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Grading Lincoln Wheat Pennies: Finding Fine Details Can Equal Finding Big Bucks

Grading Lincoln Wheat Pennies: Finding Fine Details Can Equal Finding Big Bucks

Perhaps you’ve found some old coins cleaning out the attic, or perhaps you’ve stumbled across the little blue penny folder you assembled when you were a child. In any event, if you have one, two, or several Lincoln wheat pennies, the logical question arises. “What are these worth?”

While value is a simple question, finding the correct answer turns on careful examination, and comparison of your pennies to a set of standardized examples. This process, known as “grading” in the coin collecting hobby, is vital where the rarest coins can change hands for tens of thousands of dollars.

The importance of grading Lincoln wheat pennies should be clear. The question is how to master the details.

Grading coins correctly takes experience and some research. It is as much an art as a science, and many dealers have devoted years of work on the subject. While this article won’t make you a numismatic expert, it will describe some of the basic techniques and ideas, so that you can go to a coin show or dealer with elementary knowledge to understand the topic.

Background of Coin Grading Standards.

William Sheldon, in his groundbreaking study of early American large pennies, Early American Cents, published in 1949, offered a numerical grading scale, running from 1 to 70, to describe the condition of the coins he discussed. In Sheldon’s original system, 1 denoted a coin so worn as to be nearly unrecognizable as a coin at all, while 70 indicated a coin which was completely uncirculated, and otherwise flawlessly unmarked.

Other efforts to describe grading standards for U.S. coins followed, until, in the 1970’s, the American Numismatic Association consolidated these efforts into a comprehensive publication, covering all U.S. coins. This work, Grading Standards for United States Coins, quickly gained acceptance as the prevalent standard for describing the grade, or quality, of American coins, and assigning monetary values accordingly.

In the ANA’s system, Sheldon’s numerical scale of 1 to 70 has been continued, and a standard series of descriptive terms, ranging from “Poor” to “Mint-State,” has been added to define the condition of any given coin. For any particular pattern or denomination issued by the U.S. Mint, more detailed descriptive standards define the classification and allow dealers and collectors to grade and describe individual specimens in an easily understandable format.

Techniques for Grading Wheat Pennies

Hold the coin you wish to grade by the rim with your fingertips. Always practice good handling techniques, as described below, especially if the coin involved isn’t yours. Nothing will make a coin dealer angrier than damaging one of his coins by improperly grabbing it. The coins aren’t only the dealer’s stock-in-trade; most good, serious dealers also have a genuine affection for the hobby, and the individual coins.

An extremely powerful magnifying glass will tend to emphasize what are, in reality, minor or even imperceptible flaws, and lead to a down-grading of the coin. A 4x to 8x magnifying glass is ample for most purposes when grading coins. Nevertheless, a more powerful lens may occasionally be useful for noting die varieties, and similar hard-to-catch factors, and is a handy thing to have available.

The lighting source can affect the task of grading a coin. Fluorescent overhead lights, of the sort often found in commercial buildings, give diffuse, soft light, and can hide defects. A high-intensity, more focused light source, like a desk lamp, can furnish light bright enough for grading. Many coin dealers make such light sources available as a matter of course.

For uncirculated and proof coins, the minute differences in grade standards can lead to significant differences in value. A good light and magnification are essential for grading such coins correctly. Circulated coins are less dependent upon fine distinctions, and so light and magnification are less important.

Hold the coin so that the light strikes the surface, and is reflected back into your eyes. Look at the coin from several different angles, rotating it so that various perspectives will show details from different points of view. Examine the rim of the coin for nicks and dents.

Factors Which Determine Wheat Penny Grades

Besides the wear and surface condition of the coin, described in the grading standards, other factors can determine the grade of a wheat penny.

Corrosion and oxidation can affect the luster or shininess of a coin, and is common enough in bronze coins like the wheat penny that special terms are used to describe the state of uncirculated coins.

Oxygen can cause copper or bronze to develop a light green patina. This oxidation can severely reduce the value of a coin, and is nearly impossible to halt once it begins. Sulfur and oxygen in the air can also cause bronze to turn brown, even without human contact.

Image credit: PCGS

This loss of luster affects uncirculated coins at the highest grades, and is expected among circulated coins. Uncirculated wheat pennies are thus described with an additional term to indicate luster. Such a coin can be either “red,” abbreviated “rd,” “red-brown,” abbreviated “rb” or “brown,” abbreviated “bn.”

A red wheat penny retains its original mint appearance as a shiny piece of copper, with little, if any, deterioration in the luster. At the other extreme, a brown penny has dulled to the appearance of an old copper pipe. There is little, if any shine left. In between the two, a red-brown penny has begun the process of turning brown, but some of the original shine remains to be seen.

The nature of the die used in striking the coin can affect its value.

The die is effectively the stamp used to make a coin. A die comes in two pieces. The “hammer” die is attached to the press, and is brought down against the coin blank, or planchet. The “anvil” die is the point upon which the planchet rests.

