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Getting Started With Coin Collecting For The Beginner

Updated on August 21, 2014

A Short History of Coins and Coin Collecting

It is almost within the memory of living men, even in the West, that direct barter was the chief means of trade. Goods were exchanged between two parties and that was the end of it. But finding someone who wanted to exchange eggs for bread or shoes for butter is time consuming and results in many spoiled loaves.

Introducing a third party that has eggs and will accept shoes he doesn't need because he knows someone who will trade them for butter he does want is a step in the right direction. Keep moving down that road and sooner or later something is going to evolve as a standard medium of exchange.

Gold, silver, copper and a few other commodities in various places came to be that medium. Paper, until just a few decades ago, was nothing more than a marker for these commodities. As a result, coins made from those metals were produced.

Historians largely agree that the first coins were struck during the 7th century in Asia Minor, in an area that is now part of Turkey. 'Struck' is an appropriate term, since they were made by putting a blank metal piece between two die and striking the top with a hammer.

Those die often had the likenesses of kings, since they were the ones who declared laws forbidding anyone else to produce currency. It was both a way to enforce their rule and guarantee the authenticity of the money. He who has the gold makes the rules.

As culture and technology developed, metal coins came into wider use. During the 14th century coins came to be valued not only for their function in commerce, but as works of art in themselves. Petrarch is reported to have had a substantial collection of ancient coins.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries coin production technology evolved to the point that hand minting was surpassed by machine-made methods. Coin collecting at this stage took a radical turn.

Hand-made coins, even when they are carefully alloyed and weighed, differ visibly. Even the most painstaking artisan can never produce two exactly alike. As a result, what qualified as an 'error', making a coin more rare, had an entirely different meaning in the earlier era.

Machines, though, can mass produce coins of uniform alloy and shape. Subtle, and sometimes, not so subtle, mistakes can still happen, though. Double-striking, incorrect plates used, wrong dates and any number of human errors can cause machine made coins to differ from the standard.

Because of their rarity, those 'bad' coins can have substantial value in coin collecting. Rarity, after all, even when the intrinsic value might otherwise be low, is a key element in the value of a collectible coin.

By the mid-20th century - August 15, 1962 to be exact - saw the debut of the first international coin collecting convention in the U.S. Sponsored by the American Numismatic Association, this event ushered in the truly modern era of coin collecting.

Today, there are dozens of organizations around the world and millions of collectors devoted to the art and science of coin collecting. Shoulder-to-shoulder with their cousins in numismatics (the study of currency), they trade actively in shops and websites all over the globe.

Yet the urge is unquestionably similar seven centuries after Petrarch: the joy of finding and sharing the excitement of that rare treasure.

Coin Collector Beginner's Introduction

Finding Collectible Coins

The growth of the Internet has affected how you find a lot of things. But finding coins can still be very much an old-fashioned practice. Novice collectors are often surprised by how many valuable coins are still in loose circulation.

One inexpensive but interesting way to get started is to look for 'Lincoln wheat cents'. These are U.S. pennies minted between 1909 and 1958. The name derives from the design - an image of Lincoln on the obverse, with a pair of wheat stalk bundles on the reverse.

One especially interesting wrinkle is the steel/zinc penny from WWII. Because of a copper shortage during the war, the U.S. mints produced pennies made of steel with a zinc coating to prevent rust. Minted in 1943, they are old enough to be valuable due to age, but have the added rarity of a different alloy. They can be distinguished both by color - they have a kind of gray-blue tint - and the sound they make when struck.

Many Lincoln wheat cents have the initials VDB of the designer (Victor David Brenner) on the reverse. Those minted other than at Philadelphia are even more valuable. Philadelphia had the largest mint and therefore produced the most coins. Some pennies from that period will sell for as much as $700. Not a bad profit for a penny! Even more ordinary ones can often net $15 - still pretty good.

You can look for pennies, silver dimes, quarters and dollars in perfectly ordinary places. With the widescale use of coin counting machines, rare coins can easily be passed from bank to bank without being discovered. Only when they end up in someone's possession do they have a hope of being spotted. But many people aren't interested in coin collecting, which is great for those who are!

