How Important is Strike?

How important is strike when it comes to determining the desirability of a gold coin? In my opinion, probably not as important as it should be and for what is probably an odd reason. For certain series, strike is a critical component in determining the value of a coin. As an example, a certain date in the Mercury Dime or the Standing Liberty Quarter series might be worth $1,000 in MS65 with a normal quality strike but $20,000 with a sharp strike. There are no gold series in which strike carries a significant premium. Why?

I would have to say the answer has to deal with clever marketing. A few decades ago, some clever marketers made up Full Split Band and Full Head designations and proposed that they were worth enormous premiums. It was discovered that these coins were, in many cases, very hard to find with a sharp strike. You could look through roll upon roll of common coins like the 1945 Dime and not find one with Full Split Bands. Clearly the few examples that were well struck were worth premiums.

Why aren’t gold coins marketed with strike designations? Probably because no one has (yet…) thought of a way to make collectors pay a huge premium for a St. Gaudens double eagle with a full torch or a New Orleans quarter eagle with complete feathers on the eagle’s left leg. But if PCGS or NGC were to suddenly bless the concept of strike rarity in certain gold series, you can bet that certain issues would suddenly command huge premiums.

Why should gold coin collectors care about strike? In my opinion, poorly struck gold coins often have bad eye appeal and should be avoided. However, there are exceptions. As an example, certain branch mint issues are always weakly struck. I have never seen an 1856-D quarter eagle that was not very poorly struck and because of this I will not use strike as a consideration when determining whether of not I am going to buy an 1856-D. But an issue like the 1848-D quarter eagle is usually well struck and if I am offered a piece that has a distinctly below average strike, the chances are good that I will pass.

It is important for collectors to learn which issues are well struck and which are not. This is one reason why my books on gold coins go into careful detail on strike for every branch mint issue. If you pass on a lovely original 1849-O eagle just because it has weak stars, you are making a big mistake: every known example is very flat on the stars. But if you are offered a nice Uncirculated 1847-O quarter eagle with an extremely weak reverse, some basic knowledge of the series will show that this issue can be found with reasonably sharp detail on the reverse.

If you decide to collect U.S. gold coins (or any coins for that matter) learning how the coins are supposed to look is any extremely important consideration. Look at as many examples of what you collect as you are able to. Read all you can. The more information you have at your disposal, the more informed your buying decisions will be.

Grading Early United States Gold Coins

For a variety of reasons, early gold coins are among the most difficult United States issues to grade. There is often discrepancy in grading these coins, even between experts. While it is impossible to teach a collector how to grade based on digital images, I thought it might be a good idea to display a few pre-1834 gold coins here and analyze them as to why they grade the way they do. Before looking at these specific coins, there are a few things to consider. First are the reasons why these issues are more difficult to grade than 20th century pieces. The basic reason is the pre-1834 United States gold coins are, for the most part, hand-produced items made on old-fashioned screw presses while later-date issues are mass-produced items that were struck using more modern steam presses.

As I have discussed in other articles about grading, there are five components that experts take into consideration when examining an early gold coin: strike, surface preservation, coloration, luster and eye appeal.

Strike is a relatively important factor in grading early gold but it does require a good degree of attendant knowledge. As an example, it would be incorrect for someone to penalize an issue such as an 1806/4 quarter eagle for being weakly struck at the center as all known examples exhibit weakness in this area. Conversely, an issue such an 1812 half eagle which is generally seen with a good strike might be properly penalized if an example had a very weak strike.

Surface preservation is very important when determining the grade of an early gold coin. If a coin has deep marks in key focal points (i.e., on the face of Liberty or in the left obverse field) this will certainly cause a deduction in grade. One confusing area in relation to early issues is adjustment marks. These are parallel scratches that were intentionally placed on overweight coins in an attempt to get them to conform to then-current weight standards. Generally speaking, unobtrusive adjustment marks do not cause a coin's grade to be lowered. Marks that are positioned in prime focal areas are considered negatives and may cause the grade to be lowered.

