Grading is the most critical component of collecting paper money today. Small differences in grade can mean significant differences in value. The process of grading is so subjective and dependent on external influences, that even a very experienced individual may grade the same note differently on separate occasions.
Many numismatic dealers have all have slightly different grading levels or definitions of grading levels, especially with various sub-grades of uncirculated banknotes. For this reason, we have researched several different currency grades as defined by different leaders in the industry, and have formulated our grading system and grade level definitions to be universally accepted across all groups. Therefore, we believe our grading system is about as widely accepted grading system as possible.
CURRENCY GRADE AND DEFINITIONS:
- POOR (P) 00-10 : A note in of this condition will be heavily damaged, with severe soiling, large holes, heavy graffiti (markings/drawings), and may even be torn into three or more pieces. It may have the pieces held together with tape, and some pieces of the note may be missing entirely, therefore the note may be incomplete. The ink and coloring will likely be heavily faded and/or damaged so severely that the printing may not be legible, having lost most of it's detail, and some areas are likely discernible at all. Any note that is missing large portions of the design, or is barely legible may fall into this grade. These notes are very brittle, and so fragile from aging and wear that merely handling them will often cause additional damage. banknotes of this grade are likely so severely damaged that retailers and possibly even banks will refuse to exchange or accept them.
- FAIR (FR) 12-20 : A note in this condition should be mostly intact, however heavy damage is expected. It is normal for their to be severe soiling, tears, stains, splits, heavy graffiti (markings/drawings), large holes, and may even be torn into two or more pieces. It is likely that large pieces may be missing, including some meaningful portions. (However at least one full serial number must be present and legible regardless of condition). Even signs of attempted repairs, steaming, pressing and other alterations are common at this grade. (many times such alterations may be the reason the banknote falls into this grade). If the note has been torn into two pieces, there should be no more than about 1/3 of the note that has been torn/ripped apart from the rest of the note. No more than two pieces may torn/ripped away from the note, or it would be lowered to a "Poor" grade. It may have the pieces held together entirely with tape, and may even have missing pieces that are completely gone. The ink and coloring will likely be heavily faded, having lost most of it's detail, and some areas may not be discernible at all. Banknotes will likely be entirely limp, and lifeless, and their paper may feel unusually thin and worn. There will be severe creases, folds, evidence of crumpling and signs of extremely heavy circulation and aging.
- GOOD (G) 22-30 : A note in this grade will still show signs of heavy circulation. It overall appearance be heavily worn, and heavily soiled. You can expect to see the note with tears, holes, and/or will even be missing small pieces from the design. It may be taped in some places and show other signs of attempted repairs such as pressing, steaming or even ironing. This note will still be fairly intact despite the heavy damage and wear that may be present. The coloring and design should be in good enough condition to easily read the numbers, wording and other features of the note. There will be some crispness left to the papers, although it will be so minimal that the note will still feel soft to the touch. Any banknote that is missing pieces larger than a small section, or if the note has medium-large holes, should fall into one of the lower gradings.
- VERY GOOD (VG) 32-40 : At this grade a note will still be heavily worn with the usual signs of wear. However, a note in this grade should be easily distinguishable from banknotes in the lower grades. A few edge splits may be apparent, although they must not be severe or be bad enough to be classified as tears/rips. The note may not have more than slightly rounded corners, frayed edges, or slightly rough margins. No pieces may be missing other than an occasional corner tip. The note will be limp or soiled from circulation, and some wallet staining may be visible. No major damage is acceptable at this grade level, and any note found with holes larger than a pin-hole, or any stains, tears, rips will fall into a lower grade level.
- FINE (F) 42-50 : A note in this grade will resemble most notes that have spent considerable time in circulation. This banknote will have some rounded corners, minimal wrinkles, with multiple folds and even a couple of rough edges. Any edge splits must be within the margin and not reach into the design. The corners may be slightly frayed or rounded, and the edges may also be frayed. The coloring should still be good, with a little boldness and should still have depth. The paper will be reasonably clean, and be free of foreign markings, ink marks, soil, stains and graffiti. The note will have lost some crispness, but the paper should still feel solid and able to stick straight out when held on one end. Banknotes without any paper stiffness will fall into a lower grade level. Any holes must be small enough to only be a pinhole, but may be readily apparent. No holes should be large in size, obtrusive, or in great numbers. No major stains or tears may be present, although a stray pencil mark or light teller stamp will not affect the grade as long as it is not dark or obtrusive.
