When it comes to the differences between, the slightly circulated (almost uncirculated) or AU58 and just-made-it (mint state) or MS60 Morgan Dollars, it's often in the eyes of the beholder. The differences between the two grades is so small that it's become one of the most misrepresented and often "cluttered" areas of coin grading.
Sometimes it's obvious a coin has attained the smallest amount of circulation from handling, but other times it's not as obvious. So how do you discern the difference when it's not obvious? Do you look at the type and the amount of contact marks, the color or toning aspects or is it just the over-all look of the coin?
It's not an easy answer and while the above aspects play a huge part in the process of grading an AU58 it's not the end-all for the grade. If you have experience in grading coins then circulation means wear from handling the coin, and wear signifies a slight loss of metal or original luster, and we mean slight and only on the highest points of the design when it comes to AU58.
However, there's times when the appearance of wear can be mistaken as just weakly struck high points or high points that have been smashed while the coins where stacked, rolled or lay in mint bags, on top of each other for years from being stored in mint vaults and banks. And this is where the problems arise when buying Morgan Dollars.
One person's AU58 might be another person's MS60 or even higher and it's not just collectors that can make this mistake but dealers can to. Also, some unscrupulous sellers or dealers might just tout a coin as MS when it's actually AU, and this is because some dates are extremely rare in MS grades. In example, the 1884-S Morgan Dollar graded AU55 by PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) is valued at around $625, and AU58 is around $1,500, and MS60 is around $8,000!
As you can see, for each grade, the value increases dramatically, and this has caused raw coin sellers to see only dollar signs and one reason to never buy raw coins without a lot of research and experience. It's a fact that there's not much difference between AU58 and MS60 and even the top grading companies can get it wrong, so can anybody. So it's not just raw coin sellers or unscrupulous sellers to watch out for since some already certified and graded coins just might be over or under a point or two as well.
It's one reason people have turned to the CAC (Certified Acceptance Corporation) to place a sticker on an already certified coin, grading the grading services grade. However, CAC doesn't do anything with coins that they feel are under-graded, so this isn't a solution either. But don't despair since out of several hundred MS60 graded Morgan Dollars you are unlikely to find more than a couple that actually would down-grade to AU58, it's just some words of caution on the matter and I am not trying to ruin reputations or expectations of any reputable dealer or grading service.
Of course I could keep adding more an more details, examples and arguments, but let's just cut to the chase and examine some images of AU58 and MS60 coins. We can't 100% grade a coin from images but these images are huge and can give you a better idea and further your understanding of these two grades. You can click on any image in this guide and see a larger file for better detail.
Click Image To Zoom
Click image to zoom
Click image to zoom
The above image is a typical AU58 and a coin that has the appearance and amount of circulation wear that most people would expect a AU58 to have (If you click on the image it opens in a new browser window) you will see a zoomed image of this coin.
The high points of the obverse is the hair above the ear (main focal point), the strands of hair that are above and just behind the line of the forehead (second focal point), the second curl of hair just above the date and situated between the last digit of the date and the star, the top part of the eyebrow, the top part of the cheek under the eye, the tip of the cap and the fold under the tip of the outer leaf.
On the reverse it's the breast feathers and just behind the eagle's beak.
If on or more of these areas show signs of wear (missing metal) then the coin must be considered at least AU. A die strikes the planchet with a large amount of pressure and this creates a brief amount of heat, and this causes the metal to flow into the recesses of the die design. It also creates a thin layer on the surface of the coin and is referred to as the original surface and often called original mint luster.
This layer is so thin that it can be removed by chemicals or rubbing and those usually result in a discoloration, sometimes almost imperceptible to the naked eye, but there is a difference between an untouched original luster and a altered surface of this layer. A change that can't always be seen in images and is sometimes not easy to detect without magnification. The discoloration I am referring to is only on the high point(s) and does not include toning that's on a larger area that encompasses lower areas of the design as well.
Further note, many Morgan Dollars are weakly struck over the ear and the breast feathers and this increases the difficulty of grading AU58 verses MS63 since even higher grade Morgan Dollars can have weakly struck high points. I have an example of this at the end of this guide.
I honestly don't think anyone can be 100% positive in all cases but it's close to 95%+ If any grading service claims to know 100% then why not use AU59 or even AU57? There's a reason why AU58 is used as the highest point grade for a circulated coin, in my opinion, it's a "cushion" grade or a "safe" grade as to place more than one point between an already problematic grading area. The other images in this article should shed more light on this subject.
High points of a Morgan Dollar's design and the first to show signs of wear. Click image to zoom.
Here's another example for referense of a AU58 Morgan Dollar that appears graded appropriately. You will see several auctions at ebay that will try to describe this coin as uncirculated or that it's possibly uncirculated, so buyers beware.
Here's an AU58 graded coin that might be another person's or grading service's AU55 because it has more contact marks than the previous two in this guide. However, it's not the marks so much as the amount of wear. There's just too many examples of MS examples that have heavier marks than even this AU example to down-grade it for the contact marks.
This AU58 example is so close to MS that some would claim it was and it's another perfect example of a coin you might see for sell raw and being described as BU (Brilliant Uncirculated). However, there's coins that have weak strikes on the hair above the ear and/or breast feathers so you must look at the other high points for wear. If you look closely at the hair above the forehead you can see some discoloration on that high point and that usually signifies it has been circulated.
The next three coins are examples of a MS60 graded coins and all of these coin where graded by a reputable grading service. As you can see the coins don't look much different from the AU58 examples and this is in part because we're looking at images and because of light reflections. It's just another reminder to err on the side of caution when buying raw coins online.
If these last two AU58 images look the same, they should, because they're the same coin. I used an image of the same coin with different lighting to show how one can look closer to BU with changes in lighting and shadows. Both coins are exact, same marks, same wear, same amount of toning or luster but both can be made to look different at a glance.
We're now down to the MS examples and this particular MS63 coin is important, because it has the appearance of wear the high point of the design. However, look closely at the coin and click it for the zoom image, you will see it's not wear but flatness of these areas. Now look at the same areas for the AU58 examples then back to this coin, and you can see that there's no missing luster, metal or wear of any kind on this MS63 coin.
It does not look the same as wear and this is a good aspect of coin grading to learn to distinguish. Missing metal is wear, but the flattening of metal is not, and this flattening can be caused from being stacked under coins for years and also from being struck weakly.
Here'a another coin I decided to add to the mix because of it's high grade but obvious weak strike. The coin is graded by PCGS MS67 and is a supberb example with original luster that is most sought after by collectors. Some would think the weak strike would prevent this coin from grading MS67, but not in this case.
When grading Morgan Dollars AU verses MS most people look at the hair over the ear and the breast feathers, and ignore most other high points. This is a mistake since the hair above the ear and the breast feathers can be struck weak and may not either have wear or the other high points received wear first. So I provided three clos-eup images of the hair just above the forehead and an area that's usually obscured by all the wavy lines of hair.
The first image is circulation wear from one of the AU58 examples, the second image is "flattened" and is the MS63 above, and the third image is the weak struck MS67 1904-O. The images are not the clearest but you can see a difference in all three of these images.
In conclusion, I hope this guide helped you understand coin grading better in general and if you like this article, share it and like us on Facebook here.