• Coins & Medals

Coin quality

When people start collecting coins, it doesn’t take long before they notice that there are significant differences in quality levels. These are not only due to wear and tear, but also because of the oxidation process which particularly affects non-precious metals. Copper and bronze coins in particular are susceptible to severe discolouration as a result. Care should be taken around zinc coins that have a white coating, also called zinc pest or tin pest, because it can be transferred to other coins fairly easily. The best approach is to remove the afflicted coins. Coins can also become damaged by the wrong treatment. For more details, see the section on ‘Treatment: cleaning coins’.

Some coins were – and still are – mounted and used as jewellery pieces. This not only exposes them to the risk of mechanical damage but also of discolouration, especially in the case of gold coins. The terms ‘mounted’ and ‘clamped’ are used to distinguish whether the loop has been soldered on or whether the coin is held in a bezel. In both cases it is virtually impossible to remove the loop or the bezel without leaving any visible traces, however, and there will inevitably be signs of discolouration that has been partly caused by wearing.

The following terms are commonly used to indicate the condition of coins as accurately as possible:

Proof

This English term is widely used internationally to refer to a coin that has been minted with extra care especially for dignitaries, museum collections and collectors. The dies are carefully cleaned and polished before being used to carefully strike equally highly polished planchets. In the past this was done on a very small scale only, so proof coins were extremely rare. Nowadays however, and especially since 1971, they are minted to order. As a result, they are still somewhat more expensive but definitely no longer rare. The production method means that these coins have a mirror-like and very shiny background or ‘field’, while the raised relief details such as the bust, the coat of arms and the inscription are often matt or ‘frosted’. This is because these details are located deeper in the die and therefore cannot be reached during the polishing process. The coin as a whole looks stunning but is very delicate, so they should always be handled with extreme care. Since the term ‘proof’ actually describes a particular production process, this classification should also be accompanied by the current condition of the coin.

It is possible to come across coins that have been artificially polished at a later stage by goldsmiths or silversmiths using a so-called burnishing tool. However, this is always clearly discernible. Such coins are described as ‘burnished’ and are of considerably less value to collectors.

Prooflike

This term means that the coin looks like a proof. Only the blanks are polished before striking, however, while the dies are carefully handled. The production process is faster and more coins can be struck than in the case of real proof coins. Due to modern-day techniques it is not always easy to spot the difference between prooflike and real proof coins, especially in the case of nickel coins.

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FDC

Literally translated, this acronym of the French term ‘Fleur De Coin’ means ‘bloom of the die’ or ‘mint lustre’. This is the condition of the coin immediately after it has been struck, before it drops down into the hopper and progresses through the production process. At that point in time, the coin has a slightly dull sheen which rapidly fades when it enters circulation. It is not unknown for a defective planchet to find its way onto the press or for the die itself to be flawed. This might result in less attractive strikes but it does not make the coins any less FDC. If the face of a coin displays a jagged line, this indicates a crack in the die. It is also possible for a blank to be struck with insufficient force to completely transfer the image onto the coin, in which case the raised relief parts are less detailed. This primarily occurs in the old coins up to and including the time of Willem I, and in the small copper and bronze coins up to and including the time of Wilhelmina.

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UNC

This is an American abbreviation of ‘uncirculated’, meaning the coin has never actually entered circulation. Nevertheless, a few small imperfections may be visible such as scratches in the field or an edge nick. These will have occurred during the post-production handling of the coin – in the inspection process or during counting, bagging, transportation or suchlike. This term is almost exclusively used for contemporary post-war coins and mainly for commonplace ones. Personally, I am not entirely happy with this term because it is actually a euphemism for ‘Extremely Fine’.

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Extremely Fine

The coin has been in circulation only briefly and does not yet display signs of wear and tear on the relief details. As a result of being in circulation, however, the mint lustre that is so characteristic of an FDC coin has faded somewhat, and tiny scratches in the field can be seen through a magnifying glass. Coins that are actually FDC or UNC are often also graded as ‘Extremely Fine’ if, as a result of being dropped, they display a small indentation in the edge or a dent in the field, for example.