- VERY FINE (VF) 52-60 : This note should have nearly full remaining crispness, with plenty of body remaining in the paper quality. There may be several folds (not creases), wrinkles, or other signs of circulation may be present. Mild soiling is acceptable around the edges and maybe an occasional non-severe smudge is allowed as long as there are no other blemishes or they are extremely minimal. There should be no tears, stains, large holes or any other blemishes should be readily apparent, and the note should still have nice eye appeal. Several minor pinholes may be visible when the note is held to a light, but should not otherwise be readily visible. The corners may be slightly frayed, slightly rounded or even one or two corners may have a slight fold at this grade level. The paper should be near full crispness, and be very stiff to the touch. The coloring should be rich, dark, bold and still exhibit fine detail in the design with very minimal fading being allowed only in small areas.
- EXTREMELY FINE (EXF) 62-70 : A note in this grade will be bright, clean, very crisp, and very attractive. It should be readily evident that you are holding a banknote of high quality which shows extremely minimal signs of any wear or circulation. The overall eye appeal should be well above average. The coloring will be very dark and bold, showing extreme detail and without bleeding. Only a very light horizontal fold or bend is acceptable at this grade level, and no more than two vertical folds or bends are acceptable. No fold or bend should be deep enough to break or cause a crease in the surface of the paper. The aforementioned folds/bends may only be present as long as they are the only apparent flaws. Only the slightest soiling may be visible such as handling soiling from hands, with absolutely signs of dirt, smudges, ink/pencil marks, stains, or any other foreign substances of any kind. This grade of banknote may have a two to three very small pinholes, but any larger holes would prevent a note from reaching this grade level.
- ABOUT UNCIRCULATED (AUNC) 72-80 : Banknotes in this condition will have dark, bold coloring with vibrant detail, and visually attractive in every way. Upon a visual inspection it should be extremely difficult to notice any flaws or blemishes on this note. It should be bright, clean, and very crisp with nearly new-like stiffness and a thick feel to the paper. The corners will be sharp with a square point, and the edges will be straight without wrinkles or a wavy appearance. Notes in this condition may slight evidence of minor handling, but will not appear "circulated" even under close inspection. These notes may have one to two very light folds or wrinkles, but should not be heavy or prominent in nature, or obtrusive to the overall appearance. No more than three light vertical bends are acceptable for this grade, and no more than two light folds may be present but they must not break or crease the surface of the paper. Only one heavy fold or crease may be present at this grade, but not if there exists additional wrinkles, creases or vertical bends.
- UNCIRCULATED (UNC) 82-90 : A nearly flawless note, visually perfect in every way. No folds, bends, rounded corners, or counting crinkles are permissible at this grade level, and the centering must be superior for the issue. The paper will be crisp and original, the embossing (where applicable) must be bold, and all four corners must also be perfectly sharp. The overall aesthetic quality at this grade level should be outstanding for the issue. Notes in this grade are rare, even in the most common series.
- GEM UNCIRCULATED (GEM) 92-99 : A note in this grade will be a "just miss" for an UNCirculated condition banknote. It will have above average eye appeal, will be superbly attractive, and will appear to be of UNCirculated condition at first glance. This banknote must be crisp, seemingly new, perfectly centered margins with only the the most microscopic flaws being present. It would require a close inspection to determine that this note is not of UNCirculated condition. The note must be absolutely original, nearly visually flawless, having bold embossing and vibrant coloring. No folds, bends, or creases may be present at this grade level. Any flaw that is readily evident, such as a noticeable counting crinkle on the corner, or even slightly imperfect centering, will prevent a note from receiving a Gem-UNC grade. It should be stressed that although notes at this grade will (by definition) be less than perfect, they will still be above average notes that may appear to the average viewer to be pristine.
- MINT UNCIRCULATED (MINT) 100 : This will be a truly flawless banknote, visually perfect in every way. No folds, bends, rounded corners, or counting crinkles are permissible at this grade level The centering must be superior for the issue. The paper will be superbly crisp with all original stiffness fully intact, never having been bent, or folded to any degree. The embossing (where applicable) must be bold, and all four corners must also be perfectly and precisely sharp. Notes in this grade are rare, even in the most common series, and should normally be protected in a mint-issued protective sleeve to prevent any signs of wear or damage. Even the slightest smudge mark, or the slightest soiling from even the lightest dust adhering to the note where oils form the skin created an area for dust or dirt to adhere to, would cause a banknote to fall into a lower grading level. Even to the professionally trained eye, there can be absolutely no signs of any wear or even handling.
