The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 47, November 24, 2019, Article 9


Dick Johnson submitted this entry from his Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Terminology. Thanks. We don't typically discuss condition or value, but this is a good overview tailored to the condition of medals. -Editor

Condition. State of preservation; or conversely, the degree of lack of wear. An elaborate – and sometimes indistinct – terminology has evolved for expressing this state of preservation, primarily for the purpose of collectors. Some coin series, for example, have as many as ten terms of condition or grade (ranging from poor to proof, although proof is not a condition) to express minute degrees of wear. This is not an exact science and human interpretation of condition often led to disputes between any two individuals particularly during transactions.

The popularity of coin collecting, and increasing demand for higher grade coins, has led to several attempts to make the determination of condition more precise A scale of about a dozen term names evolved in the early 19th century, followed by a numerical system expressing condition and applied to these terms. Photographic charts of popular series were published against which to compare specimens; these met with some success. Then computer grading was proposed, with dramatically less success. A new development in the field – of third party grading services (see below) – evolved with the greatest success of all.

Factors Affecting Condition

Abrasion and coin design. The primary factor of condition – abrasion – is the "wear" of circulating, as coins pass from one person to another, their storage, transportation and handling at every stage. It includes wear by normal handling, dropping, carried in pockets and purses, every type of rubbing and friction. It also includes every type of mishandling, the scratching, dropping sharp objects on coins, contact with any object that abrades or damages the coin's surface.

Uniform coin abrasion starts on the high point, and the more the item abrades from handling, the more relief is removed. A few microns of metal – the tiniest amount of weight – is dislodged and carried away. If abrasion continues to the extreme, as a very worn pocket piece, a slick, planchet-like disk would result (of several grains less weight than the original coin). But where the abrasion first occur, at high points, is of importance, as this has greatly influenced coin design.

Some coin designs have better "wearing" qualities than others, as coin designers have come to learn. The most useful technique is to raise the rim above all relief, in fact most coin designs are slightly basin shaped with the high point of relief actually lower than any point of the rim. In theory, therefore, the entire rim would have to wear away before the first wear appears on the design.

Coin condition factors to consider:

• Not all surfaces wear evenly, however, nor do both sides wear uniformly.

• In Europe, collectors and dealers grade each side of a coin separately (as: VF/F, meaning obverse very fine, reverse fine); in America one grade is determined for the piece as a whole.

• Toning or surface discolorations do not change a grade designation but is mandatory to be mentioned as a favorable or unfavorable aspect.

Factors affecting condition of medals. A medal's greatest enemy is its own weight. Heavy medals are extremely vulnerable to damage from dropping. Unless the medal has remained virtually undisturbed for its entire life, edge dents are common on large, heavy medals, these are termed EDGE KNOCKS or EDGE NICKS. Medals without these imperfections are said to have sharp edges.

Very light medals, on the other hand, as some European decorations, or HOLLOWBACK BADGES are pristine after years of use. These may have passed through a successions of owners and collectors and remained pristine, simply because they do not damage as greatly when dropped.

Often medals are issued in their own cases, this helps protect them. When a medal is sold years after its issue and still in its original case, this means that it has had some degree of protection during its lifetime. (It could have been extensively edge nicked or otherwise damaged from mishandling outside the case and returned to its case, but mostly a cased medal implies greater care has been exercised in its handling over the years.)

Another factor affecting medals is their ability to be REFINISHED. Other than perhaps plugging a hole, coins cannot be repaired or their finish changed. Medals, in contrast, can be repaired; upgraded in condition, and completely refinished – converted to pristine condition again. See repair and refinishing.

Medal condition factors to consider:

• Since medals do not circulate like coins they generally have high grade designations.

• Often a medallic item, as a badge or decoration, or medal in a mounting may have components of differing conditions, and should be noted separately

Book lovers should be word lovers as well.

Looking for the meaning of a numismatic word, or the description of a term?  Try the Newman Numismatic Portal's Numismatic Dictionary at:

Or if you would like a printed copy of the complete Encyclopedia, it is available. There are 1,854 terms, on 678 pages, in The Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology. Even running two a week would require more than 19 years to publish them all. If you would like an advance draft of this vital reference work it may be obtained from the author for your check of $50 sent postpaid. Dick Johnson, 139 Thompson Drive, Torrington, CT 06790.

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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