Grading is the most controversial component of paper money collecting today. Small differences in grade can mean significant differences in value.
To facilitate communication between sellers and buyers, it is essential that grading terms and their meanings be as standardized and as widely used as possible. The standardization should reflect common usage as much as practicable.
The grades and definitions as set forth below cannot reconcile all the various systems and grading terminology variants. Rather, the attempt is made here to try and diminish the controversy with some common-sense grades and definitions that aim to give more precise meaning to the grading language of paper money.
Gem Crisp Uncirculated (GemCU)
* A perfect note.
* Perfect margins, front and back.
* Full embossing.
* No aging or fading.
* Bright bold colors.
A GemCU note looks as if it just came off the press. The centering is perfect. It has perfectly square corners, no marks, folds or bends at all, and the colors are as bright as the day it was printed.
Choice Crisp Uncirculated (ChCU)
* A nice new note, but not quite GemCU.
* Most embossing still present.
* Centering may be slightly off.
* May show some very, very slight aging.
* Square corners.
* No bends or folds.
A ChCU note still looks like a brand new note, but the colors may show some very, very minor dulling. The centering may be average or slightly off and it must still have square corners. Absolutely no folds or bends are allowed.
Crisp Uncirculated (CU)
* No trace of circulation.
* Can have centering problems.
* May have counting smudges, wrinkles, close margins.
* May have a corner tip bend (not into design.)
A CU note still looks uncirculated, but it may have something that kicks it out of being a Choice CU such as a slightly rounded corner, counting smudges or wrinkles, or a minor corner bend which doesn't touch the design. The embossing may be weak and the colors may be mildly faded.
Almost Uncirculated (AU)
* Much the same as a CU note, but may have a single fold or bends.
* May have several corner folds.
* May have rounded corners.
An otherwise CU note may fall into this category because of a single fold, a couple of bends, slightly rounded corners, or mishandling. A Gem CU note with a center fold would technically become an AU note.
Extra Fine (XF)
* Circulated, but still has most of its crispness.
* May have a few folds (3, possibly 4).
* Very Little fading.
* No stains.
This is my favorite grade since it is still a very nice looking note and should be relatively affordable compared to the better grades. I've recently allowed 4 folds in my definition of XF if all other criteria are met and the note has extremely nice eye appeal.
Very Fine (VF)
* Moderate circulation.
* May have lost some crispness and color.
* May show multiple folds.
* May be very slightly soiled.
* Well circulated with little crispness.
* Rough edges.
* Soiled or faded.
* Many folds.
Very Good (VG)
* Well soiled.
* Significantly worn.
* Rough edges.
* Minor problems.
May have a center wear hole where folds meet, well rounded corners, minor edge splits, but should have no pieces missing.
* Very soiled and dark.
* Extremely worn.
* Extremely rough edges.
* Tears, splits, center holes.
* Small pieces missing.
A generally unattractive note with wear holes, edge splits and tears with small pieces missing. May have dark stains and graffeti from prolonged circulation.
* Worn thin in spots.
* Extremely rough and split edges.
* Major tears, splits, holes.
* Larger pieces missing or hanging.
* Taped together.
A rag which has been severely abused, ripped and torn and then taped together. These notes have large pieces missing or hanging loose. It looks like it will fall apart if you touch it.