The Sheldon 70 point grading scale
From time to time we see references to the Sheldon 70 point grading scale when talking about the grading system that is currently being used in Numismatics today. For the benefit of those who are not familiar with what Dr. Sheldon did and why he did it, I’d like to offer a short summary.
William H. Sheldon was born in 1898. He first became interested in Early Large Cents at a young age while looking through his Fathers cigar box full of those big old coppers. By the time he was a teenager, he was pricing Early Large Cents for a local dealer and according to him, using a 70 point system. As the years went by he became quite the aficionado of Early Large Cents (those from 1793 through 1814). On three different occasions he assembled sets with the last containing all 290+ known collectable varieties at the time. To put that more into perspective, that collection contained at least 16 (sixteen) 1793 Large Cents! In 1948 he published EARLY AMERICAN CENTS detailing much of his research as well as introducing his 70 point concept to the hobby. (Technically speaking, it’s not even a 70 point system since Dr Sheldon only used 22 of the 70 numbers as compared to the 30 or so in use today.) Although Dr Sheldon is well respected by the numismatic community for his research, if not for his honesty, the general consensus at the time was that the 70 point concept was a “whimsical” idea. In 1958 he published a revised edition and apparently as a lighthearted gesture in response to the criticism renamed it PENNY WHIMSY.
In his 70 point grading system, Dr Sheldon was attempting to equate the value of Early Large Cents by using a numerical grade. To accomplish this he first determined the value of the various Cents in what he called “basal” state. This he defined as “identifiable and unmutilated”. For basal state he assigned the numerical grade 1 (one). Everything from here on is predicated on the basal value. By examining auction records and dealer price lists, along with a little interpretation on his part, he determined that a coin grading “good” was worth four times basal so he assigned the numerical grade 4. For a coin grading “fine” he determined that it was valued at 12 times basal and assigned the numerical grade 12 and so on up to “perfect uncirculated” which he determined to be 70 times Basal. So in effect, the 70 point system was chosen because it provided the multipliers he needed for his system to work (in most cases) with regard to common dates and varieties that were readily available.
If a particular coin was scarce, rare or a rare variety, additional calculations were necessary in order to determine value. This he accomplished by devising a set of 10 “rules” to be applied as needed based on the condition census at that time. For example, rule #5 states “If known to be in the first half dozen but not among the first three, and not full MS, value equals condition times basal times 1 ½”.
In some cases, rule #10 would need to also be applied. “If tied for honors with one or more coins, simply calculate what the total value of these coins would be when placed in descending order of rank as if there were no tie, and divide by the number of tied coins”. What that means is that in some cases, several rules would need to be applied in order to get the desired result.
Of particular interest is the fact that his system was designed for Early Large Cents of 1793 through 1814 and not for the remaining issues of Large Cents, nor any other series of US coins. Even at that, there were certain issues of Early Large Cents where his system would not generate the desired result. Also, the multipliers he determined for the scarce and rare varieties were skewed due to the fact that the information available for condition census coins was very limited at the time. From 1965 to 1990, more than a thousand Condition Census coins have surfaced. For many of the varieties, the finest known in Penny Whimsy would not be in the top six today.
Dr Sheldon was also rather vague in defining what constitutes a certain grade. He assigned three numbers for “good” coins (4, 5, & 6), but only has one description. The same for other adjectival grades on up the ladder. Clearly his objective was not so much to define the grades themselves, but to assign numbers to accommodate his system. Some of his adjectival grades are different than those being used today. In addition to basal for grade 1, he uses very fair for grade 3. The descriptions he offers for the various grades offer interesting reading as well. For example, he defines AU 50 as “Close attention or the use of a glass should be necessary to make out that the coin is not in perfect Mint State. Typically, the AU 50 coin retains its full sharpness but is darkened or is a little off color”. The descriptions for 60, 65 and 70, the only three MS grades he used, are very vague as well. Here’s what he says about MS 60. “For condition 60 a minor blemish, perhaps some microscopic injury, or light trace of discoloration may be tolerated”.
One interesting note is that in his breakdown by variety he lists 9 (NINE) MS- 70’s in the condition census for the 1795 Large Cent!
As you can see, aside from the numbers themselves, today’s numerical grading standards have little in common with Dr Sheldon’s. We can only speculate as to what the current system might look like today had Dr Sheldon needed a multiplier of 93 or 117 for his “perfect Uncirculated”.