Grading Ancient Coins
Alfredo De La Fe
Note: The following article and accompanying chart is to be considered a work in progress. I have attempted to use similar coins under each type for each of the grades. In many cases it has been incredibly difficult to locate photographs (or permission to use photographs!) of certain examples and an alternate example that grades accordingly was used. I gladly accept submissions and will give all appropriate credit. This also includes the artistic "skill" or style of the celator. It is my hope that eventually the chart will include examples of similar coin types that also share similar "artistry". I have purposefully avoided adding columns for material which I am not familiar with (Eastern) or gold which would be incredibly difficult to find photographs of examples that are in the "lower" grades. Instead, I have focused on "generic" types which give an accurate representation of style, fabric and artistry found in collecting interests of ancient numismatics. Perhaps one day I will find the time to create a separate chart for each "metal" (bronze, billon, silver and gold/electrum), categories such as Byzantine and Medieval, flan fabric, including such types as the billon tetradrachms of alexandria, which due to the fabric of the flan tend to be more difficult to grade. Others are welcome to contribute such material if they desire.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is how subjective grading has
become. Many dealers are conservative graders while others grade liberally. Then you have the outright ridiculous seller on eBay that will list a bright, shinny slug as "VF+++". While it is certainly true that grading has become less important than in the past because of digital photography, it is still an important skill that any serious collector and all dealers should become familiar with. I also
italicized become because as with many other things, grading standards are clear but it has been the application of these standards that has become subjective. A coin in VF condition could possibly be graded as being half a grade lower or higher, but if following the grading standards strictly, I believe that there is no room for a much wider discrepancy in grade. (Many responsible dealers grade conservatively and will assign a grade half or a full grade lower than the coin would actually grade)
Grading ancient coins is more of an science than a art. Strictly speaking, a coin's grade only reflects the amount of wear or lack of it. Put in another way, a coin with a broken flan or a weak reverse strike may still be graded as VF or even EF or better since the grade has nothing to do with other flaws. The other consideration that we need to take when grading ancient coins is the
coin type. Since "technical grading" has to do with wear, we need to familiarize ourselves with how a particular coin type is supposed to look. For this reason, I have provided an example for each grade. In this table we include the following types for comparison:
An official Greek drachm of Alexander the Great or Philip
We have chosen not to include the grade "FDC" because it is a highly subjective grade. FDC means "Fleur de Coin". In a recent thread on the Yahoo discussion list Moneta-L Robert Koktailo pointed out that while the C in FDC does mean coin, it is in the Medieval French context, meaning Die. So, FDC literally means Flower of the (coin) die. Obviously perfection is near to impossible for something that was produced entirely by hand. But FDC does not mean perfection, just "the best that the dies could possibly produce." This means that all of the details that were originally on the die need to be present and fully struck up. I would also argue that in it's present day usage, FDC would also mean that a coin is flawless in every other respect.
Grade is only one factor in determining the value of a coin. Many factors need to be taken into consideration:
The technical grade of the coin (Wear from circulation as opposed to wear caused by the coin being struck by dies that were worn by use)
Centering of the strike
A coins defects - scratches, excess corrosion, lack of patination (over cleaning), cracks, breakage, weak strikes from worn die.
Overall aesthetic appeal (including the artistic skill of the die engraver!)
Collectors and dealers can have very different ideas of overall aesthetic appeal. Some collectors will not buy coins that are not completely round - to others, it does not matter. The value of a coin varies, in many cases, due to each person's idea of an appealing coin.
Why should you be familiar with the grading of coins? Because grading standards vary widely and although we have seen great advances in digital photography, in many cases the coin can look better or worse when in hand and in some cases flaws can be hidden or exagerated
because of the methods used to photograph a coin. To one dealer a coin might be F+ to another VF. We have purchased many coins that we felt the dealer had over graded just as we have purchased many coins that were severely under graded. Many times it is not a matter of intentional deception or dishonesty, but a matter of opinion or lack of grading skills. But one thing that is evident is that similar material sold via online auction sites sell for considerably more money when it has been overgraded (in spite of an accompanying photograph!). The best solution is to learn to grade ancient coins for yourself. The table below is here to assist you in learning to grade coins for yourself. This table will only address the "technical" grade of a coin.
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