It only takes a second to casually examine a coin. If you've done your homework in advance, you'll be on the lookout for pre-1964 dimes, VDB pennies and the new state quarters. Eisenhower silver dollars are still around, too!

The U.S. mint began producing State Quarters in 1999 and every year brings out another. Five coins are distributed every year roughly every 10 weeks and the program was designed to run 10 years. Each state has a different design on the reverse and many of them are very interesting historical images.

Since any State Quarter produced between 1999 and 2006 is no longer issued, they will become increasingly valuable as the years go by. Coins have an average circulation lifetime of 30 years. Many already sell for $2 or more. Collect them today and you or your children could have a very valuable collectible in a few decades.

Coin collectors all have to think long term. Coins acquire value over time, so even a common, but unique design can be worth a lot someday.

How To Find Collectible Coins

How To Store Your Coins

There is a kind of Hippocratic Oath used implicitly among coin collectors: First, above all, do no harm. Strictures on cleaning coins are well-known in collecting circles, even though there's continued debate about how and when. Despite that, there's general agreement on how to store coins.

To avoid the damaging effects of oxidation, finger oil, scrapes, etc, coins should at least be stored in Mylar plastic containers, one coin per compartment. They come in a variety of styles.

Inexpensive Mylar-lined cardboard holders can be purchased. The holders have a small, round cut-out for placing the coin so it can be held up and seen from either side. They come in a form sometimes called two-by-two's. They are often 2 inches by 2 inches.

Some holders are sheets that will hold several coins, but each in its own separate area. Others are small, individual sleeves that will hold one coin each. Several styles have holes punched in the edge so that coins can be stored in a binder, but these are not ideal. Coins should be displayed.

Cabinets, ranging from small, glass and wood cigar-box style holders to large, floor-standing Chippendale types, can be bought to hold and show off your collection. The more expensive types are nearly air-tight and some even have archival-style dehumidifiers.

Aged mahogany or rosewood both make excellent wooden cabinets. You should avoid any wooden cabinet, such as oak, that emits organic compounds into the interior. Many types of tree, long after being chopped down and even when not coated with varnish, will produce volatile, organic compounds. Some of those compounds are harmful to coins.

Many collectors, for that reason, will recommend a metal cabinet instead. Several styles exist, some with a coating that helps to prevent scratching and oxidation. Plastic or polystyrene containers are also available, though they rarely display as nicely.

Whichever style of cabinet you get, apart from those with in-built dehumidifiers, it's helpful to have a supply of silica gel packages or other desiccant. They absorb moisture that contributes greatly to oxidation.

Some collectors will coat the coins with vegetable oil or wax before storing, but these practices are controversial. Oil can attract contaminants and wax may give a false sense of security, since it can easily wear off or dull the view.

Beyond what to do or use, there are several things to avoid.

While avoiding exposure to air is good, it's not true that any kind of packaging is better than none. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) sleeves are generally not recommended. They can cause the coin's surface to become coated with a greenish sludge that is harmful and difficult to remove cleanly.

Though displaying coins is preferable, storing them away is sometimes necessary. Paper envelopes can be used for this, but avoid standard office supplies. Get envelopes specifically made for coin storage. The sulfuric acid in ordinary paper can damage coins, especially ones containing copper.

Never store collectible coins in any kind of bulk container, such as penny rolls, plastic tubes, etc. That leads to scratching and denting and doesn't keep out harmful air.

Specially-made sealed containers that hold a collectible are best, though they add to the up-front cost of the coin. In the long-run, however, they will keep your coin in good condition for long term storage and display.

Determining Coin Value

There are a host of factors that influence the market value of a collectible coin. Some of those are inherent to the coin like condition, age, number minted and errors. Other factors are purely market forces, which can be changed by mass psychology, non-coin related economic factors and dozens other causes.

Collectors have no control over large scale factors, such as current general economic well-being. But when considering an acquisition or sale, there are still many aspects that a trader can and should look at.

Coin grade is the first and most obvious of those factors. Even before seeking out one of the professional grading services available today (Professional Coin Grading Service - PGCS, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation - NGC), there are determinations collectors can make for themselves. A visual inspection will allow one to categorize the coin into Mint, Flawless, Good, etc. Catalogs can help make that determination, too.

