Like any science, language, sport, or field of study, it is best to break grading down to its basic components, and master them one at a time. I learned how to grade coins much the same way I learned how to speak English; all at once, through experience. In retrospect, however, it seems to me that both topics would be quite a bit easier to learn if one studied them one aspect at a time. This statement is especially true as a person gets older. Hence, most people learn their first language through experience. But if they learn a second language, they learn the rules first, then the vocabulary, then the sentence structures, etc. (Note, however, that by far the most effective way to learn both a second language and coin grading is by learning the rules first, and then combining that knowledge with actual experience. Either subject is nearly impossible to learn entirely from a book.)
Interestingly, it is rare that someone who learns coin grading does so in this way. Most people learn by experience far more than they do by rules, and this is especially true of those who learn to grade mint state coins. I personally have never bothered to learn any "rules" or "components" of grading. Therefore, in the course of writing this book, I have analyzed, for the first time in my life, how I grade coins. What components make up the actual process of grading uncirculated and proof coins? How important is each component in relation to the others?
After much thought, I now believe that the essence of grading a coin (once you have determined that it is definitely uncirculated or proof) can be broken down into four distinct factors:
1. Surface Preservation - This includes the presence of bagmarks, hairlines from cleaning or mishandling, and other imperfections of planchet, whether mint caused or man made. An analysis of surface preservation attempts to weigh the visual impact of these imperfections based on their degree of severity and their location on the coin.
2. Strike - Refers to the sharpness and completeness of detail, with the normal characteristics of that particular type, date and mint mark (i.e. issue) taken into account.
3. Lustre - This encompasses the brilliance, cartwheel, sheen and contrast of the coin, again taking the normal characteristics of the particular issue into account. Minor (non-hairline producing) cleaning, retoning, friction, etc., are evaluated under this category.
4. Eye-Appeal - That certain aesthetic appeal that results from the attractiveness of the toning (if any), the balance of the coin, and the effect of the combination of all of the coin's qualities.
I believe that Surface Preservation is the single most important factor in grading mint state coins. The other three factors appear to be approximately equal in value, each about half as important as surface preservation. (i.e. 40% + 20% + 20% + 20% = 100%). Actually, this formula is somewhat arbitrary since it is really a function of the standards of the scales we use for each of the factors themselves. I chose this 40/20/20/20 formula mainly for its simplicity. The scales for the the individual factors, outlined in the next four chapters, were designed around this formula. With this in mind, I hope to teach you how to properly evaluate each factor, assign a numerical value to that factor, and then turn that information into a valid grade.
You will then learn when to add to this grade such adjectival modifiers as prooflike, full strike, rim nick, weakly struck, cleaned, etc.
In this attempt to analyze each of these four components of grading mint state coins, as I mentioned before, the Morgan silver dollar is used as the example. Once you know how to grade a Morgan dollar, it should be relatively easy to learn to grade other coins. I will try to teach you how to grade the other types mainly by exception. In other words, I will attempt to show how a Saint Gaudens double eagle, or a Barber half dollar is graded differently from a Morgan dollar.