Welcome to anotherá foray into the more scientific aspects of Numismatics, if you will. Today, let us turn our attention to a grading system used widely across the world that is not the Sheldon Scale. I submit for your examinationá the British Grading System. A grading system is only as utilitarian as it describes as accurately as possible the present state of a coin based on the degree of agreement between observers and the stability of getting the same results over randomly chosen time periods.
I have been considering the British system of coin grading for a while and though I have always been a fan of T.W.A.D.Y. (the way we always did it). So considering another way of grading coins is somewhat novel to me, After all, we are Americans! We have Sheldon!, a 70 point scale to describe our coins. We all need a common way of grading coins so that we can communicate about the condition of a particular coin when we share with our peers about the coin in question. On this we all agree. But what if there was a more accurate system in grading coins? Would we, as a numismatic nation abandon our Old Friend Sheldon and take off with our newly introduced system, replacing it with the new object of our affection, the British Coin Grading System? Of course not! We are going to dance with the girl we brought with us. Will we ever make the move to abandoning Sheldon in favor of the British CGS? If I were a betting man, which I am almost never, I would place 97.5% of my chips on staying with Sheldon. Why that figure, you ask? Because it is the point of statistically meaningful differences between two groups or systems. So I'm saying I'm almost 100% positive we will always be wed to Sheldon. Its "THE Way We Always Did it".
However I hate to admit it, in my opinion, the British system is a better way to go. Let me explain why. The obvious advantage of the British CGS over Sheldon is that instead of a 70 point scale, the British use a decimal system. Coins are scored on a 100 point system. The 100 point system is more accurate in evaluating coins because it is more scientific than a 70 point system. We describe the act of grading as an art and a science. That is because of differences in interobservational reliability, meaning that a different grader may come up with a different grade result than his peer sitting next to him. Moving to a decimal based system does not remove differences in interobservational reliability, but reduces this difference.
But how can I make that claim when I am introducing a system that has 30 more points to score coins with? It is exactly because it has 100 points to score with instead of 70.á
Look at the value of a point in the Sheldon scale in relation to the value of a point in the British CGS. Upon comparison we learn that each British point is worth 1.429 Sheldon points. So we need to be aware when grading coins under the Sheldon system, that each point has a higher and more arbitrary value in relation to the grade we assign the coin as opposed to the British CGS. The British system is metric: it is also in line with other metric systems we use to describe coins in the U.S. Consider weight, volume and size. We are all expressing these qualities of coins using the metric system already. Wouldn't it be more convenient and more accurate to grade our coins on a metric system as well.
Another drawback using the Sheldon scale is the descriptors and how they correspond numerically. In this, I believe the Sheldon system reveals a major flaw. The Sheldon scale is not uniform in how it distributes its descriptors to numerical scores. Consider if you will, Sheldon has 11 grades for mint state coins only leaving 59 points to describe circulated coins. There are 9 points for AU coins, there are 9 points for EF coins. There are 17 points allotted to VF coins. Only seven points are assigned to Fine coins and 3 points for Very Good coins. and 6 points for good through poor coins. This means that no two categories can be graded systematically and no coin score reflects its true relationship to another coin. or category.
The beauty of the British system is that it has four categories of coins descriptions that provide 25 points to grade a coin in that category. Already we see an improvement in the ability to more accurately grade coins with better agreement between observers. Common grade terms used in the UK are Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine and Uncirculated.
These grades can be split into divisions, Nearly and About are sub-grades and Good is an over grade e.g. "About Very Fine" is just below "Very Fine" and "Good Very Fine" is just above "Very Fine".
Uncirculated coins are in new condition as issued by the Mint, retaining their brilliance but possibly displaying some imperfections from the production or storage processes.
Extremely Fine (EF)
Extremely fine coins show only minimal marks or faint evidence of circulation, apparent only on close examination.
Very Fine (VF)
Very fine coins have limited evidence of wear on their raised surfaces but have experienced only minimal circulation.
Fine coins have entered circulation and display considerable wear to the raised surfaces of the design.
No system is perfect of course and a criticism that could be laid at the door of the British system is that it does not take advantage of its decimal structure in that the ranges of descriptors are not evenly distributed over the 100 point scale, which is one of the problems I find fault with in the Sheldon system. Still, all in all, I believe that the British CGS has much to offer over the Sheldon system in every other way and additionally has the framework in place to evolve in its more accurate use of descriptors in relation to numerical value. I hope this article will bring about some meaningful debate in the numismatic community.
British coin description source: