Grading Mercury Dimes

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1939-D Mercury Dime - MS-60 Uncirculated
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1939-D Mercury Dime - MS-60 Uncirculated

About Grading Coins

Being able to accurately grade collectible coinage is a vocation and skill that can take most coin collectors literally decades to perfect, but it doesn’t have to. Decades can be compressed into years or even months if you have only 2 things: Some time for research and some coins to grade. The best way to speed the process up is information and research. Being an informed coin collector lets you make solid informed coin collecting decisions which will only serve you well in your numismatic experiences for years to come.
Always keep in mind that coin grading is the expression of an educated opinion that accurately describes the condition of a given individual coin that most dealers and collectors would agree with.
At times subjective, grading collectible coins is not an exact science utilizing a prescribed formula that can be applied by anyone to arrive at the same conclusion about the condition of any given coin. Instead, the skill has evolved directly from the efforts of untold numbers of coin collectors (numismatists), coin dealers and clubs, and coin grading services who have, over many decades, all agreed on certain descriptions and definitions, that universally help all coin collectors describe the coins in their collections consistently and somewhat accurately. This guide will inform you of some of these descriptions and definitions so you can not only accurately grade your collection, but describe it accurately as well.
Just remember that the task of grading any collectible coin is a skill that can only come from research and examining as many coins as possible, and in as many different grades as possible. This will give you a better understanding of how much and where a particular coin wears during it’s lifespan in circulation. This guide is here to help you get on your way to becoming a more knowledgeable coin collector.

Understanding the “Mercury” or Winged Liberty Head Designs (1916-1945)
In my experience, no matter what you choose to call them, Winged Head Liberty Dimes, Winged Liberty Head Dimes, or just good ole “Mercury” Dimes I think are a little easier to grade than some other coin varieties of the United States for several reasons, not the least of which concerns the reverse of this small silver coin, where the results of being in circulation are plainly evident and easily seen on the main design device on the reverse of the coin called the fasces. (Also see: History of a U.S. Dime)
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FASCES – a cylindrical bundle of elm and/or birch rods tied tightly together by bands, from which an ax head projects. They were created for Lictors – body guards and/or attendants for judges and/or high officials – as a symbol depicting their authority.
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In fact, generally speaking, the better condition the reverse of a Mercury dime is in, the more it can be worth to many collectors. This fact is directly related to the fasces on the reverse and whether or not it can be designated as having “fully split bands” or “FSB”. Calling a Mercury dime “FSB” is stating that the center horizontal bands on the fasces, are clearly and completely separated into distinct bands. This occurs somewhat rarely with Mercury dimes since it only happens when these 90% silver coins are struck particularly well, and then kept out of circulation. This is especially true since aside from Lady Liberty’s face, cheekbones, and ear area near her wings, these bands are so minute they are the first things to wear down on the entire coin, and as a result can be major factors in determining a coin’s grade and value, especially in key date, and high mint state caliber coins.
Below are explanations to the 8 common grades up to Mint State 60 (or Brilliant  Uncirculated) coins, including MS63.
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About Good 3 (AG3 / AG-3)
Summary: The coin is worn heavily and just about illegible. One or more of the design device and legends may be worn smooth, but the date is readable*. Places on the rim blend through to the letters.
Obverse: Just the outlines of major design details are visible. The motto’s, legends, and date and are worn almost flat but readable. In “LIBERTY” the tops of the letters are beginning to blend into the rim.
Reverse: The entire design is basically worn down flat and the letters around the rim, and the rim, have merged together.

Good 4 (G4 / G-4)
Summary: The coin is worn heavily overall but shows slightly more detail than an AG3. The device designs, lettering, legends, motto and date are readable but may be rather faint in some areas. All major design features are present in at least outline form while the rim may be incomplete in a several areas.
Obverse: The details on Lady Liberty’s head are well worn but the basic outline is visible. Several letters in “LIBERTY” may be slightly separated from the rim.
Reverse: The fasces is in complete outline and is just about worn flat. All 3 bands holding the rods together are gone.

