How we grade

ICG’S GRADING STANDARDS should be familiar to our clients and users, because they are strongly based on the International Bank Note Society’s (IBNS) own grading standards for world paper money. These standards have been “the law” for several decades and are generally accepted and used by a majority of participants in the hobby. For these reasons, the IBNS standards seemed an obvious place to start and will provide ICG grades a recognizable feel to collectors. The ICG grading scale follows the traditional English convention of nine grading points – uncirculated (UNC), almost uncirculated (AU), extra fine (EF), very fine (VF), fine (F), very good (VG), good (G), fair (F) and poor (P). The general characteristics of notes falling into each of these grading categories are described below in the ICG grading scale.

 

There are however some nuances in the ICG grading system which incorporate both accepted conventions and new developments in the hobby and which might expand or perhaps differ from the IBNS grading standards. We describe some of these below and the way ICG will deal with them.

 

INTERMEDIATE GRADES

 

It is widely accepted that not all notes conform neatly to one of the nine grading categories described above. Certain notes fall in between two grades or, falling in one of the grades, they are particularly pleasant examples of the grade. Dealers and collectors use intermediate grades such as “very fine plus”, “good very fine”, “choice very fine” or “almost extra fine” to describe such notes. ICG will use two denominations to describe such grades. For notes squarely between two grades, we will simply use the two grades in our description, such as “fine/very fine (F/VF)” or “extra fine/almost uncirculated (EF/AU)”. For notes which we believe are particularly good examples of a given grade, but don’t have characteristics of the higher grade, we will use the word “plus”, as in “very fine plus (VF+)” or “extra fine plus (EF+)”. We will only use these qualifiers in the higher grades in order to limit the number of overall grades in our scale.

 

THE UNCIRCULATED GRADES AT ICG

 

An “uncirculated” note is meant to be a flawless note, without any signs of handling, and certainly no folds or blemishes. However, “flawless” is a very demanding concept, and it is the case that a vast majority of the uncirculated notes traded and collected in the paper money hobby are not 100% flawless, and that a certain amount of leeway is acceptable while still considering that a note is uncirculated, particularly if the note is 30, 50 or more years old. Professional grading companies have expanded on this concept and found enough room within the uncirculated category to accommodate up to 13 different grading definitions for strictly “uncirculated” notes. At ICG we accept that a small degree of flexibility is possible and generally accepted within the uncirculated category, but we believe an excessive range within the category is hard to justify in grading terms and might lead to confusion among collectors and other practitioners. ICG has therefore restricted the range of our uncirculated grades to four categories only, which we denominate as “perfect uncirculated”, “gem uncirculated”, “choice uncirculated” and “uncirculated”. We believe this range captures the nuances generally accepted for uncirculated notes in the hobby without introducing unnecessary confusion for notes which are meant to be “flawless” to begin with.

 

THE ICG NUMERICAL SCALE

 

The ICG descriptive grading scale (from uncirculated to poor) is complemented with a numerical scale, ranging from 70 for the highest possible grade (“perfect uncirculated”) to 2 for the lowest grade in the scale (“poor”). The numerical scale has 21 grade points altogether and each grading category (i.e “very fine plus”) will be associated with a single number on the scale (i.e “35”). Thus, each number on the scale will correspond to a given grade and will be accompanied of a detailed description of the characteristics associated with all notes assigned that grade. You will find below the ICG full grading scale and the descriptions associated to each specific grade.

 

PERFECT UNC / ICG70 NOTES

 

The top step in the ICG grading scale is described as “perfect uncirculated”, and assigned a numerical value of 70. This grading corresponds to truly flawless notes, which have no folds, marks, handling, bends, discoloration, counting marks, pinholes or any other faults and which have perfect corners and bright original paper. Although notes of this high standard may represent a relatively small percentage of the overall universe of “uncirculated” notes seen in the market, we do occasionally encounter notes of this top quality, mainly among more modern issues. For this reason, ICG in practice has assigned and will continue to assign “perfect uncirculated / ICG70” grades to some of the notes it grades.

 

DEFECTS AND FLAWS; THE ICG ASTERISK

 

While a note’s grade will be defined by its general degree of circulation; number of folds and creases, handling and overall paper condition; there are other defects or flaws which affect the quality of the note but which are not strictly part of the grade. The “old school” view in the hobby is that such defects should not affect the grade but should be described in detail in conjunction with the actual grade, and ICG subscribes fully to that view. Therefore, ICG uses an asterisk next to its numerical value grade to indicate that in addition to its grade, a note may have further flaws or unnatural problems. ICG will use the asterisk sign whenever a note has noticeable pinholes, unusual staple holes, discoloration, water damage, graffiti, ink smudges, rust, paper nicks or tears, or has been trimmed or repaired or altered in any other way. ICG will pay particular attention to the growing problem of banknote washing and pressing. For example, light pressing on an “extra fine / ICG45” note will be indicated by an asterisk and described on the back of the ICG holder, but as long as the pressing is involuntary or a sign of natural ageing, the ICG45 grade will be maintained. However, heavy deliberate pressing and/or washing of notes will result in a lowering of their grade to the original grade or below. For example, a “very fine / ICG30” note which might have the appearance of an “extra fine” note due to washing or heavy pressing will be graded at a maximum at the original ICG30 grade. In ICG’s opinion, giving credit to the tampering with notes to improve their “appearance” encourages such practices and hurts the paper money hobby.

