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Forget what you know with MS-61

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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I’m frequently asked how to tell the difference between an MS-61 or MS-62 coin. The answer becomes surprisingly simple once you learn to separate the various factors that determine the Mint State levels in the uncirculated range. Those of you who are thinking: “Who cares, there is seldom any large monetary difference between those two grades,” can move on to another article because you have a valid point.  Nevertheless, there is a difference that professional graders and novice grading seminar students must deal with. 

Let’s examine the factors used to evaluate uncirculated coins. First, there is original luster. As you tip and rotate the coin in good light, you will see a contrast between bright and dark areas of the coin’s surface.  This is called the “cartwheel” effect.  You must learn how to distinguish the appearance of original luster from the luster found on cleaned, polished and impaired coins. With experience, you will also discover that different coin types have specific kinds of original luster.

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Next, the number, location, and severity of marks on a coin must be considered.  It is easy to determine the number of marks on a coin – just count them. The location of the marks is another easy determination; however, there are certain parts of a coin’s surface called “prime focal areas” that are more important than other parts. Thus, a large mark hidden in a coin’s design is not as detracting as the same size mark easily seen in its field. The severity of a mark and the degree that it affects a coin’s grade is a more subjective factor. Finally, you must consider the amount of design present on an uncirculated coin due to the way it was struck. Collectors prefer strongly struck coins with complete details. All the factors mentioned above combine to give a coin a degree of eye appeal that is also highly subjective. One other subjective, negative characteristic introduced into the grading equation by the ANA Grading Standards wasthe amount of hairlines from mishandling or cleaning allowed on uncirculated coins.   

Older numismatists will need to temporarily suspend everything they learned about the uncirculated grade to understand my column because the standard for that grade has changed. Today, coins with an obvious amount of friction wear and loss of luster (formerly AU-55) can be commonly found graded as high as MS-62. A few of these coins my even rate the MS-63 grade if their eye appeal is exceptional.  Much depends on the coin type – its age, design and alloy. 

With the above factors in mind, let’s explore the lower grade range of uncirculated coins. The difference between these grades is easier to see if we include the MS-60 and MS-63 grades in the equation.  I’ll use the popular “Liberty” design by Longacre found on gold dollars to double eagles as my example. Most readers will have seen one of these coins before either “raw” or in a slab. MS-60 is the lowest uncirculated grade. In the “old days” these coins had to be totally original (uncleaned) with no trace of friction wear and bright original luster yet they were beat up. Today, anything goes for this grade. The luster can be dull, the coin can be moderately cleaned (hairlined), the high points can be worn, and the coin can be very baggy.  The MS-60 grade is rarely used anymore for slabbed coins. Coins slabbed as MS-63 are plentiful. These coins should have no major damage but detracting marks may be found in prime focal areas.
Also expect a fair amount of small scattered marks on the surfaces. The luster may not be fully bright but it is attractive. Some evidence of mishandling in the form of hairlines can be visible but you should have to look for it. On occasion, you might see a short, small scratch.

Now, let’s zero in on the MS-61 and 62 grades.  We can ignore a loss of detail on the high points either from circulation wear or the quality of the strike on these coins because, using present-day standards, strike or a little wear does not take a coin out of the MS-62 or 61 range.  That leaves luster, eye appeal and marks.  The luster on these coins can be described as “frosty” unless it is impaired.  Personally, I prefer a coin with good, frosty luster and lots of marks over a dull coin with fewer defects. Since MS-60 is rarely used, MS-61 has taken its place. These coins will be baggy, scuffed and usually show some obvious friction wear.  Their surface luster may be dull or bright.  The first characteristics you will notice on MS-61 coins are the marks. Eye appeal will be low. All things being equal, an MS-62 coin will have fewer marks. Some coins graded MS-62 will have no rubbing but low eye appeal or problems such as scratches.  More MS-62s will have incomplete luster but the over-all eye appeal of the coin will be closer to an MS-63 than an MS-60.  Characteristically with this series, the reverse will be one to two grades higher than the obverse but that rarely affects the grade since the obverse is the most important side.

Now look at the $20 Liberty coin pictured here.  It is in an MS-61 holder.  This particular coin is moderately circulated with luster missing on the high points.  There are very many large marks in the prime focal areas shown in the micrograph. If we could take away most of the major marks such as the scrape in the field by the eye and the reed marks below the eye it could be graded MS-62 because it has bright luster.


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