Mercury Dimes > Ch 5 > Grading

[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, David W. Lange. This information was originally published in 2005 in ]

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In comparison with many other United States coins the Mercury Dime is one of the easier types to grade.  Aside from some irregularities in strike, particularly among the coins from 1917 through 1928, the established criteria (as modified somewhat in this guide) may be applied to any date in the series.

There are some general guidelines that apply and which should be taken into consideration when grading.  The first of these is that no Mercury Dime struck from 1925 through 1945 will be as finely detailed as well struck specimens of earlier dates.  The reason for this is that the master hubs from which new master dies were drawn became worn with repeated use.  This is particularly true of the obverse master hub, as a new obverse master die had to be sunk for each date in the series.  The reverse master die could be used as long as it remained serviceable, and thus its master hub did not deteriorate as quickly.

Such loss of detail is most evident in the hair curls framing Liberty’s face.  The finest lines were obliterated by 1925, and further erosion occurred as the series progressed.  Evidence of this is found in examining the proof dimes of 1936- 42.  One would expect these to be the finest examples available to represent the Mercury Dime type.  While their high relief detail is superior to that of the typical production coin from the same period, they fall short of the standards set by the best circulation strikes of 1916 through 1924.  These deficiencies are noteworthy only for grades Very Fine through About Uncirculated, as lower grade coins lack the details in question.

Another point which bears mentioning is that most dimes coined at the Denver and San Francisco Mints from 1917 through 1928 will exhibit some areas of weakness.  This is commonly seen in the centers of their obverse and reverse or around their peripheries.  In particularly bad instances, deficiencies will be found in both locations.  The 1925-D Mercury Dime illustrated here is a textbook example of this most extreme case.  Liberty’s curls are almost entirely flat, the lower diagonal band and all horizontal bands are flat and the peripheral legends are “topless.”  Both the date and mintmark are indistinct, the latter being particularly so. From its luster and its absence of wear this dime technically grades About Uncirculated, but how is a value determined for such a coin?

Experience will enable one to distinguish between weakness of strike and legitimate wear.  The matter of how to price weakly struck coins remains an ongoing concern for both dealers and collectors, with no obvious solution in sight.  In practice, coins which meet most of the criteria for the assignment of a particular grade will usually receive that grade and may be valued in accordance with current price guides.  This is particularly true of dates which are highly in demand but which are often found inadequately struck.  Well struck specimens of the same dates will usually command a premium.

For the most part the grading criteria presented here are in agreement with the standards established by the American Numismatic Association in its book, Official Grading Standards for United States Coins, Fifth Edition. There is one minor exception, however.  In careful examination of a great many circulated coins, it was the author’s conclusion that the reverse of the Mercury Dime wore more rapidly than most grading standards suggest.  This was probably due to the slightly shallower rims of the reverse offering less protection.  When graded by conventional standards, most circulated coins will have a split grade such as Fine on the obverse and Very Good to Fine on the reverse.  In numismatic shorthand this is expressed as F/VG-F.  While the conventional standards for all series of U. S. coins dictate that a coin grading Good will have complete rims on both sides, this is rarely true of the Mercury Dime, as its reverse rim will have worn into the lettering by the time its obverse has been reduced to the grade of Good.

In selecting coins for the following grading guide, the author has compensated for such bias by including pieces which show the actual relationship between obverse and reverse at the various grade levels.  It’s believed that the reader will find the standards presented here to be truly reflective of coins encountered in the marketplace.  These standards, however, do not exactly reflect those published by the American Numismatic Association.


OBVERSE: Liberty’s head is entirely outlined but with no details visible.  All digits of the date can be identified, although heavily worn.  The rim has worn away the top of each letter in the legend.

REVERSE: The fasces is entirely flat.  The rim has worn halfway through the legend and touches the bottom of the fasces.

G-4 (GOOD)

OBVERSE: The curls of Liberty’s hair, although flat, are outlined clearly against her cap.  The date is entirely distinguishable, although the final digit may be weak.  The rim is worn to the tops of the letters.

REVERSE: The fasces is flat but separated from the rim, which has worn one-third of the way through the legend.


OBVERSE: The rim is complete and entirely separated from the legend.  Some details are evident in Liberty’s wing.

REVERSE: A few lines are visible in the fasces.  The rim is entirely separated from the legend.

F-12 (FINE)

OBVERSE: Liberty’s curls are partly distinguishable against her face.  Her wing feathers are evident, although heavily worn.  The rim is bold and the date entirely separated from it.

REVERSE: The vertical lines are about half visible though a portion of all of them will show.  The horizontal and diagonal bands are visible only at their extremities.  The rim is distinct, though shallow.


OBVERSE: Libertys curls are distinct against her face. The wing is complete, though moderately worn.

REVERSE: The vertical lines are entirely visible but shallow.  The horizontal and diagonal bands are complete but flat at their centers.  The rim is bold.


OBVERSE: All details are distinct though lightly worn.  Some mint luster may be evident within protected parts of the design such as the legend and the date.

REVERSE: The vertical lines are sharp.  All bands are distinct but may be lightly worn at their centers.  The diagonal bands are three-dimensional.  Some mint luster may be evident within protected parts of the design such as the legend, the olive branch and the denomination.


OBVERSE: All details are bold.  Only slight wear is evident on the highest points of Liberty’s face, hair and wing and in the exposed parts of the field.  One-third to one-half of the mint luster remains.

REVERSE: The bands are bold.  Light wear is evident on the bands and in the exposed parts of the field. One-third to one-half of the mint luster remains.

AU-55, AU-53 & AU-58


These grades are similar to AU-50 in that they represent nearly unworn coins.  The distinction is made in their relative surface quality and in the amount of luster evident.