Each pair of dies is individually engraved by artisans working for the U.S. Mint in a complex process. Each die is thus unique, and has its own attributes. Some sets produce a high quality image with sharp definition, while others produce a weaker strike for each coin. Over time, all dies tend to deteriorate in use, and give weaker images.

Collectors favor stronger, sharper images to weaker ones. For newer coins with plentiful specimens available, the weaker strikes can have reduced value. In some years, especially with older coins, no good strong die strikes are available, and in such cases, grades aren’t reduced.

Because dies are individually crafted, any accident or flaw in the making will be carried onto any coins struck using that die. Such errors are referred to, variously, as “doubled die” “doubled date,” or “repunched mint mark” errors. Coins with these errors are generally known to collectors and sought as a separate field of the hobby unto themselves.

Damage in shipping can affect the grade of mint-state coins. The U.S. Mint’s manufacturing process is designed to provide America’s need for money, in this case, coins for small change. The vast majority of U.S. coins are expected to be used and treated accordingly. The Mint prepares coins using a highly automated process, which sees the newly minted coins tossed with others of its kind into any number of hoppers, bins, coin counters and machines, until, finally, they fall into a bag for shipment.

The result is that nearly every coin comes out of the Mint with “bag marks,” little cuts or abrasions in the coin’s surface as it jostles its way from the coin press of the Mint to the coin drawer of a local bank. Bag marks are expected on all mint-state graded coins other than the highest level of MS-70, which must be pristine. Indeed, the presence or absence of bag marks is one of the big distinctions between the different numerical levels of mint-state coins.

Edge bumps or dents arise if a coin is dropped and the rim damaged. Such dents affect the grade of the coin, if significant, even in the circulated grades.

Scratches are grooves in a coin which arise after entering circulation. These always affect the grade and should be taken into account when examining a coin.

Proper Handling and Storage of Wheat Pennies

Whenever you pick up a coin, for grading or simply to enjoy your collection, you should always hold it by the rim, and over a soft surface, like a cloth or several paper towels. If your coin accidentally falls, it will not accidentally be nicked or damaged by the mishap.

You should never touch the face of a collectible coin directly with your fingers. The oil of your fingertips is acidic and your prints will sooner or later begin to corrode your coin.

Some dealers and collectors are even more particular, and would prefer you not talk while examining a coin for grading or otherwise looking closely. Your saliva can also cause a coin to become oxidized, and have a fly-specked appearance.

If you expose your coins directly to the air, they will tend to absorb any pollutants in the atmosphere. Sulfur will cause bronze coins like wheat pennies to turn brown, and may cause silver coins to become yellowed or blackened.

Air-tight containers can be very helpful for storing your penny collection, and hard plastic or chemically neutral coin holders can keep individual coins from exposure to air or fingertips. For extra security, silica gel packs in the containers can help remove moisture and reduce the chance of oxidation.

Definitions of Circulated, Uncirculated and Proof Lincoln Wheat Pennies

The key “big” distinction in grading wheat pennies, or any other coin, is between coins which are “circulated,” “uncirculated,” or “proof.”

Circulated coins are, far and away, the largest category met with. They are exactly what the name implies: coins which have been used in commerce. Such coins may be anything from nearly worn smooth, to showing almost no wear at all. There are a variety of terms used to describe circulated coin grades, and these terms will be found with a numerical grade of between 1 and 59, with higher numbers associated with better grades.
Frequently, perhaps almost invariably, circulated coins will have some oxidation or other corrosion; there is nothing left of the “shiny new coin” appearance about a circulated coin.

Uncirculated coins, more technically known as “mint state” coins, are those coins which have been struck by the U.S. Mint for use by business, but which have never actually been used. The technical term Mint State, abbreviated “MS,” together with a numerical evaluation between 60 and 70 is used in describing the grade of an uncirculated coin. Older sources may still occasionally abbreviate the term as “unc.” for uncirculated.

The lack of circulation does not mean there is no damage to uncirculated coins. The Mint handled such coins exactly as any others intended for use; only chance prevented it. Coins are shipped from the Mint in bulk, and are free to rub against one another. Uncirculated coins may thus have nicks, scratches and dents as a result. In addition, older uncirculated coins may be exposed to air, and show signs of oxidation.

Nicks, scratches, and oxidation may all affect the grade of an uncirculated coin, and its value. The crucial point remains the lack of human contact with the coin in the course of circulation.

Proof coins are coins struck specially by the U.S. Mint for presentation or for collectors. Today, modern proof coins are manufactured from specially made dies, using a different process from making regular coins. These proof coins are meant to have an almost mirror-like surface. At different points in American history, the Mint used different techniques for manufacturing proof coins, some of which left an appearance unusual to our modern sensibilities. Knowing which techniques were in use by the Mint at any given time is an important aspect of evaluating proof coins, but one beyond the scope of this article.

At all times, because the striking technique differs from ordinary coins, a proof coin remains a proof coin, even if it subsequently deteriorates from improper handling, corrosion, or oxidation. In fact, several early issues of proof wheat pennies shipped from the U.S. Mint were wrapped in chemically reactive tissue paper. Damaged proof coins are known technically as “impaired proofs.” Impaired proofs can be graded, theoretically, using the same complete numerical scale as circulated and uncirculated coins. The abbreviation PF, together with the appropriate number, denotes the grade of a proof coin.