Since so few early gold coins show original coloration, this is no longer a critical factor in determining grade. If a coin that has the detail of an About Uncirculated-50 has very pretty original color, it is almost certain to be bumped up to at least an About Uncirculated-55 grade if not higher. Lack of color will not be a penalizing factor but the presence of good color is certainly a big plus for any early gold issue.

Luster is an extremely important factor in determining the grade of an early gold coin. Given the fact that so many pieces are poorly struck, show heavy marks or possess mint-made faults, the amount of luster that is present is a tangible fact that does not require great expertise to determine. In other words, an early gold coin either has luster or it doesn't and the amount that is present is a great aid in determining how much--if any--wear the piece has.

For any coin, the overall level of eye appeal is the single key element in determining grade (and value). When an expert grader looks at an early gold coin, the first thing he considers is the "look" of the coin. Is it attractive or unattractive? How does it compare to other examples of this date or type that he has seen?

Included below are good quality digital images of a few early gold coins that I have recently sold. After you view each image, I suggest you apply each of the five grading components I just discussed. Then, read my comments as they relate to the coin's strike, surface preservation, luster, coloration and eye appeal. I am going to list the actual grade for each coin at the end of this article so don't cheat and look at the grades before trying to determine what you think they grade!

1. 1801 Eagle

My first impression is that this is a fresh, original and attractive coin. It shows some weakness of strike at the stars on the right obverse but the rest of the detail is very sharp.

The surfaces are relatively well preserved. There are some scuffmarks in the obverse fields which are not overly detracting. The only significant abrasion is a reeding mark on Liberty's face. There is no rub on the cheek or signs of wear on the high spots, which means that this is an Uncirculated piece.

The luster is excellent. The obverse is very frosty while the reverse is more prooflike. Even if I had never seen another Eagle of this date or type, I would assume that the luster is decidedly above-average.

The coloration is a rich orange-gold hue which, from the image, looks original due to its evenness. Again, this is a very big plus and I would assume that not many 1801 eagles show this lovely coloration.

The overall eye appeal is very high. With the exception of the mark on the cheek of Liberty, I see no negatives about this coin. It is unquestionably "new" and it seems to be choice, based on its sharpness, luster and color.

2. 1803/2 Half Eagle

My first impression of this coin is that is has superb color and is about as original as one could hope for. It shows some light, even wear but is as attractive a circulated early gold coin as one might hope to find.

The surfaces of this coin are exceptional. Other than some light friction in the fields (which can be distinguished from weakness of strike by the difference of color between these areas and the high spots) there are no readily noticeable marks.

The luster is mostly obscured by the depth of the coloration. If the viewer looks at the protected areas (i.e., within the stars and around the date) he can see some traces of luster which would be more clear if the coin were lightened.

The best feature of this coin is its stunning deep reddish-gold color. This is what a 200 year old gold coin that is totally original should look like and it adds at least three (if not five) points to the overall grade. No more than 5% of all early gold coins show original color and just a smaller number have this lovely (and desirable) reddish-gold hue.

This is a very attractive, nearly flawless coin with just a bit of light wear noted. Its nice color, clean surfaces and originality give it a very strong degree of eye appeal.

3. 1830 Quarter Eagle

With the advent of new technology in the late 1820's, the quality of strike improved on United States gold coins. The reduced sized Capped Head Left quarter eagle was produced from 1829 to 1834 and it is generally found with good detail and a much better "look" than the quarter eagles produced from 1796 to 1808. This type did not circulate much and when available, survivors tend to come in relatively high grades.

My first impression about this coin is that it is very fresh and bright. It shows some marks in the fields but its vibrancy is enough to make these marks seem unimportant. It is important to remember on a coin like this that the number of marks that are present is not as important as their severity. In other words, a number of small scuffmarks in the obverse fields (as on this coin) are not as important as a few deep, detracting marks in similar areas.

This coin has excellent luster that is more suggestive of a late 19th century issue than one from 1830. From the image, it appears that the luster is very frosty in its texture with some slight reflectiveness in the fields. It appears to be unbroken and relatively undisturbed, leading the viewer to believe that this is an Uncirculated piece.

