It’s one of the most frequent posts on coin forums: “I got this coin/collection from my relative, and I don’t know what to do with it or what it’s worth.” Since coin collecting has been the most popular hobby in the world for centuries, this is a common dilemma. Here are some basic things to help you preserve the value of any coins you may inherit and decide what to do with them.
First things first: NEVER clean a coin. Even using water and a cloth can cause tiny scratches that can reduce the value of the coin. Most collectors prefer the original surface on coins, and older coins will be more valuable if they still have their patina and toning.
Secondly, store the coins somewhere clean, dry, and smoke-free, with a moderate temperature (coins like the same temperatures that humans do.) If you can, put them in a safety deposit box at a bank. Some of the coins may be in holders that are damaging them; read our post here to get an idea of what to look for and which storage options will work best for you. If you do decide to change the holder a coin is in, be very careful when removing the coin, as some plastics can actually scratch the coin surface. If possible, use cotton gloves when handling a coin, and always hold a coin by the edges without touching the front or back surfaces.
Now that your coins are secure, you can begin to think about getting them appraised. (Most of the information in this post will be about U.S. coins, but the basic principles will be applicable to any collection.)
One of the most important things to do is to identify good sources of information about coins. The Whitman Official Red Book is your best guide to identifying your coins and giving you a basic idea of value. Naturally, the condition of the coins will affect the value, but some basic knowledge will help make sure that a dealer isn’t undervaluing the coin should you want to sell.
Some of the coins may be in plastic “slabs,” which is good news. These are coins that have been graded by a third party, and guaranteed to be authentic and of the grade listed on the label. These have already been graded and identified for you. If the grading was done a long time ago, you may wish to have it re-graded with modern technology; however, this is only worthwhile on higher value coins.
Our new app, Lookzee, can help you identify and grade some of your coins! Read more about it here. However, you should know how to identify and grade coins manually, in case the app does not have your coin on record yet, and to be sure you understand the coins you’ve received.
The first things to look at when identifying and valuing a coin are the date and mintmark. Both should be easily visible on the face of the coin, unless there is extensive aging. It is not unusual for there to be addition varieties even within the same date and mintmark; the rarer the variety, in general, the more valuable the coin. Some of these varieties are only identifiable by a coin expert, but many can be detected even by an amateur. The Red Book (mentioned above) will have a listing of all varieties, as well as images to help you identify your coins.
The grade of the coin refers to its condition, and is one of the major factors in determining the value of a given coin. The most common scale goes from 1 to 70, with 70 being a coin in perfect condition. Cleaning affects the grade of the coin as well, as most cleaning methods severely damage the surface of the coin. Some coins may have acquired a veneer of oxidation, known as “toning.” Many collectors prize coins with attractive toning, and will pay a higher price for them, beyond what the grade alone may indicate. (Don’t try to give coins a fake toning, however, as this is easily discovered and reduces the value of the coin.)
Make sure to examine your coins in good lighting, so you can see the details as clearly as possible. A magnifying glass will also help in determining which variety of a specific coin you have. Work by coin type, when you can, so you don’t have to flip back and forth in the Red Book. Keep in mind that the prices listed in the Red Book are not current market value of the coin: the coin market can change quickly, so a printed guide cannot be expected to keep up with these changes. Still, it will give you a good idea of how coins compare to each other in value. This grading tutorial from Heritage Auctions is a good resource.
A note on highly damaged coins: older coins tend to have more precious metal content, and some coins will still have value for their precious metal even when age and wear have removed all numismatic value. These coins can be sold as “junk silver.” They may also make good gifts for children who are beginning coin collections and will prize the coin for its age and uniqueness over the value.
It may seem like overkill to spend hours identifying and understanding what you’ve inherited, but it will give you a basic idea of what the collection is worth. This will give you an edge when getting the coins officially appraised, and protect you from unscrupulous dealers who may try to buy your coins far below their value. The odds of having a truly valuable coin in your collection are small, but it does happen. Just last year, a coin worth £250,000 was discovered in a child’s playset that had been passed down through generations.
Once you’ve done the work to identify the coins and get a basic idea of their value, you may want to take the ones that appear to have the most value, and take good photos of them. By posting the photos to coin forums or Facebook groups, you may be able to get experienced collectors to help you refine the value of the coin prior to official appraisal. (Don’t do this before identifying the coin and doing the basic research, as these groups tend to be swamped with posts of low-value coins from people who haven’t done any research.)
Now that you’ve done your research and gotten an idea of which coins are likely to have the most value, it’s time to think about appraisal. If you have a local coin store, they are probably a good place to start, as most will be willing to take a look at your coins (some may charge a fee if you are only looking for an appraisal without giving them the chance to buy some of the coins.) Most will not want to buy the entire coin collection, as they will only be able to sell certain pieces, and will only buy them from you for less than their retail value. It’s up to you to decide if you want to sell the coins or not.
You may wish to send those coins that have potentially high value in to be graded by a third party. The top three in the coin industry are NGC, PCGS, and ANACS; all of these are industry-standard and highly regarded. Coins graded and put into plastic slabs by a third-party service are usually easier to sell and bring higher prices. (It’s often a good investment even if you plan to keep the coins.)
There are many things to be aware of if you want to sell the collection yourself, should it prove to be of value. This excellent post from the Collectors Society forums goes into further detail.
Of course, you may want to keep the collection and use it as the foundation of your own collection! In the process of studying the coins to identify and grade them, you will find that coins have a distinct beauty, and a greater variety than many people imagine. You might find yourself drawn to particular coins (like the 1920’s Peace Dollar) or certain eras (early 20th century coins are often quite striking.) You have an opportunity: make the most of it!