Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The following table
lists answers to common questions many beginners have on the topic of coin
collecting. One of the best resources for answering questions is your local coin
club, but if you don't have access to one (or even if you do) another option is
to review the discussions and post your questions on the usenet newsgroup:
rec.collecting.coins. You'll need a newsreader for this, and your ISP should
have given you access to a news server.
Have a question that's not addressed below? Email
me and I'll do my best to directly answer you, plus I'll add it to the list
for the next person who may need it.
- How much is my coin worth?
- Where can I sell my coin?
- Should I clean my coin?
- How can I find a coin club in my area?
- How do I start collecting coins?
- What are some of the different ways to collect
- How do I house my
Tough question without seeing the coin. The value of a coin is dependent on
two primary factors: 1) demand versus scarcity, and 2) condition. Most coins
people come across are not very scarce, so condition plays a very important
role. Most beginners (and quite a few experienced collectors) tend to over grade
their coins; this is a natural optimistic tendency, and one that can be overcome
with discipline and experience. One website that has a price list for US coins
is CoinClub. Remember, this
listing (or any other) is simply a guide to value. If you're a seller and
looking for a buyer, you can probably expect to get a bit less than this. For
lower priced coins (say under $100), the discount is pretty stiff (maybe as much
as 50%); for higher priced coins you might only give up 10% or so. It all
depends on the coin, how badly the person you're talking to wants it, and your
Local coin clubs and coin stores are also an excellent source of information
on coin values. The club members will be flattered that you're consulting them,
and are likely to be more impartial in their estimations, even if they may not
have the pricing experience of dealers.
Another excellent way to get a good idea of the true price you coin
should bring upon sale is to search eBay for
the same coin in similar condition. If you can find it there, look at the closed
auction results to see what people are really willing to pay for that piece. Be
careful to pay close attention to the condition, and any varieties or mint marks
that may be different from the coin you have. Just a minor difference can give
you the wrong information.
Here's a few books your local library may have that will also help to
determine coin values:
- A Guide Book of United States Coins—R.S. Yeoman. Known as
"the Red Book", this is an annual publication that's considered a
hobby standard for US coins. They have retail pricing, but because of the
logistics of print publishing they're often quite a bit out of date (a year
- Standard Catalog of World Coins—C.L. Krause and C. Mishler. Just
as the Red Book is the standard for US coins, this publication (it looks
like a thick telephone book) is the standard for world coins. It has an
identification guide to help you attribute your coin, as well as approximate
retail values. Since this is not published annually, the prices are
generally out of date; though world coin prices are nowhere near as volatile
as US coin prices.
- The Cherrypicker's Guide to Rare Die Varieties—B. Fivaz and J.T.
Stanton. This book specializes in a very narrowly-collected area: die
varieties. The book covers general values for coins struck from doubled
dies, repunched mint marks, and other unusual die conditions that some
people highly prize.
The short answer is: to anyone who will buy it. But I know that's not really
what you want to hear. The long answer has three areas, and you should remember
that there's generally a trade-off between the ease of sale and the amount you
can expect to receive:
- Auction—As a seller, you'll generally do best by putting the coin
up for auction on eBay or some other
popular auction site. If you get a good scan or digital photo of the coin,
put it up with no reserve and a low starting bid (like 99 cents), you can
pretty much count on getting good action...and that equals the most
efficient market you can hope for. The drawbacks are: you have to get a
digital picture; you have to take someone's check; need I say it...POSTOFFICE
LINES, and other shipping headaches. Then there's the pain of someone
deciding they really didn't want it, or they never send you a check, or...I
could go on and on, but you get the idea. You end up suffering a little more
in exchange for what is only possibly the best price.
- Dealer—most dealers will make an offer on your coin, but if they
aren't actively seeking that particular one, the offer will likely be very
low. Of course, this is the most painless way to sell it; you just walk in
with the coin and out with the cash. Some dealers will run auctions (these
are good for dealers known for a specific specialty, like certain tokens or
coin varieties) or take your coin on consignment. Some dealers run a
"Bid Board", a kind of auction where people write their bids on a
paper attached to the coin (which is usually hung on the wall along with
hundreds of other coins). The bid board ends at a specific time, and the
highest recorded bid gets the coin. Not as immediate as an outright sale,
but usually a better price than what the dealer would have given you.