The AU-53 grade was created by commercial certification companies and is not recognized by the ANA.  It is so seldom used by these companies that it typically carries no premium over AU-50, except in the case of very valuable coins.  It may be described as a “nice” AU-50.

AU-55 is applied to a coin which displays about two thirds of the original luster and no serious marks.

AU-58 describes a coin which is essentially uncirculated but may have been mishandled.  Coins of this grade may have been chemically dipped as a means of cleaning, but this should not be obvious to the casual observer. Nearly full luster must be present.  Specimens grading AU-58 are sometimes called “sliders,” because when sold uncertified they are often labeled by the seller as Uncirculated.


This is the lowest numerical grade at which a coin may qualify as being Mint State, or Uncirculated.  Such coins must show no sign of wear and have no breaks in their luster, yet nearly any other detraction is permissible. This includes numerous or heavy abrasions, nicks and scratches, spotting or unattractive toning.  It may also be that a particular coin is simply deficient in luster or strike, as made.


A coin having several noticeable contact marks but which is lustrous and reasonably well struck will merit this grade.  Some fine hairlines may also downgrade an otherwise gem coin to the MS-63 level.  It’s perhaps the most popular grade with collectors of Mint State coins because it offers the best compromise between beauty and economy.  In this book’s date/mint analysis, coins grading MS-63 are often referred to simply as “choice” specimens.


Essentially, MS-64 describes a coin which is better than MS-63 and not quite as good as MS-65.  The distinction between the three grades lies primarily in overall surface quality and in the placement and severity of contact marks.  A mark on Liberty’s cheek or in the exposed fields may render a coin MS-63, while the same mark hidden within the wing or the olive branch can elevate that specimen to MS-64.  A less severe mark likewise hidden within these finely detailed elements can result in an MS-65 grade.  The term “choice” is sometimes used within the date/mint analysis of this book to describe dimes grading MS-64.


The grade favored by investors, MS-65 is the coin market’s designation for a “gem,” by which term these coins may also be referred to in the date/mint analysis.  It describes a specimen which is fully lustrous, well struck though not necessarily fully struck, and free of any but the most minor contact marks.  It is likewise free of hairlines.


The book Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins defines this grade rather vaguely as, “Virtually flawless but with very minor imperfections.”  Therein lies the problem in attempting to describe grades above MS-65: It is simply impossible to do so effectively in words or photographs.  Collectors will have to learn these subtle distinctions for themselves by examining coins certified by the major grading services. Another valuable tool is the hands-on grading seminars conducted by the ANA in connection with major coin shows or during its two-week annual Summer Seminar at the ANA’s headquarters in Colorado Springs.  Both are highly recommended for persons desiring to own Mercury Dimes in these higher grades.

A NOTE ABOUT THE REMAINING GRADES: In addition to the grades listed above, it is no secret that additional grade levels are recognized within the marketplace.  For example, a dime grading G-VG may also be abbreviated as G-6.  Other grades within the circulated span include VG-10, F-15, VF-25, VF-35 and XF-45. Whether or not a particular Mercury Dime merits an intermediate grade is a matter of opinion, though these grades are recognized and used by the major grading services

Additional grades for Uncirculated coins include MS-61, MS-62, MS-66 and MS-68 through MS- 70.  The first two are little used with respect to this series, as only a handful of dates in the Mercury Dime series advance enough in price from MS-60 to MS-63 to warrant submitting them to the certification services.  Still, such grades are occasionally assigned by the commercial grading services, particularly for pre- 1928 issues.  The grades of MS-66 and MS-67 are widely used for later issues in the Mercury Dime series, as these coins often survive in such splendid condition.  The MS-68 and MS-69 grades are very difficult to achieve, the latter presently being limited to just a few dates within the certified population reports.

MS-70 was, for many years, merely a reference point, as it identifies a theoretically perfect coin.  With the growing popularity of modern (1965 and later) coins, however, this grade has been employed for pieces that are flawless to the naked eye.  Since this describes no Mercury Dime yet seen by this author, it’s doubtful that any coin in this series, whether Mint State or Proof, will achieve this grade.

A NOTE ABOUT FULL BANDS: Mercury Dimes are among the few series of United States coins in which otherwise equal coins may be of dramatically different value as the result of a minor feature.  Being directly opposite the highest relief point of the obverse design the central horizontal bands of the fasces are often struck incompletely.  The displacement of metal at the moment of striking is not sufficient to entirely fill the die cavity, and this particular element usually bears the loss.

Although the large premiums attached to full band coins did not appear until the 1970s, collectors have long sought to complete their sets of Uncirculated Mercury Dimes with all of the date/mint combinations having fully struck bands.  This is a near impossibility, as certain dates are almost unknown in such condition.  The most glaring example of this is 1945(P), an otherwise common entry in the series which is extremely rare with full bands.  Other dates for which full band specimens are rare include 1917-D, 1918-D, 1918-S, 1919-D, 1919-S, 1931-S, 1935-D and 1939-S.  In reviewing the date/mint analysis that follows, it will be seen that these and many other dates carry noticeable premiums when found with full bands.

The photographs present three examples having different degrees of separation and fullness in their central bands.  On the first of these, the bands are entirely flat.  The second dime has central bands which are separated but are lacking in relief.  Although purists may consider this to be an example of simply “split bands,” the marketplace generally accepts this degree of separation as representing “full bands.”  The third photo is of a coin with fully separated and rounded bands which entirely filled the die.  Notice the degree of relief in comparison with the split bands coin.  While this example is the ideal of “full bands,” many coins so designated in the marketplace will not be quite this bold.  A certain license is granted for dates which are rare with full bands, and this fact is accepted by most parties.

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