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How to safely clean coins

how to safely clean coins

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Last month I talked about the importance of developing a comprehensive inventory of your collection, and I hope that you've taken my advice and have gotten started putting my recommendations into action. One thing that I didn't mention in my last column is that developing an inventory can actually be enjoyable by itself. After all, constructing the inventory will force you to spend some "quality time" with your collection.

Also, after you've developed your comprehensive listing, you will probably find it rewarding to revisit your inventory in whatever form it has taken. That is, even when you can't physically spend time with your coins, you can review your collection through the inventory you've put together. Looking at the listing of your Fine-12 1916-D Mercury dime, for example, will trigger a mental image of what it looks like and perhaps the circumstances under which you acquired it, and the same will be true for your other important coins.

If you have a digital camera and/or a scanner, these can be used when you're making your inventory to develop a picture file of your favorite pieces. Then, on some day when your collection is sitting safely in lock boxes at your bank, you can page through the pictures you've made and revisit your coins in this way.

Last month, I ended my column by saying that I would talk about coin cleaning this month. Most books with guidelines for beginning coin collectors offer the following advice: Never clean your coins! You may have heard similar admonitions on shows like "Antiques Roadshow," when discussing antiques of all sorts, including furniture, weapons, and silverware. Someone will bring in a treasure from the attic, and an appraiser will say something like, "This is worth $7,000 to $10,000, but it would have been worth 10 times as much if you hadn't cleaned it."

In fact, many more coins have had their values lowered by cleaning than have benefitted from the process. Thus, the stock advice is to avoid cleaning like the plague.

But is cleaning always a bad thing to do? Do some coins benefit from cleaning? Is there "good" cleaning as well as "bad"? The answers to these questions are "no," "yes," and "yes."

According to J. P. Martin, writing in Bill Fivaz's Helpful Hints for Enjoying Coin Collecting, "Cleaning coins is a very controversial subject and there is no general agreement on whether or not cleaning should be done or, if it is to be done, how best to go about it. However, since you are likely to encounter more than a few cleaned coins, and sometime during your collecting experience you will probably attempt to clean one or more coins, some general comments on this subject might be of help."

Back when I had a mail-order coin business, I received a note from a long-time customer who told me that I sold the dirtiest coins of anyone he dealt with. "They leave a ring around the pot in which I boil them," he wrote. Boiling was apparently what this gentleman did to all the coins

he bought, not just the ones he bought from me. This is not a form of cleaning I've ever seen discussed in any of the literature on the subject I've read, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

From my experience, most circulated coins, particularly below the grade of About Uncirculated, will not profit from being cleaned. The main reason for this is that they will look cleaned no matter what technique you employ. And for most collectors and dealers, if a coin looks cleaned its value will be lower than that of a similar coin with a natural appearance.

Of course, a corollary to this is that if the coin doesn't look cleaned after you've finished with the process, then the cleaning hasn't harmed its value. In fact, cleaning may have increased the value.

James L. Halperin, writing in How to Grade U.S. Coins, gives a good illustration of how value can be improved sometimes with a judicious "dipping," quickly dunking a coin in a mild solution of thiourea and sulfuric acid. Halperin purchased a rare coin with hideous toning for $33,500, which was a price well below its wholesale value. He dipped it to remove the toning, and as a result created a beautiful piece that he subsequently sold for $137,500 to another dealer!

The reason I specified the grade of AU is that a shiny coin with extensive wear will definitely looked cleaned to an experienced eye. If the coin that you've cleaned has little or no wear (is AU or better), then removal of toning won't automatically make it appear cleaned.

Should any toning on an uncirculated or proof coin be removed? The answer is: "It depends." If the toning is what many collectors consider attractive, then the coin may be more valuable with the toning than without it. On the other hand, if it's ugly toning like that on the coin Halperin dipped, then removal of the toning may increase the value.

But what constitutes beautiful toning? And when is toning ugly? As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there is no absolute standard for either pretty or ugly toning. From my experience, however, I will say that I have seen certified toned coins that I wouldn't want for any price. These were typically coins with excessively dark or even black toning. The type of toning that is typically viewed favorably involves colors like blue and red and is sometimes described as "rainbow" toning.

Whether or not such rainbow toning should be viewed favorably by collectors is another matter. As Weimar White expresses it in the title of one of his articles that's reprinted in his book Coin Chemistry, "Toning is to Silver What Rust is to Iron: Bad News." The subtitle of the article is "Rainbow Colors Sign of Damage." Obviously, White doesn't think toning is good for silver coins, which is what he addresses in his article.

Next month, I'll continue with my discussion of coin cleaning and will look more specifically into how to do it (and how not to do it).

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