorVery little of the original design is apparent, just a few scraps. The coin is probably impossible to identify.
FairThe coin is heavily worn, but some details are apparent allowing an identification of the coin's type and denomination to be made.
Good (G)A damaged coin or highly worn but the principle design and lettering are visible. A coin may be quite unworn, but if it has been damaged or bent, for example if it has a deep score across it as though struck by a blade, then it will be graded as 'good' at best.
Very Good (VG)A heavily worn coin, but with the principle inscriptions clearly legible, contrasting with the lesser 'good' grade where the principle design and lettering are faded or fuzzy in places.
Fine (F)A worn coin with about 50% of the detail rubbed away, but the minor inscriptions (such as lettering on coats of arms within the design) are still legible.
Very Fine (VF)All the major details are sharp. Portraits will show some hair detail. At least 75% of the coin's original design is apparent.
Extremely Fine (EF or XF)The coin retains some of its original lustre, portraits reveal fine hair detail such as partings and strands of hair, though some higher parts are worn with at least 95% of the original design still present, and not worn away.
Almost Uncirculated (AUNC)
More than 95% of the original design is present, but has some very minor wear. The coin retains at least 50% of its original lustre.
Uncirculated (UNC)All the coin's details are apparent, there is no wearing down or smoothing of the design. Some minor scratches (bag marks) may be present. The Coin retains its full original lustre - an uncirculated condition coin with a full lustre is sometimes known as 'brilliant uncirculated' or BUNC to differentiate it from an uncirculated coin which has lost some of its lustre, but which has retained all of its details with no wear.
Fleur-de-Coin (FDC)This coin is in perfect or mint condition. For example an encapsulated proof coin. It has full lustre, no scratches, no damage and no wear at all.
If in doubt, step down a grade! A common mistake is to consider a bright, shiny 'new' coin to be unirculated, but remember that 'uncirculated' coins don't have any nicks or damage to the rim (popularly known as edge knocks). While a coin may have come straight from a bag from the mint, if it has suffered undue damage in the bag it will be graded down.
When it comes to swapping blind, if in doubt ask to see a scan of the coin. Don't accept the owner's judgement on what grade it is - they will probably grade their own coin higher than you would, and certainly higher than a dealer looking to buy the same coin!
This guide to coin grades is based upon 40 years of experience collecting coins and professional grading guidance published by:
Written by Matt Probert.
Images produced by the author.