The coloration is an even medium to deep yellow and green-gold. It is attractive and even if the viewer has never seen another example of this date, this hue should appear to be well above-average.

The overall level of eye appeal is excellent. This is clearly an unworn coin that has a good strike, pleasing surfaces, great luster and nice color.

4. 1807 Bust Right Half Eagle

So how have you done so far? Getting more comfortable grading these early coins? Well don't get too comfortable because I've saved the hardest coin for last.

The 1807 Bust Right half eagle is the final year of issue for this type. It is found with a number of varieties as well as many different looks. This example is a late die state with a "sunken" look noted on the obverse.

But is the weakness at the center strike-related or is it wear? The answer lies in the fact that the luster on this coin is full with no breaks noted in the fields or on the high spots.

I stated earlier in this article that strike is the least important factor when grading an early gold coin. This is true but in the case of this piece, where the important central detail on the obverse has been partially obscured, it is likely that a grader will deduct some points from this coin's overall grade.

In addition, the surfaces show a number of marks. It is likely that this coin was transported loose in a bag from bank to bank in the early 19th century and in the process it picked-up some noticeable marks.

Not everything about this coin, however, is a negative. It has great luster and the coloration is lovely with rich green-gold and lemon hues strongly suggesting that it has never been cleaned or dipped.

While not everyone will agree with me, I happen to like this coin quite a bit. I am a stickler for originality and I would personally rather own a weakly struck, somewhat "baggy" early half eagle than one which was sharper and less marked-up but which was washed-out from having been overzealously dipped.

Early gold is an area where gaining knowledge will give the collector a decided advantage when making purchases. Given the fact that these are expensive coins, I would suggest that careful study is in order. For more information on grading early gold coins or on early gold in general please feel free to email me at

The grades of the coins listed above are as follows:

    1801 Eagle: PCGS Mint State-63

    1803/2 Half Eagle: NGC About Uncirculated-55

    1830 Quarter Eagle: PCGS Mint State-63

    1807 Bust Right Half Eagle: NGC Mint State-61

The Five Components of Coin Grading

A "grade" is a shorthand devised by numismatists to indicate the appearance of a coin. In other words, if one collector tells another that he has an About Uncirculated-50 Charlotte half eagle, both collectors should have an expectation of what the coin should look like, even if one has never seen it, due to the implications of its grade. For many years, there were a relatively small number of adjectival grades. Grading became more "scientific" in the 1940's when the numerical grading scale was invented by Dr. William Sheldon. This scale, which ranged from 1 to 70, was originally devised to ascertain values of 1793-1814 Large Cents by ascribing a basal value to each variety and multiplying this value by the grade in order to determine a price.

The Sheldon grading scale is now used by most numismatists. Newcomers tend to complain that there are "too many grades" but experienced graders appreciate that there can be a huge range in quality between specific ranges.

To better understand coin grading, it is important to study the major components of grade. When I grade a coin, I employ five important individual components which, when taken into consideration as a whole, help me determine my opinion of a coin's grade. These individual components are strike, surface preservation, luster, coloration and eye appeal.

Strike: The strike of a coin refers to the process of stamping a design onto a planchet or a blank. A coin can have either a strong or a weak strike. Much of this depends on a coin's design. As an example, certain designs (such as the Type II gold dollar) have the highest relief element on the obverse directly aligned with the highest relief element on the reverse. This means that weakly struck coins are the rule for these designs. Other designs (such as the Indian Head quarter eagle) may be found with sharp strikes on certain issues and weak strikes on others.

Generally speaking, strike is not a major element in determining the grade of a coin unless it is in a series in which value is related to strike. In a series such as Mercury Dimes, where a PCGS MS-66 1945 dime is worth $15 and the same coin with a full strike (designated in this series as "Full Bands") is worth $7,500, strike is a huge element. In all but a handful of circumstances, strike does not play a critical role in determining the value or United States gold coins.

Surface Preservation: The number of marks on a coin and their placement are important factors in determining grade. There is no set formula that says "X" number of marks on a coin's surface means that it grades "Y." But there are some fairly normalized standards in terms of the importance of an abrasion's location.

