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Coin Cleaning Tips for Collectors

Updated on October 5, 2015
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Being a collector of coins is being more than just a person with a knack for history as well and an eye for detail. It means being able to keep your precious collection maintained and clean, as you will need to deal with this if you want to prevent the coins from getting their beauty marred or even worse, having coins corroding under the wrong conditions. Although not quite as sensitive as antique books and manuscripts, coins need to be maintained just as well to stick around for centuries in the exact form they were minted or found. To do so however you will need to be aware of safe ways you can deal with the task without making things too hard on yourself.

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At first you may feel a bit skeptical about some information provided here, but you would do well to remember the advice as it will serve you well as long as you work on collecting coins. Being a numismatist means more than simply collecting, it also means understanding money as a cultural element and many other smaller details. It means living and breathing money, so make use of the cues we provide for keeping your collection sparkly clean and safe. We are all used to using coins for one reason or another, whether its spending them at a store or doing sleight of hand tricks with one. In most cases people make some often seen mistakes when handling coins, especially if they are amateur collectors.

"The first dollar coin issued by the United States federal government. The coin was minted in 1794 and 1795; its size and weight were based on the Spanish dollar, which was popular in trade throughout the Americas. One of the coins was sold in May 2005 for $7.85m"

Uncirculated Coin

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Most people hold the coins between their thumb and finger, at the front and back of the coin, which can be a bit of a problem with antique coins. Although this won’t be a problem for circulated coins, it would be a serious problem for uncirculated coins, as it damages the coin due to the natural oils of the human skin which are completely capable of etching your fingerprints on the surface of the coin on a microscopic level within a few minutes. Once that fingerprint is on the coin it becomes impossible to remove it without further damaging the surface of the coin. As you can see there are some things that need to be kept in mind when taking care of coins, so let’s get started with a few tips:

Circulated Coin

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  • Always hold your coins by the edge and never the faces

This is a good habit to form when you want to be a numismatist, even when you handle ordinarily circulated coins as well. Better yet, wear cotton gloves whenever you can and hold the coins you handle only by the edges with your thumb and forefinger. If you plan on working with high grade, proof coins that have never been circulated, then a pairs of lintless cotton gloves will be your best friend for a long time. Plastic or latex gloves should never be used when handling coins, as they often have lubricants or powders on them that will damage the coin as well, so keeping a few of these pairs around will be a better choice. You should also handle the coins over a soft and thick cloth so even if you drop them they won’t roll away or get damaged on hard surfaces. Not all coins you will handle were made with impact-proof materials, as most antiques were not quite well minted, so this makes them really vulnerable to a number of things.


"The world’s largest coin collection is an approximately 55,000-pieces"

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You may have cases where friends and family want to handle the coins of your collection. The best way you could do this is to help them understand how to handle the coins right, so make sure you show them and tell them to never handle your coins without you being present. You should also work on putting the coins in special holders so they won’t be damaged, but they can still be shown to people without ever having to touch them, plus having additional protection against a sudden drop. Some of the older generations of coin collectors tend to give the drop test or ring test to coins to see whether they are silver. This can cause damage to the coin itself, as sometimes even a small fissure or crack in the coin can make this type of acoustic test completely void. Weighing the coin on the other hand will give you more information without making it dangerous.

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  • Never scratch, polish, cut or rub a coin if you can

For the most part it will be pretty impossible to cut right through the copper plating, as the metal will curl around the blade, which may give you the false impression that a coin is made of solid copper. You should never allow anyone to ever test a coin in that way, as the damage done to the coin will literally cut its value in half or a whole lot worse if it gets mangled. The idea behind coin handling techniques is to not only protect the value of the coin, but to also ensure you will keep its surface protected, whether it was mint-produced or not. The more wear and tear there is to the surface, the less your coin will be worth in the long run. The whole idea of coin collection is to protect that pristine mint condition as best as you can for the longest amount of time possible without it incurring damage.

  • How to clean and care for your coins

This is another good place to mention that you should never clean your coins in the usual ways, as you will only make things worse. There are two ways to clean your coins safely and we will explain how in this section.

