Coin Collecting FAQ

Part 2 of 3

Collecting and Investing Topics

Coin Collecting FAQ written by Chuck D'Ambra, Mike Locke, Michael Caver, Andrew Andison, Mike Marotta, Andrew Tumber, John Muchow, Tony Clayton, Clint Cummins, Lou Coles, Mike Dworetsky and Rita Laws.

Last updated 17 December 2010

This FAQ may be copied for noncommercial use provided that this notice and all credits to the authors are included unmodified.

Links on the Web to the Coin Collecting FAQ are welcome.

Maintained and Hosted by

Telesphere Numismatics - Coin and Paper Money Collecting Online


Below and in Part 1 and Part 3, some of the more frequently asked questions about coin collecting are addressed. While some of the material is applicable to other numismatic collectibles, the emphasis here is on coins. In some cases, more complete information is provided for U.S. coins.

This FAQ was originally written in 1995 by Chuck D'Ambra, who has periodically updated it since then. Other contributors are credited above.

Inclusion of a product, dealer or company in this FAQ does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation.

Table of Contents

What's It Worth?

  1. What are my coins worth?


  1. What is numismatics?
  2. What coins do people collect?
  3. What's the best way to get started?
  4. Where to find collectable coins
  5. How to handle coins
  6. Grading
  7. Pricing
  8. What's the best way to clean my coins?
  9. How can one tell when a coin has been cleaned, especially if it was cleaned long ago?
  10. How should I store my coins?
  11. Tools of the trade
  12. How can I protect my collection from loss by fire or theft?

Internet Resources

  1. Numismatic Newsgroups
  2. Numismatic Web sites
  3. Other numismatic resources available on computer networks
  4. Are lists of coin values available online?

Coins as Investments

  1. Risks of investing in coins
  2. Bullion coins
  3. Rare coins

Miscellaneous Topics

  1. Numismatic Publications
  2. What are proof coins? What's the difference between the various proof sets offered in recent years by the U.S. mint?
  3. What are slabs?
  4. How can coins be removed from slabs?
  5. What materials have been used to make coins?
    Written and hosted by Tony Clayton
  6. What's the best way to send coins to someone?
  7. Clubs and other collector organizations


Acronyms used in Coin Collecting
Written and hosted by Clint Cummins


2. What is numismatics?

Fugio centA simple definition of numismatics is the collection and study of coins, paper money, tokens and medals, and indeed these are the most widely collected and studied numismatic materials. Other items representing current or past financial assets or liabilities are also included under the numismatic umbrella. These include other objects used as money, as well as stock certificates, checks and notes of financial obligations.

Numismatic items are collected and studied for many reasons, including their historical significance and artistic merits, as well as their role in commerce. When significant demand exists, they may obtain numismatic value beyond their current monetary value (if any).

Coin collecting is perhaps the most popular part of the hobby and is sometimes used to refer to the entire numismatic spectrum. There are a number of specializations in coins and other branches of numismatics. With such breadth of material, numismatics offers virtually inexhaustible opportunities for exploration, learning and enjoyment.

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3. What coins do people collect?

What to collect is entirely up to the collector. It will normally be a specialization that holds some interest for the collector and is within his or her budget.

Among the most popular types of collections are world coins (coins from several countries), ancient coins, and coins of a particular country. Some specialization within these categories is ordinarily helpful. If collecting from a particular country, you can work on one or more series, a type set, commemoratives, errors, die varieties, paper money, etc. You may also want to set bounds on the grades of coins you collect, e.g. all G-VG, VF or better, or Uncirculated.


Buffalo nickel reverseThe goal of collecting a series is to acquire one of each date and mintmark issued for a particular coin design, usually including any major design differences. For example, the U.S. Standing Liberty quarter was produced from 1916 to 1930 at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints (coins were not made at all three mints every year, and none were produced at any mint in 1922); a major change to the obverse was made in 1917, and the full set is generally considered to include both designs for that year from each mint.


A collector building a type set seeks to have one example of each series and major design variation within each series. Examples might include 20th century Canadian coinage or U.S. gold coins.


Athenian OwlContributed by Mike Marotta

From the invention of coinage in Ionia about 650 BC to the last Roman emperor of 450 AD, the gold, silver and bronze of ancient world are surprisingly available. A common silver drachma issued by Alexander the Great might cost about $60. A common silver denarius from one of the early Roman emperors might cost $30. Gold costs more. Bronze -- being more common -- costs less. For $10 or $20, you can own a bronze coin that circulated during the time of Archimedes or St. Paul. Most collectors of ancients work on themes: the Twelve Caesars, the town of Carthage, the goddess Diana, etc.

double struck U.S. state quarter Errors & Varieties

Some enjoy collecting coins that are different because of a variation or a mistake in the minting process. Die varieties include coins with doubled letters or features, overdates, repunched mintmarks, and other variations traceable to differences in dies used to strike coins. A striking error occurs when something goes wrong in the coining press, producing an unusual coin like the double struck U.S. state quarter pictured at right.