- Private Collector—like selling to a dealer, this approach can
have rather spotty success. If the collector especially wants the specific
coin you have, you may do rather well, but since there's little competition
(after all, you're only face to face with the one person) you're not likely
to get top dollar. Of course, if what you have is a very narrowly collected
specialty (like Canadian bank tokens of the 1830's), this may be a
preferable approach. Places to find private collectors include: local coin
clubs, newspaper ads (some of them place "buy" ads in the local
classifieds), and referral by others in the hobby.
no. No. NO. NO. NO. Now that I got that out of my system, I can
tell you that, though there are times and circumstances when cleaning is
appropriate, 99% of the time (seriously) it will result in loss of value to the
coin. When in doubt (and you should almost always be in doubt)—don't touch it!
But, since you probably aren't listening very closely, or perhaps you're the
stubborn type, here's some approaches to cleaning and descriptions of what you
can expect as results:
- Soap and water—not a bad approach for removing light oils,
loosely held dirt, and other surface contaminants from circulated coins
(i.e. already worn). Use hot water, VERY LITTLE detergent, allow to soak
(without RUBBING—bad, bad, bad), and gently scrub with a worn out
toothbrush. What you can expect...if you're not careful or just unlucky,
you'll get minor scratches on the coin and lose value; a collector will see
them, and discount what you would have received if the coin had been
unharmed. If you're lucky and careful, you'll just remove the dirt and oil
and have a clean coin without removing or altering (too much) the natural
toning or patina of the metal.
- Acetone or Isopropyl Alcohol—good for removing oils (from
fingers, etc.) So long as you don't rub, this is probably the safest
cleaning method, especially for brand new ("uncirculated") coins.
- "Dip"—also known as "Tarnex" or other brand
name liquid silver cleaners. Even if highly diluted, this will remove part
of the surface of the coin. And repeated applications to newly minted coins
will result in their eventual dulling and loss of value. Unless you're
willing to lose value and aggravate collectors you better stay away from
this option. Some collectors will pay a substantial premium for naturally
toned coins, and this stuff strips it off completely. Also, in the hand's of
the inexperienced, this often results in unattractive spotting.
- Baking soda—goodness gracious, are you MAD?! You might as well
take a power grinder to the poor thing, ggrrrrriiiiiindddddding value away.
If you've already done this, don't feel too bad, lots of people have made
this mistake...an expensive one if the coin was worth anything when you
started. Hang your head in shame and promise never to do it again.
Want to read up on this? See if you can find a copy of Cleaning and
Preservation of Coins and Medals, by Gerhard Welter, reprinted by Stanford
Durst and available for sale at this link.
There's several answers to this, but the comforting thing is: they want you
to find them. Here's the best approaches:
- ANA—The American Numismatic Association maintains an extensive
listing of member coin clubs in different areas, and is probably the most
reliable resource. Look on the ANA website
to find a coin club in your area.
- Internet—there's lots of search engines and coin club listings,
but my favorite way to find something on the internet is to use the
metasearch engine, "Dogpile".
Try entering: "MyTown coin club" (with the name of your town in
place of "MyTown") either with or without surrounding quote marks,
and I'll bet you find something. Some of the popular coin club lists
include: www.coinclubs.com, and www.goldsheetlinks.com.
- Your local paper—clubs will often have an ad in the classifieds
of your local paper. Look under "hobbies" or sometimes "coin
collecting". Not as popular as it once was, this is probably your last
Joining a club is an excellent way to start. You're put into contact with
others who are more knowledgeable and can help guide you during your first steps
into this fascinating hobby. Reading everything you can get your hands on is
also an important means of acquiring knowledge painlessly. Your local library
will likely have several books...make a visit and check them out. Most folks
would suggest that you start small and slowly, keeping it inexpensive to begin
with so that your natural errors as you're starting off won't hurt you too much.
Here's where a relationship with a local dealer will be very valuable. Spend
time finding one you feel comfortable with, who answers your questions and has
time to spend talking to you. Please reward that person with a moderate amount
of business. The minor mark-ups he or she applies to your purchases is well
worth the increase in experience you'll get (again, keep your first purchases
rather small—remember, you're just learning and this is a hobby that can be
enjoyed for a lifetime).