Very Good 8 (VG8 / VG-8)
Summary: The silver coin is well worn but shows but shows slightly more detail than a G4. The design devices may clear and major features are well defined but can be flat and lacking in some details.
Obverse: Lady Liberty’s head has lost detail while some major design details are in outline form only, especially regarding her wing. The letters in “LIBERTY” are separated from the rim although 1 or 2 may be starting to blend in.
Reverse: Like on the obverse the letters are separated from the rim while some of the vertical lines in the rods on the fasces are starting to show through on the sides.
 
Fine 12 (F12 / F-12)
Summary: The dime presents even, moderate wear over both surfaces of the coin and shows slightly more detail than a VG8 example. The major design devices are rather bold while all lettering, legends, and date are clearly defined.
Obverse: Lady Liberty has more detail in the hair and in the feathers on the wings, but most are faint and indistinct.
Reverse: More vertical lines in the rods are visible but are mostly lacking in detail. The horizontal bands are worn but fairly visible, and may even be worn almost flat in the center fasces.

Very Fine 20 (VF20 / VF-20)
Summary: On all highest areas of the design devices, moderate to minor wear and a slight flatness is starting to become evident . The coin is still pleasing though and has a lot of eye appeal while showing slightly more detail than an F12 coin.
Obverse: Lady Liberty’s hair looks worn and while most details are visible they can be smooth. About 3/4 of the wing details are still present.
Reverse: While the details in the olive branch are strong, and all of the vertical lines on the fasces are distinct, wear is still evident on both the horizontal and diagonal bands.

Extra Fine 40 (EF40 / XF40 / EF-40 / XF-40)
Summary: The very highest points of the coin show only the slightest wear. Details are all distinct and all design devices are well defined. Small traces of mint luster may still exist. The dime shows slightly more detail than a VF20 example.
Obverse: All the details on Lady Liberty’s head are present and show little wear. Her cheek, the midpoint of her wing, and her neckline may show some slight wear. All device details are rather crisp and sharp and a small bit of mint luster may still exist in the low areas of the silver coin.
Reverse: The rods in the fasces are all clearly separated and well-defined, and although the diagonal and horizontal bands are distinct and clear they may still present some wear.

About Uncirculated 55 (AU55 / AU-55)
Summary: Minute traces of abrasions and/or wear are only visible on the highest areas of the coin. The dime show slightly more detail than an EF40 dime. Mint luster is just about complete while the surfaces of the coin are very pleasing to the eye.
Obverse: Small traces of wear can be seen only the very highest areas of Lady Liberty’s cheek, the midpoint of her wing, and in her curls above her forehead).
Reverse: Only slight traces of wear show on the diagonal and horizontal bands on the fasces. Most of the mint luster is still evident on the silver dime.

Mint State 60 (MS60 / MS-60)
(a.k.a. Gem BU, Gem, BU)
Summary: Not a trace of wear from circulation can be found – period. Mint luster is complete but the coin presents minor flaws (bag marks – nicks, dings, small scratches) both in the fields, and on devices. Multiple bag marks, dings, nicks, and hairline scratches can be present in the coin’s field and on major device designs which are visible with the naked eye. All-in-all, the coin has huge eye appeal and shows slightly more detail than an AU55 .
Obverse: Original mint luster is complete and covers both sides of the coin. Distracting contact marks or other small flaws may be present on Lady Liberty’s face and in the field of the coin, keeping it from the higher mint state grades.
Reverse: Original mint luster covers the entire surface of the coin. A few distracting contact marks exist on the blade and body of the fasces.

Mint State 63 (MS63 / MS-63)
Summary: The coin possesses a high quality, possibly even “frosty” mint luster, that completely covers both sides of the coin. Bag marks are few and far in-between. Even though the dime is well struck a few hairlines may exist under magnification. All-in-all the coin shines brilliantly and possess an above average eye appeal. It shows slightly more detail than an MS63.
Obverse: Light or small contact marks may exist on the coin, but no distracting contact marks are on Ms. Liberty’s face.
Reverse: A few light and small contact marks may exist on the surface of the coin but there are no distracting marks on the blade or body of the fasces.

Final note: The MS scale goes up to Mint State 70 (almost non-existent), there is also a scale for proof coins – PF60 through PF70, both of which are beyond the scope of this guide.
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