Tokens, Tickets, Tallies and Checks.

Contributed by Andrew D N Andison

When the government ignored the needs of the people and refused to issue sufficient low value coins the traders took matters into their own hands and issued tokens. In Great Britain this took place in the mid 1600's, the 1790's and the 1810's. These formed a local currency and it took several acts of Parliament to ban them. The bans were never completely successful and 'advertising tickets' continued to be issued through the mid 1800's. These were conveniently the same size as farthings, the coin still in very short supply, and undoubtedly circulated as such. By the end of Queen Victoria's reign the need for tokens had gone but there were all sorts of other similar pieces being used. Pubs issued checks but because they were such an everyday occurrence nobody thought the record how they were used! The co-operative societies used checks to record the value of purchases made so that the correct amount of divident could be paid. Fruit pickers received tallies to depending on the quantity of fruit picked. The most recent use of tokens is probably the ones used in gaming and vending machines, as well as the one used by the many transport undertakings.

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4. What's the best way to get started?

Buy the book before you buy the coin is frequently offered and sage advice.

Coins can be rewarding for the collector who makes the effort to study the hobby and the market. Someone who does not make that effort is more likely to waste money on overgraded, problem or counterfeit coins. Before spending a lot of money on coins, invest in your knowledge of the hobby. This FAQ is a start, but for your own protection you should have at least one reference book covering your area(s) of interest. Reading a few issues of periodicals is another good idea.

Collecting coins from circulation is a great place to start. The risk is negligible (you can always spend the coins), and you can learn a lot examining your coins carefully and seeing what your reference book says about them.

Join a club! Local coin clubs are usually great for learning more about the hobby, getting material for your collection, and you just might make some good friends, too.

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5. Where to find collectable coins

When the coins you're interested in collecting are not available in circulation, it's time to look for other sources. That almost always means purchasing coins. Among places to buy coins are

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6. How to handle coins

In general, collectable coins should be handled carefully to avoid the possibility of causing wear or introducing substances that may lead to spots or color changes. Many holders will provide adequate protection for ordinary handling. Before removing a coin from its holder, consider whether it's really necessary.

Never touch an uncirculated or Proof coin anywhere but the edge. Fingerprints alone may reduce the coin's grade and consequently its value. Handling on the edge only is mandatory when examining another person's coins, regardless of grade. Get in the habit of picking up collector coins by their edges, and it will soon become routine.

Avoid holding numismatic items in front of your mouth. Small particles of moisture may eventually cause spots.

When setting a coin down outside of a holder is necessary, place it on a clean, soft surface. A velvet pad is an ideal surface and essential for regular handling of valuable material. A clean soft cloth or clean piece of blank paper may be sufficient for less valuable items. Do not drag coins across any surfaces.

If you will be handling very valuable coins or lots of uncirculated and/or higher grade circulated coins, wearing clean white cloth or surgical gloves and a mask may be advisable.

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7. Grading

The condition of a coin is commonly summarized by a grade. Because the value of collector coins often varies dramatically with grade and overly generous grading is not uncommon, reasonable grading proficiency is an important skill for collectors. The material presented here is intended only as an introduction to the subject. Grading is a skill that can only be developed over time through referrals to grading guides, consultation with experienced collectors and dealers, and lots of practice.

Published standards set objective criteria for grading, yet some amount of subjectivity is inevitable -- even expert graders will often assign slightly different grades to the same coin. While you can often ask an experienced grader for an opinion, being able to make your own reasonable assessment of grade is your best protection.

An overview of American Numismatic Association standards follows. ANA standards are widely used in the U.S. but are not the only system used. Much of the rest of the world uses the grades Fair, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, Uncirculated and Fleur-de-coin.

Numerals used in coin grades have been taken from the Sheldon scale (see Glossary).

Uncirculated Coins

Uncirculated 1882-CC Morgan dollarCoins with no wear at all are referred to as uncirculated or in mint state (MS). Grades from MS-60 to MS-70 in one point increments are used for mint state coins. Criteria include luster; the number, size and location of contact marks; the number, size and location of any hairlines; the completeness of the strike; and the overall eye appeal.