History is an important factor in the worth of a coin. Though it's far from an ironclad rule, a 1860 dollar produced during the Civil War will generally be worth more than a 1960 dollar, simply because of the age. But age is only one obvious factor of history. Ownership history, wear, mint location and others contribute.

Rarity is important, of course. That factor isn't inherent in the coin itself, but is a relative quality - the coin has inherent properties apart from how many others were produced or exist in a given condition. Nevertheless, in general, the fewer of a certain type produced the more likely a coin is to be worth more than normal.

Coins produced at the San Francisico or Denver mints tend to be more rare, since Philadephia produced many more than any other for decades. Look for the 'd' for Denver, 'cc' for Carson City (Nevada), 's' for San Francisco or no mark (Philadelphia).

Rarity can be influenced by another inherent factor, though. If a coin was struck in some fashion that produced one of various kinds of errors, it can be more rare as a result. Colonial coins with planchet flaws or weakly struck designs are an example. Coins that have lint marks, in which foreign material came between the planchet and the die, can influence the value.

So-called 'errors' of that sort, along with others such as file marks, double-strikes, etc, can increase the value of a coin simply because they don't happen often. Hence, the coin in question is different, and therefore more rare, than its cousins minted at the same time.

A damaged condition (Good rather than Mint, say) generally lessens value. But in the case of errors, it may be higher. This is a different situation from those that simply have common defects, such as nicks, wear or others. That can be produced by bag damage (defects produced by coins rubbing together in carrying bags), use in machines and simple human handling over decades.

Market psychology is an important factor in economic value, too, though. Fads come and go, as with any collectible. Paintings are notoriously fickle in monetary value, for example. Coins suffer a similar fate. Those market factors are not under the collectors control. The best one can do is simply try to guess as well as possible about future conditions.

Still, carefully investigating the inherent properties of a coin and researching its history represent the 'first cut' for determining its value.

How To Clean Your Coins

Though debates rage about whether and how to clean your coins, most serious collectors agree on some basic guidelines.

The first principle is similar to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians: avoid damage at all costs. Most coins have already experienced wear and degradation of various kinds. Exposure to air, banging together in carrying bags, use in commerce and a host of other actions will result in nicks, scratches and corrosion.

Don't make the situation worse once you acquire the coin for collecting or trade.

That principle implies a method for deciding when to clean a coin. If leaving the coin untouched will result in further degradation - because of the presence of corrosive chemicals, dirt or other material - then clean the coin GENTLY.

The goal is never to make them look 'shiny and new', but merely to prevent any further corrosion or damage from chemicals the coins may have come in contact with. The green stain on copper coins is a common example. This is copper oxide - in essence a kind of rust.

What you use to clean them with will depend on the kind of material you are trying to remove. But there are some common household ingredients that can be used safely.

Be sure to wash your hands and lay out a clean working area first. Test any method you use on an ordinary coin before using it on a collectible.

Ordinary liquid dishwashing detergent is useful for removing surface dirt. If soaking doesn't work, apply a small amount to the surface and rub very gently with the thumb and forefinger. Do one coin at a time and keep them separate so they don't scratch or ding one another.

Lemon juice contains a weak acid that is useful for removing oily smudges, including those produced from unwashed hands. Sometimes a short soak will remove material without the need for rubbing. Try that first. Keep in mind however that removing oil exposes the surface to air. The oil serves as a protective coat. That can lead to oxidation.

Coins should preferably be air dried, but if you must rub use an extremely soft cotton cloth and rub very gently. A better method and material is to use cloths made especially for cleaning eyeglasses, as they are non-abrasive.

Before using any kind of tarnish or stain remover, similar to the sort commonly used on silver spoons, for example, consult a coin dealer. You may actually lower the value of the coin by making it less tarnished. Always use the type especially made for coins.

Dealers and serious coin collectors will in rare cases use electrolysis to clean certain coins. Though, again, most coins are never cleaned or polished at all. Home kits exist or can be made for this purpose, but they should be used with extreme care.

To repeat: you may actually decrease the worth of your coin in attempting to 'improve' it. When in doubt, consult a dealer before cleaning any coin.


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