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Splitting Hairs on Grading Gradations

December 26, 1985|DON ALPERT

Question: A recent brochure from a New York dealer lists an 1883-O silver dollar, grade MS-63 +, at $3,995 for a roll of 20 coins, and grade MS-64 + at $7,995 for a roll of 20. This figures out at about $200 or $400 per coin. I'm not sure what they mean by phrases like MS-63 +. I have a silver dollar dated 1883-O that I purchased several years ago labeled BU (for $3). How does that compare with the MS designations? I also have a 1922 Peace dollar with the BU designation. How does it rate MS-wise and $$-wise?--J.K.

Answer: Wittingly or unwittingly, you've gotten to the crux of the coin-grading and coin-pricing matter. At one time (and to a lesser extent today), coins described as BU (for brilliant uncirculated) were considered among the finest coins insofar as preservation and strike were concerned. However, the term BU is rather imprecise, and there was a wide variation of coins that fell into that class. William H. Sheldon devised a grading system for copper coins that was later adopted for all United States coins. The system rates coins on a scale of 1 to 70 with 70 being best.

Uncirculated coins fall into the 60-to-70 range, and these are the coins that are most desirable. Certain coins don't exist in this high grade, especially some of the early pieces. Still, a coin designated Mint State 60 (or MS-60 for short) would be considered uncirculated by most numismatists but still showing characteristics that leave it far short of pristine. The closer you get to MS-70, the more pleasing the coin and the more expensive it becomes.

Just from the brochure you quoted, you can see that there's considerable difference from MS-63 + and MS-64 +. A lot of collectors and numismatists consider some of this splitting hairs. The dealer is saying a coin is better than MS-63 but not quite an MS-64, or better than MS-64 but not quite an MS-65.

Not too long ago, many experts in the field didn't recognize the MS-64 grade. Instead, grading went from MS-60 to MS-63 to MS-65 to MS-67 to MS-70. A lot of this has broken down as pricing for a coin better than an MS-63 but not quite a MS-65 required some sort of designation.

The important thing to remember in all this is that grading is subjective. You have a better chance of getting what you pay for in an accurately graded MS-63, for example, than you did in a coin graded as BU. But one person's MS-63 might be another person's MS-60 and vice versa.

Whatever you do, learn grading if you learn nothing else. There's no telling what your BU 1883-O dollar is worth today. Because you paid only $3 for it, I suspect it may not be uncirculated at all. Still, you won't lose money on the transaction, because the minimum bid is about $9 today.

If it's in the MS-60 range, you can expect considerably more.

Q: I have a 1915 Franz Josef I, which is 1 1/2 inches in diameter and should be a ducat. Can you place a value on it?--E.O.W.

A: If your coin is a one ducat, it's worth about $35; a four ducat is about $135.

Q: I have a coin that appears to be a 1791 one doit from the Netherlands East Indies. It is listed in "Coins of the World" by W. D. Craig as extremely rare. Do you think it warrants further investigation? If so, where does one find a reputable dealer to evaluate this type of coin?--M.C.

A: Sure, you ought to continue learning as much as you can about your coin. It is extremely small, and not all dealers are familiar with such pieces. Find a foreign-coin specialist; a few phone calls starting with some local dealers should point you in the right direction.

Everyone wants a "reputable" dealer. I'm not naive, but I'm also not sure what is meant by "reputable." If you mean honest, I doubt that the dealer will steal your coin or switch it with an inferior coin, because no two coins are exactly alike.

If you mean you want a dealer who will give you what the coin is worth, that is highly unlikely. The dealer has to leave room for his own profit. You don't have to sell your coin. Just find out what you can get for it. If you don't feel it is enough, seek out another dealer. In time, you will learn the market value, and then it is just a matter of deciding who you want to sell it to.

Q: I have a large silver coin that has been lying around here for years. It has a woman on the face and is dated 1780, per illustration.--C.W.

A: Your coin is an Austrian Maria Theresa thaler. It is worth about $8.

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