An MS-60 coin may have dull luster and numerous contact marks in prime focal areas, as long as there is no wear. To merit MS-65, a coin should have brilliant cartwheel luster (attractive toning is permissible), at most a few inconspicuous contact marks, no hairlines, and nearly complete striking details. Grades from MS-61 to MS-64 cover intermediate parts of this range. Truly exceptional coins may be graded MS-66, MS-67 or, if absolutely flawless, as high as the theoretical maximum of MS-70. Some numismatists consider MS-70 to be an unobtainable ideal.

Terms such as brilliant uncirculated (BU), choice BU, gem BU, select BU and premium BU are still used in lieu of numerical grades by some dealers, auctioneers and others. Correlations between these terms and the numeric MS grades are difficult at best, because of inconsistent usage and in some cases overgrading.

Market values for many uncirculated coins vary dramatically from one grade to the next. Remember that whether a coin is described with a numerical or an adjectival grade, it's only someone's opinion. Until you are comfortable with your ability to grade uncirculated coins, take advantage of other opinions, such as those available with slabbed coins or from experienced collectors and dealers you trust, or concentrate on circulated coins.

Circulated Coins

VG 1893 Morgan dollar For circulated coins the grade is primarily an indication of how much wear has occurred and generally does not take into account the presence or absence of dings, scratches, toning, dirt and other foreign substances (though such information may also be noted).

ANA grading standards recognize 11 grades for circulated coins (listed here with brief, generic descriptions):

While coins more worn than AG are rarely collected, two additional grades are nevertheless used to characterize them:

While not included in the ANA standards, intermediate grades like AU-53, VF-35, F-15 and G-6 are used by some dealers and grading services. When a grader believes a coin is better than the minimum requirements but not nice enough for the next higher grade "+" or "PQ" (premium quality) may be included.  For example, a coin could be described as VG+ or MS64PQ. It's also not uncommon for a range to be stated, e.g. F-VF for a coin that's considered better than the minimum requirements for F but not quite a VF.

Split Grades

When there are significant differences between the obverse and reverse sides, a split grade may be assigned. Split grades are denoted with a "/". For example, "F/VF" means that the obverse is F and the reverse is VF.

The overall grade is often determined by the obverse. An intermediate value may be appropriate when the difference is significant, especially if the reverse is lower. A coin graded MS-60/61 would be considered to have an overall grade of MS-60, and another at MS-65/63 could be considered to have an overall grade of MS-64.

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8. Pricing

Coin prices are a function of supply and demand. Market prices decline when inventories cannot be moved at current levels and eventually rise when insufficient quantities are available to meet current demand. Of course, if the buyer or seller is unaware of current trends, a transaction may occur outside the normal range of prices.

Demand is ultimately established by collectors and investors but often more directly by dealers, who must sell coins for more than they pay for them to cover expenses and make a profit. Consequently, there are multiple tiers of prices for any particular collector coin. Retail refers to prices dealers charge most collectors and investors, while wholesale means prices they charge each other. Collectors and investors with a substantial market presence (spending considerable amounts, especially on a regular basis with the same dealer) may be able to buy at or near wholesale levels. Published price guides list typical prices for retail and wholesale transactions -- actual prices may be somewhat higher or lower.

Dealers will usually pay less than wholesale when buying coins from the public. Therefore, collectors and investors should be aware that it is difficult to "get their money back," should the need arise to sell their holdings. Of course, they may do better by bypassing a dealer altogether, but it may not be easy to find another collector or investor looking for the specific coins one wants to sell, and even then the potential buyer may consider it an opportunity to acquire the coins at a discount. In addition, there are some advantages to purchasing coins from a dealer. A reputable dealer will guarantee the authenticity of the merchandise. He or she will be knowledgable enough to form reasonable opinions on grades, to detect problems that may be missed by less experienced persons and will usually be willing to share knowledge with the public, especially customers.

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9. What's the best way to clean my coins?

In most cases, the best answer is DO NOT CLEAN COINS. While you might think they'll look nicer if shiny, collectors prefer coins with an original appearance. Cleaning a coin may reduce its collector value by half or more.

Cleaning coins is similar to restoring works of art - they're both jobs best left to professionals who have the knowledge and experience to know when it's advisable, what techniques will work best and how to use them properly.

Never abrasively clean coins. Even wiping with a soft cloth will cause small but undesirable scratches, which will reduce the coin's value.

If the surface of a coin appears to be tarnished, it is best left alone. The color change is the result of a natural process, which collectors call toning. Atoms on the surface of the coin have reacted chemically, often with sulfur compounds. The reaction cannot be reversed. "Dips" which strip molecules from the surface are available. Dipping is the quintessential example of a technique that should be used only by professionals, if at all. Additionally, natural toning sometimes increases the value of a coin (i.e. when it's considered attractive).

