Coin collecting is usually discussed in terms of its visual and intellectual appeal. Identifying the designs of the coins, examining the appearance of the surface, the thrill of hunting for the right coins to complete a collection: all of these are commonly listed as part of the attraction of coin collecting. But let’s not neglect the other senses. Coins, like any other physical object, can be experienced with all five of our senses.
For most of us, this is the easiest sense to discuss. We can appreciate the visual details on a coin: the intricacy of the device, the preservation of fine details, exceptional toning, and other aspects of a great coin. A good example of visual appeal is this capped bust quarter with exceptionally well-preserved detail.
Most collectors try to limit the amount of physical contact with a coin, to preserve the finish and keep the coin in good condition for as long as possible. But some aspects of a coin can be best appreciated by touch, either direct or with cotton gloves when necessary. Try feeling the depth of the device, how clear the device is. Feel the weight of the coin in your hand; different coins will have different weights. Aluminum and zinc coins, common in WWII and other times of metal shortage, will be very light, whereas silver, gold, and even iron coinage will be much heavier. Run a thumb around the edge of the coin to feel the reeding (if there is any) and around the rim to feel the denticles. This stunning 1938 Tunisian 5 centimes piece has unusually deep clear markings, which would be easier to feel than most.
Not that we recommend licking your coins, but if you did, you might be surprised. Many of us have licked a penny or two in our youth, so we mostly know what copper tastes like. Silver coins, like this 1888 Morgan silver dollar, tastes “sweet and sour.” Gold has no discernible taste, which is one reason it has often been used in dental work.
One of the most simple methods to distinguish silver coins from clad coins (or counterfeit coins) is the “ping” or sound test. Just strike one piece of silver against another, and you will hear a distinct high-pitched ring from the coins. (Note: this may cause minor damage to a coin, and should not be done with top-quality coins, like the 1910 silver Barber half-dollar shown here. Use your best judgement.)
When was the last time you smelled your coin collection? Different metals will smell differently based on the metals used in the coin. Silver’s smell comes from its tarnish, so a cleaner coin is likely to have less scent than a more heavily toned one, like this 1921 silver Mercury dime. A 1943 steel cent will have a different smell than a copper cent. Coins may also pick up different odors based on storage methods, particularly the less stable storage options.