Improper Practices that Decrease Penny Value

Certain practices can seriously reduce or destroy a collectible coin’s value. Misguided beginning collectors can stumble into some bad habits, and unscrupulous dealers can prepare coins to sell to unsuspecting amateurs. The best rule of thumb is to leave your coins “as is.” The odds of improving a coin by giving it some attention, even if well-meant, are non-existent.

Cleaning: Coins should never be cleaned. The nice “shiny new penny” look, once gone, is gone forever, and can never be restored to its natural appearance. The temptation to take a cloth and some brass cleaner may be great. Coin dealers and experienced collectors can spot the difference between a naturally occurring shine, which should be bright coppery red on a wheat penny, and one gained through chemicals, which has a “washed-out” look.

Whizzing: Unscrupulous dealers and others will attempt to restore a penny’s uncirculated appearance by “whizzing,” lightly running a stiff brush over the coin’s surface. This leaves slight grooves on the surface of the coin, which imitate the microscopic-level structure of the surface of the coin. Such “whizzed” grooves are readily visible under a magnifying glass, and such coins should be avoided, unless they are clearly described as “whizzed” in their grading material.

Dipping: Occasionally, dealers will dip uncirculated or proof coins in a cleaning solution to brighten the surface. If this can be done without any other treatment or abrasive cleaning, the practice may be acceptable. The exception is that, if the solution used changes the initial mint state appearance of the coin, it must be disclosed in the grading material. In the case of bronze coins like wheat pennies, no cleaning solution has been found which can restore the original appearance. In such cases, a “dipped” coin must be disclosed in the analysis.

Grades of Wheat Pennies

While the official grading standards for wheat pennies are quite precise, this summary may help beginners focus on the key aspects that coin dealers, buyers and serious collectors look for in assessing the value of a given coin. There are many different grades, so this article will only focus on the main grades covered by this site. In evaluating a circulated coin, look principally at the bust of Lincoln on the front, and at the wheat stalks on the back. The extent of wear on these features is the key element in determining the grade.

Circulated Wheat Pennies

Good, G-4

Image credit: PCGS

“Good” pennies have heavy wear. The design and the lettering remain visible, even if they are considerably worn in places. On the front of the coin, the entire figure of Lincoln is heavily worn, and few details remain of the bust. The lettering and date remain visible, even though they may be faint. On the back of the coin, the wheat stalks are nearly worn away, but some grains remain and the design’s whole outline is complete.

Fine, F-12

Image credit: PCGS

“Fine” pennies show considerable, but even, wear. The whole design of the coin remains clear, however, and the features are defined. On the front of the coin, look at Lincoln’s head. Much of the hair is worn, though some of the main details remain. Both the cheek and the jaw will be almost completely flat. The ear and the bow tie are both still defined. The word LIBERTY is clearly visible, and has no letters worn away. On the back of the coin, look at the wheat stalks. The details remain, for the most part. The very top lines of the stalks will be worn to some extent, but they are still visible.

Extremely Fine, XF-45

Image credit: PCGS

“Extremely Fine” pennies show light wear on the high points of the coin. On the front, look for a little wear on Lincoln’s hair, just above the ear, as well as on the cheek and jaw. On the back, look at the highest points on the wheat stalk. Those show wear, but the individual lines of each stalk will still be clear and well-defined.

About Uncirculated, AU-55

Image credit: PCGS

“About Uncirculated” pennies have only tiny wear at the very highest points of the images on the coin. Look at Lincoln’s jaw, on the front of the coin, and at the tips of the wheat stalks on the reverse. These points should have light wear at most.

Mint-State or Uncirculated Wheat Pennies

Mint State or Uncirculated coins show no wear from circulation. At the lower grades of “MS,” very old bronze coins might show oxidation and be described as “brown,” or “red-brown.” Coins with good natural shine are preferred, and fetch a higher value. Coins reaching the highest grades, like MS-70, are often “red.” Very old pennies rarely receive this grade as a result. Uncirculated coins may still have bag marks or other small imperfections gained from jostling with other coins during shipping.


Image credit: PCGS

“MS-63” pennies, sometimes called “select uncirculated” by dealers, describes a coin with good eye appeal, or luster, but with clearly visible bag marks or other minor imperfections.


Image credit: PCGS

“MS-65” coins, sometimes called “choice uncirculated” by dealers, describes a coin not quite so perfect as one graded MS-67. It may have a small imperfection, uneven luster, or other light stains or marks. Any bag marks or nicks must be almost unnoticeable.


Image credit: PCGS

“MS-67” coins, sometimes called “gem uncirculated” by dealers, describes an almost flawless penny. Any imperfections must be so small as to be unnoticeable to the unaided eye.


“MS-70” coins, sometimes called “perfect uncirculated” by dealers, describes a coin that looks as new as the day it was minted, with no wear or bag marks. It must have its original mint luster, or at most some light toning with age. Any oddities regarding either the die or the planchet must be noted in the grading description.