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Very Fine

The coin has been in circulation for longer resulting in a number of signs of wear and tear, especially on the raised parts. There are a number of scratches, but virtually all of the coin’s details are still visible. The areas of wear and tear are particularly noticeable on the reverse around the mane of the States Lion. However, this wear and tear cannot be mistaken for a coin that has been minted with insufficient striking force. In that case, due to the lack of impact, the deepest recesses in the die – in other words the most raised relief details on the coin – would not be transferred properly because the metal would not be sufficiently forced into them. The other parts of the coin could still be FDC, for example

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Fine

The coin has been in circulation for longer or has clearly been handled less carefully; the dull sheen is completely gone. A number of raised details such as the hairs on the bust’s head or the lion’s mane have become flattened and are no longer discernible. The coin often also displays lots of scratches and dents around the edge

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Very Good

The coin has been in circulation for a very long time and has suffered so much wear and tear that various parts of the coin are no longer visible at all.

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Good

This is an old term that used to mean ‘Fine’. Over time the term has become so devalued that it now indicates a coin that can just about still be identified. In other words, it has become a euphemism for ‘poor’ and is therefore hardly ever used to describe coins nowadays.


In order to grade intermediate levels of quality even more precisely, + and - signs are used or the qualifiers ‘almost’ and ‘virtually’. For example, you could come across ‘Very Fine +’ and ‘Almost Extremely Fine’. The term ‘broadly’ is also used, although its exact meaning is unclear. In the case of ‘Broadly Very Fine’, for example, does that mean more than a little bit very fine? It is sometimes necessary to define the quality even more specifically in terms of ‘from-to’, e.g. ‘Very Fine-Almost Extremely Fine’. It can also be the case that one side of a coin has ‘suffered’ more than the other, in which case (although this is not strictly correct) each side is graded separately, e.g. ‘Very Fine / Almost Extremely Fine’. Incidentally, inspecting a coin with the naked eye is not sufficient to determine the correct grade of quality. Personally I prefer to use a magnifying glass with 10 times magnification.

Not all coins are available in all of the above-mentioned grades. Some years or variants are only known to be available as better than Very Fine, and some are graded only as ‘Fine’ or less.

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Adjustment marks

Coins sometimes display adjustment marks, especially coins dating from the French period (1806-1813). These are the result of the coin being filed down to the correct weight. These adjustment marks should be mentioned, but they do not necessarily affect the quality of a coin.

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Slabbed coins

Nowadays, coins are also slabbed by specialist companies. In this case, the coin is encapsulated in a protective casing of rigid plastic and graded in line with the US system. This is aimed at preserving the condition of the coin after grading. However, the problem with slabbed coins is that it is no longer possible to hold the coin in your hand, resulting in particularly the edge – the ‘third side’! – no longer being entirely visible. It is also difficult to store the coin due to the format of the plastic holder.


American Coin Grading System

In the USA, the American Numismatic Association has developed a system for grading the quality of a coin based on a scale of 3 to 70. It is difficult to directly convert this extremely extensive points-based system to the European system. Grades such as Extremely Fine and Very Fine do not have the same meanings in both systems. The European Extremely Fine (whereby the coin has been in circulation only briefly and does not yet display signs of wear and tear on the relief details) differs from the US definition of Extremely Fine (these coins display some signs of wear and tear but all details are still clearly visible). Unc MS-60 to MS-70 cannot be directly compared to the European UNC grade without further specification.

Personally I think it is a shame that the price differences between the levels of quality are today based almost exclusively on mechanical grading and points-based systems rather than being based on a personal vision regarding whether the item is attractive and has cultural/historical value.

Grading accuracy

Although the terms listed above can give a fairly good impression of the quality of a coin, the grading is of course done by people, and one person will assess a coin more critically than another. As a result, disagreements can sometimes arise about the accuracy of the grading. In this case, the best approach is to trust your own judgement or that of a highly respected specialist. Because higher quality commands a considerably higher price, it is not unthinkable that some sellers may be inclined to overestimate the value of their goods. Don’t buy a pig in a poke!