An Explanation Of Intermediate Grade Banknotes:
Grades such as XF-AU, VF-XF, Fine-VF, VG-Fine, or Good-VG, and Poor are used to indicate each notes grade grade level when a banknote lies somewhere within the most circulated of notes, and the least circulated of notes, without actually being uncirculated. For example, some notes with vertical folds and a horizontal fold, or bent corners may not fall into a higher grade, but it might be much nicer than a typical banknote of a Very Fine grade level for instance. Each grade level will have different points of quality within that grade, and such is indicated by the number that is affixed to the final grade classification. For example, an Extremely Fine note grades as EXF-74, will not be quite as nice as an Extremely Fine note graded as EXF-80. However, an Extremely Fine note graded as EXF-80, may be very close in quality to an About UNCirculated note graded as an AUC-82 as the two levels are close and will have very minor differences.
Processed, Washed, Pressed, Repaired Notes:
It is an unfortunate, however there exists bad people in literally every industry in the world, and the same can be said about numismatics and currency collectors. Some people will sadly attempt to pass some banknotes off as a higher quality than what they have been graded. The methods these dishonest people use to falsely "improve" the look or quality of a banknote is limited only by their deceitful imagination. The most common method to falsely improve the quality of a banknote is to wash the note (usually with soap, detergent, and even bleach), then flatten it to prevent the washed note look. Sometimes the person may even use an iron, or place the note into a heavy book after having steamed the note, starch is even sometimes added to stiffen the note and add crispness in the process. While these people will sometimes contend that the quality of the note is legitimately improved through these actions, more seasoned professionals frown upon this much the same way that antiques dealers frown upon those who may choose to refinish an antique dresser to make it look better.
At the end of the day, any alteration to the appearance of a note is in all aspects, artificial, and therefore it will lessen the value of the note dramatically as the original patina is removed in the process. A processed note can usually be detected by fading or loss of color, especially where the note was once folded. Folds can often be difficult to detect, but the evidence of a fold can never be completely removed. Sometimes even the smell of a note is a dead giveaway as the smell detergent or bleach can never be completely removed. Patience and attention to detail can often prevent hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of mistakes, and learning to spot a fake can save you heartache, allowing for years of enjoying your hobby to the fullest.
Grading Damaged and Repaired notes:
Damaged and repaired notes are still collectible to some degree, although notes which show signs of repair almost always suffer an immediate decrease in value. A collector should research the different methods of repairing a note, and be able to recognize these methods to help prevent falling victim of this scam. Special care should be taken to make sure any note does not have a subtle or imperceptible repair. Although it is technically possible to "improve" the appearance of a note by repairing or restoring the paper (especially when a tear is taped or a missing piece is restored), but the note MUST still be classified as damaged AND repaired. Whether this deception is done intentionally or not, a collector can get scammed on such a note and easily lose their entire investment. It is important to maintain integrity and to take your loses as educational, and not to pass your note off to someone else in an attempt to recuperate your loses. Such behavior only spreads the activity as those who fall victim to you may end up victimizing the next unsuspecting person. If you do fall victim to this activity, the professional thing to do is to learn from your mistakes, and allow the scam to end with you. While most repairs are deceptive, and done with malicious intent, many professional collectors view it as acceptable to place a note into a book to flatten the paper, as long as nothing is added to the note such as starch.
General Guidelines About Grading And value:
While counting folds is relatively easy, determining eye appeal and what a note in a certain grade should "look" like takes time, experience, patience, practice, common sense, and a certain level of moral integrity. If a note looks really nice and might pass for AUNC but is technically only an EXF, it will often bring a price difference with an AUNC grade regardless of the inflated grade. Eye appeal is often more important than a technical grade in determining a note's value. Most people would rather own an attractive, problem-free and well centered note with a vertical fold rather than a generally unattractive note that technically merits a higher grade. Approach grading with common sense and knowledge about what merits a given grade, and don't be afraid to ask for help... after all, most collectors love talking about this hobby, and would gladly teach you anything that you're willing to learn.