Destructive cleaning means using acids or abrasive to alter and clean the surfaces of your coins, while non-destructive cleaning includes the use of solvents that happen to be harmless to the metal of the coin, regardless of the metal used in its making, such as silver, gold or any modern clad solution.

"Most valuable private U.S. coin collection, worth $200 million and more."

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Destructive coin cleaning will not only damage the coin, but it will significantly lower its collector value, sometimes more than 50% if you use this approach. This can be extremely damaging to your coin collection, and despite that in some cases an expert may help improve the value of an old coin by cleaning it right, it often means too high a risk to deal with. Unless you know someone who does this for a living professionally and has a reputation for consistent success and no damaged coins, then you would be better off if you avoid cleaning them yourself.

Some collectors will often insist on cleaning the coins. You wouldn’t believe how much damage can be done, for example with a harsher abrasive, but every coin cannot be treated the same way. If you do this you risk completely losing the value of the coin and turning it into nothing more than a piece of metal and its value. Another common mistake you can make is to believe the hype of metal cleaners from ads on TV or elsewhere. They are all acid-based, so they will strip some of the surface metal when they clean a coin. You should do your best to avoid such cleaners at all costs, since even one of the more modern clad coins will lose value in such a type of cleaning. When it comes to ancient coins, or something made of gold or silver, things will be a lot worse.

See the story how couple finds gold coins worth £6 million.

1933 Double Eagle is considered among the most beautiful coins in the world.

1804 Bust Silver Dollar is considered the most popular of all rare coin perhaps in all the world

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You can do a lot better with using a weak soap instead, but not using detergent solution, using distilled water to remove any grease or dirt on the coin without actually damaging its integrity. You can deal with this even if the coin is completely caked in dirt and you dug it up from the ground.

If you decide to use city tap water, this would be a serious mistake, as it has chlorine inside it which will easily discolor the coin you’re trying to clean. Distilled water is the only way to deal with this safely and without discoloration. Something else you would do well to avoid would be acetone or any sort of solvent, as depending on the coin it may cause some serious damage. You should avoid dealing with cleaning of upper grade, uncirculated coins as they can be easily damaged. You would do well to look for professional help instead of cleaning anything on your own. You should also keep in mind that there will be no way for you to clean uncirculated and proof coins, as well as coins made of copper alloy without doing so with professional help. After using solvents of any sort if you had to, you would need to do your best to rinse the coins with distilled water, allowing them to air dry or patting them dry with a soft cotton piece of cloth. You should never rub the coin no matter how soft a cloth you happen to be using.

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When coins are heavily encrusted, you will need to soak them in olive oil for several months before they can be cleaned. The oil will not damage the coin, but it will work on dissolving the crust. The problem with badly corroded coins is that there is very little point in dealing with trying to restore one, unless there is no other choice. Even if you manage to clean it completely, chances are corrosion has already caused permanent damage to the coin underneath. The same will go to the patina of ancient coins, so sometimes the patina can even raise the value of a coin due to that reason. You should never buy cleaned coins, since they will not appreciate as coins that have been left with patina on.

In most cases discoloration in silver coins will be called tarnish, but coin collectors will sometimes refer to it as toning. This can range from rainbow colors, all the way to completely black. Some collectors will often pay a premium price for such a coin, so it all depends on what you’re looking for.

There are other solutions of dealing with coin cleaning as well, such as using ultrasound cleaning. Experts from Cleaning Services Cleaners advice you should be using ultrasonic with care. Only one coin at a time and the bowl where this is happening has to be cleaned frequently. If you’ve never had any experience with such matters, you should still do this with professional help.

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You should also consider that PVC is a real threat to your coins. This is a softener often used in plastics, but when it ages or gets warped by heat it releases a substance that may eat into the surface of the coin, which will deal permanent damage to it. You could instead work with Mylar flips instead of the usual 2x2 coin flips made of PVC. If you have any questions about them you should talk to your dealer for more advice on how you can prevent any damage to your collection.

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