There's as many different ways to collect as there are collectors. Here's
some of the most popular:
- Year and mint series—pick a denomination and type (say,
Washington quarter dollars), and try and get every year and mint mark that
has ever been made. For current type coins this is usually pretty
inexpensive, and you can start with the change in your pocket; a terrific
feature for kids of all ages. For some of the obsolete type coins (Walking
Liberty half dollars for example), this can get pretty expensive after you
acquire the more commonly available ones. Some years or mint marks may be
very scarce and command quite a bit of dough.
- Type set—collect one example of each type coin. For United States
coins this is sometimes further subdivided into 20th Century Type Sets, etc.
For example, a 20th Century Type Set of cents would have these coins: Indian
head cent, Lincoln cent with wheat sheaves reverse, Lincoln cent with
Lincoln memorial reverse, and some might want to include the new
copper-plated zinc cents.
- Themes—collect anything with a specific image or theme to it.
Ships are popular, as are certain animals (like elephants, or dogs). Do you
have an unusual job? Perhaps there are some coins of the world that have an
image related to it (dentistry, masonry, airplanes, whatever).
- Accumulation—look around and just buy what pleases you. Highly
underrated because it lacks any "investment sophistication", but
who cares? Remember, you should purchase a coin because you find it pleasing
aesthetically or historically. Anything you make as profit when you sell is
simply icing on the cake.
- Crowns of the world—crowns are the basic denomination of a
country. In the United States we have a dollar, so our current Sacagawea
dollar is our "crown". Try to find as many countries as you can.
Perhaps all of those on a specific continent (the one your ancestors came
from if you're not a native), or from a specific period in time, like the
- Die Varieties—special die conditions like doubled dies (the image
was inadvertantly put into the die twice, a little offset so that the image
or some portion of it appears doubled). Also reengraved dies, repunched mint
marks, the famous "three-legged buffalo", etc. This is often taken
up within a specific series of coins, for example: the Overton varieties of
Bust half dollars.
- Odd and Curious—this might be weird shapes: coins shaped like
squares, triangles, with holes, cupped; or from unusual materials: plant
matter—tea bricks for example, plastics, coins made from more than one
metal—bimetallics, porcelain, etc. Or maybe different items that were used
as trade goods: axe heads, beads, knives, buttons.
In any way that will protect the individual items and allow you to enjoy
them. If you can make it to a major coin show you'll find dealers who specialize
in nothing but archival materials and methods. Some of the ways other collectors
have found helpful include:
- Coin boards—these are the cardboard folders (usually blue) that
sometimes show up in book stores or drug stores. A cheap way to start off,
especially if you're collecting things out of your pocket change. A fun way
to start a year and mint mark series. Not suitable for expensive coins or
those in pristine condition, as these folders don't offer much protection,
and the materials they're made from can alter the coin toning over a long
period of time. You can also only see one side of the coin.
- Coin books—a step up from coin boards, these are more like a
hardbound book with substantial pages. The come with plastic slides on both
sides of the coin so you can see everything except the edge. One potential
problem is with the slides. Sometimes, if you repeatedly slide the plastic
back and forth, it can wear the high parts of the coin and lower the
- Flips and binders—these are little clear plastic envelopes, with
a space in the flap for holding a little piece of paper with writing on it
(or not). There are two kinds: 1) mylar—suitable for long term storage,
but stiff and prone to cracking if handled excessively; 2) vinyl—suitable
only for very short term storage (months perhaps), I don't use them myself
because they exude the plasticizers that make them soft, and this in turn
can cause serious damage if allowed to remain on the coin's surface for any
appreciable length of time. The vinyl flips are often used by dealers
because of their softness (good for coins dropped by careless shoppers). You
can get pages that will hold several dozen of these and fit into a
three-ring binder for making your own collection. This is my preferred
method, probably because the of the flexibility...you get to "roll your
- Slabs—popular for expensive coins where the value is highly
dependant on the grade. Third-party grading services reach an objective
opinion about the coins condition, and encapsulate it within a slab of
plastic along with their attributions and grade. Good for long term storage,
but bulky and somehow separates you from the coin. I hate them. Essential
for investment quality coins, especially when you're a beginner.
- 2by2's—a variant of flips. These are cardboard sheets with thin
mylar windows covering cutouts in the shape/size of the coin. You fold the
cardboard over, trapping the coin inside, and staple the cardboard shut.
Many coins have been damaged by careless stapling, or by careless removal of
staples. I don't like them, but they're very common in dealers stocks of