 

DESIGN MARGINS AND CENTERING ON NOTES

 

ICG will not modify as a matter of course its grades due to small differences in margins on otherwise original notes. A note’s margins or design centering are not standard features of our grades and “normal” variations in margins are not described in our grade definitions and will not affect the grade of ICG graded notes. More significant centering problems might indicate that the note has been trimmed, in which case an asterisk will be placed next to the numerical grade in order to signal that there is a trimming problem with the note. Large centering problems, might also be described in this way even if the note has not been trimmed, but in no case a centering problem will affect the actual grade of the note. Beyond that, very large centering problems, where the actual design reaches the edge of the note, or where either the obverse or the reverse of the note have been shifted unnaturally may also be described as “error” notes.

 

ICG GRADING SCALE

 

Perfect UNC

70

A perfect, as issued, note. Notes at the top grade will not have any folds or internal bends and no marks or signs of handling. Corners will be perfect and the paper bright and fully original, with sharp colours

Gem UNC

68

A Gem UNC note will be almost flawless, as Perfect UNC ’70’ notes, but might have almost imperceptible wear in one or two corners or the slightest handling mark

Choice UNC

66

A Choice UNC note will be virtually perfect, as Gem UNC ‘69’ notes, but might have a more noticeable edge bump or minor handling mark

Uncirculated

63

An Uncirculated note will be fresh and original and will have no full-length folds, as Choice UNC ‘66’ notes, but might have a combination of two or three minor handling marks, such as small internal or edge bends or corner wear. Paper and or colours might appear less fresh than on higher grades, but will still be fully original

AU/UNC

60

AU/UNC notes will be essentially perfect and will not have full-length folds, but might have a noticeable counting mark or a small corner fold or several minor handling marks beyond what would be found on Uncirculated ‘63’ grades. The paper should remain fresh and fully original and colours should be sharp

AU+

58

AU+ notes will be essentially perfect notes, but will have a full-length vertical or horizontal soft fold or a larger corner fold together with a minor handling mark. An AU+ will never have noticeable creases and minor folds should not “break” the surface of the paper and the paper should remain fresh and original

Almost UNC

55

Almost Uncirculated notes will be nearly perfect notes, but might have a full-length soft fold and one or two small handling marks. A perfect note with a tiny corner crease – normally no more than 5mm in total length – might also be graded Almost Uncirculated, as long as no other folds are present. An Almost Uncirculated note will never have full-length creases and the paper should be crisp and original

EF/AU

50

An EF/AU note will be a sharp and original note which might have two soft folds, or a small crease, not reaching the full-length of the note, or a single vertical or horizontal soft fold together with a soft counting mark

Extra Fine +

48

An Extra Fine Plus note will have fresh and original paper as in higher-graded notes, but will have a full-length crease and no other flaws. A fully perfect note which had three soft folds and no other flaws would also be graded Extra Fine Plus

Extra Fine

45

An Extra Fine note will be fresh and crisp, with relatively little circulation, but might have a full-length crease, “breaking” the surface of the paper, together with one or two other minor handling marks, such as minor corner rounding or a small corner fold or edge bend

VF/EF

40

A VF/EF note will be a fresh and crisp note with two or three full-length creases. It might also have several soft folds and handling marks beyond what would be expected from full Extra Fine ‘45’ notes, but will retain much of its original appeal

Very Fine +

35

A Very Fine Plus note will be a circulated note, with obvious signs of handling, but will retain much of its original sheen and the paper will be crisp. There will be multiple folds and/or creases, but areas of the surface will probably remain intact

Very Fine

30

A Very Fine note will show average evidence of circulation, including multiple folds and or creases. It may also have some dirt and more obviously rounded corners. The note will remain relatively crisp and attractive and the paper will retain much of its original body

F/VF

25

A F/VF note will show extensive circulation, including multiple folds and creases and general wear, but will retain some crispness and general appeal. The note may have minor tears around the edge folds and may have pinholes and other minor defects which prevent it from reaching the presence of a full Very Fine ‘30’ note

Fine

20

A Fine note will show much evidence of circulation and wear, and the paper may be limp and have lost most of its original crispness. The note will have numerous folds, creases and wrinkles and could have several stains and colour problems. There may be some minor damage to the edges and it is to be expected that a Fine note will have small tears and pinholes, but there will normally not be any parts of the note missing

VG/F

15

A VG/F note will have much wrinkling and the paper will show some limpness and staining, but there will be overall eye-appeal and the note will not have any noticeable holes or missing bits of paper

Very Good

10

A Very Good note will show much evidence of circulation. The paper will be limp and heavily wrinkled, but the features of the note will be fully recognizable and the note will generally remain “collectible”. Stains and small tears are likely present and nicks and small but visible holes are also common in this grade

G/VG

8

A G/VG note will be limp and will have limited eye-appeal. There will be some paper damage visible to the naked eye, possibly including large tears or small missing bits of paper

Good

6

A Good note will be a very heavily circulated note, with small pieces of paper missing and very limp and damaged paper. A Good note might also have scotch tape or noticeable tape marks, as well as some tears and stains

Fair

4

A Fair note will be a totally limp and dirt note, with large chunks missing and a combination of other signs of extreme circulation, such as graffiti, large tears or stains and rust

Poor

2

A Poor note will be heavily damaged, with large pieces missing and barely recognizable paper features