The terms “Mint State” (MS), “Uncirculated” (Unc.), and “Brilliant Uncirculated” (BU) are all used to describe the condition of a coin that has not entered circulation. These coins are minted to a higher standard than circulated coins, created with investors and collectors in mind. With the vast majority of investors now purchasing coins online — where they are unable to examine the piece in great detail — understanding what these terms mean is crucial.
Created by William Herbert Sheldon, JR. the Sheldon Coin Grading Scale, or simply the Sheldon Scale, is a grading system that gives all coins a number between 1 and 70, with 1 being the lowest quality and 70 being the highest. This scale was first used in 1949 and the grading system that we use today was based on it, with only a few minor changes made.
The term “uncirculated” is used simply as a way of distinguishing coins that were meant for circulation from those that were not. It is not an indictor that the coin is flawless, far from it. In fact, coins that have multiple bag marks (nicks and scratches from where one coin has come into contact with many others in a mint bag) and other blemishes can still be listed as “uncirculated” if they are not meant for circulation.
This is where the Sheldon Scale comes in. Coins that are graded between 60 and 70 on this scale are preceded by the initials MS, which stands for “Mint State”. All coins are uncirculated and should therefore show no signs of wear.
These are official grades and show that a coin has been graded by a professional, often one of the leading grading companies. These include ANACS, NGC and PCGS, each with their own standards and levels of consistency.
Grading companies may attach different grades to the same coin, even though they are all following the same system. This complicates matters, and to complicate them either further, you have to consider that not all coins are professionally graded.
When a coin is not of a high enough value to warrant an official grading, the dealer will often attach the terms “Uncirculated” (Unc.), or “Brilliant Uncirculated” (BU). In the case of the former, it means the coin has no signs of wear, but may have a number of visible marks and blemishes. In the case of the latter, the dealer is suggesting that this coin is of high quality, with all of the original mint luster, as well as very few blemishes and minimal discoloration.
“Brilliant Uncirculated” is also known as “Mint Condition” or “Mint State”.