If a very nice coin has a deep mark that it is well-hidden on the reverse, it tends not to be severely penalized. But if the exact same mark was located in a prominent focal point on the obverse (the cheek on a Liberty Head double eagle, as an example) it would be penalized considerably more.

Coins that have a very open, uncluttered design tend to show marks more obviously than those with tight, compact designs. For this reason, the intensity of the marks on a Liberty double eagle play a greater role in determining grade than on a Type Three gold dollar.

Certain types of coins are known for showing greater concentrations of marks than others. As an example, the quarter eagles struck from 1821 to 1834 did not see ready circulation. They tend to have reasonably clean surfaces. Indian Head quarter eagles, on the other hand, saw a greater degree of circulation. It is much harder to find examples that do not have the marks, scratches and scuffmarks associated with circulation and/or poor handling.

On United States gold coins, surface preservation is very important in determining grade.

Luster: Depending on the design, mint of origin and the metal used a coin may have a variety of surface textures. These include satiny, frosty, semi-prooflike and prooflike. When analyzing the surface of a coin in regards to grade, there are two things to look for: the amount of the original surface (or "skin") that is intact and the amount (and location) of marks.

There is really not one type of surface that is "better" than another. In certain series, such as Morgan dollars, premiums are paid for pieces with mirror-like surfaces. In most other series, prooflike coins may be regarded as interesting but not necessarily worth a premium.

On 19th century United States gold coins, I am most fond of a frosty texture. This texture can be found on issues from all mints but it is most closely associated with Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Luster is especially important in determining if a coin is Uncirculated or not. A Mint State coin is, technically, free of wear and should not have major breaks in the luster. However, this is often not the case for coins graded Mint State-60 and Mint State-61. These coins will typically show breaks in the luster; perhaps as a result of a light cleaning or "rub" that occurs from improper storage in an album. A coin that is not Uncirculated will show a greater amount of breaks in the luster and, obviously, a smaller amount of luster.

Luster is another very important component in determining the grade of a United States gold coin.

Coloration: Color is the most subjective factor in determining grade. A coin is either well struck or it's not well struck; this is not open to debate. But a gold coin that shows deep green-gold color may be attractive to one viewer and unattractive to another. In my opinion, attractive original coloration greatly enhances the appearance of a coin.

Gold is a relatively inert metal and not subject to as much variance in coloration as silver or copper. However, a wide range of colors may be present on gold coins.

Coins from the Charlotte and Dahlonega mints have very distinctive coloration as a result of the amount of silver or copper that was part of the gold found in these sources. Philadelphia and San Francisco pieces have much different coloration.

The majority of United States gold coins have been cleaned or dipped at one time. As a result, they no longer display original coloration. As collectors become more savvy, they are often attracted to coins with pleasing natural color. In many series, it is almost impossible to find original pieces. In the near future, it is likely that totally original pieces will be accorded a strong premium over "typical" examples.

Color is not as important a factor in determining the grade of a gold coin as it is on a silver or copper coin.

Eye Appeal: The four individual components listed above, when combined, form an all-encompassing component that is called "eye appeal." This is a fairly self-explanatory term. A coin that has good eye appeal may be very strong in one area (excellent luster, for example) and good in another (nice but not great color). If a coin is negative in one area (very heavy marks, for example) but acceptable in all others, it is still likely to be noted as having below-average eye appeal.

The concept of eye appeal seems subjective but it is really not. Most sophisticated coin buyers will agree that a certain coin has good or bad eye appeal. But it does require a certain level of knowledge to make this determination.

There are some specific dates or types that almost always come with poor eye appeal and a coin that is somewhat attractive may be considered to have good eye appeal "for the date." As an example, all known 1870-CC double eagles have heavily abraded surfaces. A coin that has typical marks but none located in very prime focal points may be looked at as having good eye appeal for the issue. But if this were any other date, the exact same coin might be regarded as having poor eye appeal. It takes in-depth knowledge of a specific series to make this determination.

Grading is an important subject and this article could easily have been two or three times longer. If you have any questions regarding the five components of coin grading, please feel free to email me at and I will do my best to answer them.