Dirt and other foreign substances adhering to a coin can sometimes be safely removed. Try soaking the coin for a few days either in olive oil or soapy water, followed by a thorough rinse with tap water. Dry the coin with compressed air or allow it to air dry. Do not rub the coin. Commercial coin cleaners may also be carefully used to more quickly loosen foreign substances.

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10. How can one tell when a coin has been cleaned, especially if it was cleaned long ago?

Contributed by Mike Locke

If the coin has been cleaned with an abrasive, the coin will have hairlines. Have a look at the coins in Overton's half dollar book; a large proportion (maybe 20%) of them appear to have been harshly cleaned with an abrasive. Also, abrasive cleaning often leaves some crud in the recesses of the coin (untouched dirt or left over abrasive).

If the coin has been dipped, it may or may not be detectable. A bright white 1801 half dollar is immediately suspect. Although it is possible for such an original coin to exist, it is unlikely. Also dipping can strip the lustre off of the coin, with the end result that there is no lustre where you would expect it to be for a coin in said condition (XF and better coins).

A natural coin has a particular appearance which reflects the history of its storage. Haphazardly stored coins tend to have a "dirty" appearance to the toning. Coins that have lived for a long time in a coin cabinet tend to have spectacular colored toning. Coins stored in a clean metal vault (such as an old style "piggy" bank) may stay white (or red) for a long time. Coins stored in albums develop either the familiar "ring toning" (slide type albums) or the much less desireable "one sided toning" (all cardboard albums). Coins stored in mint bags often show spectacular rainbow toning, similar to that seen on coins stored in coin cabinets.

Copper/bronze/brass coins that have been cleaned have an unnatural color, often looking like a toned gold coin. Even after they retone, they tend to have an uneven and slightly odd color (watch out for dark areas). See that red in the recesses of that VF copper coin? Not a good sign! Naturally toned, *circulated* copper tends to be very uniform in color, although they might be dark and dirty around the lettering and similar protected areas. Uncirculated copper may tone very unevenly (especially proofs), so do not automatically count this against such a coin.

Exactly the other way around, silver coins that have been cleaned tend to be extremely uniform in color after they retone, including the tops of the letters and protected areas. Silver coins with natural toning will usually show some variation in the color at these places. Be aware that a uniform slate gray color can be produced on silver very easily with a number of chemicals. Finally, a heavily toned and subsequently dipped silver coin will tend to have a gray appearance caused by surface roughness rather than tarnish. This can be detected by careful examination with a strong magnifier.

The ANA advises that sudden "hard line" changes in color do not occur on naturally toned coins. Naturally toned coins exhibit a gradual change in color or darkness. In any event, its mostly a matter of looking at a lot of coins and forming your own opinions. Assuming that you are buying coins for your personal collection, in the final say, it is *your opinion* that really matters.

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11. How should I store my coins?


A relatively constant, moderate temperature and low humidity are preferable for long term storage of numismatic collectibles. Placing packets of silica gel in coin storage areas helps control atmospheric moisture.


Several types of "containers" for coins are available. Most anything will do for coins with little numismatic value, while nearly airtight holders made of inert materials are a good idea for valuable coins.

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12. Tools of the trade

What tools and other resources does a numismatist need? The answer depends on the material being collected and its value. At a minimum, collectors should have a magnifier and an applicable reference book, though someone collecting only coins from circulation may be able to get by without them. A comfortable location with a suitable light source for examining coins is also advisable.

jeweler's loupeAll sorts of magnifiers are available. For grading, 4-10 times magnification is sufficient, with 7x magnification considered by many to be ideal. Collectors of die varieties need 10x magnification or more.

Anyone purchasing coins should own at least one general reference book with information on dates and mintmarks, major varieties, grading guidelines and prices. Additional references examining topics in more detail (e.g. grading, counterfeit detection or die varieties) are often useful. Periodicals will have more recent pricing information and news. Good reference works can pay for themselves several times over by helping you avoid bad decisions.

Recommended lighting for examining coins is an incandescent source of about 75 watts (higher if other light sources are in the room) located within half a meter of where you'll hold the coins. Some people prefer halogen lamps, while fluorescent lights should be avoided. Find a comfortable location in your home where you won't be frequently distracted.

Depending on the collector's interests and value of the collectibles, other useful tools sometimes include a microscope, gloves, mask, velvet pad, additional references, metal detector, scale and/or photographic equipment.

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13. How can I protect my collection from loss by fire or theft?

A number of precautions can be taken to minimize the possibility of loss by fire or theft. Which ones make sense depend on the value of the collection and the relative risks. Note that most homeowner insurance policies specifically exclude coins and other numismatic items from coverage. A rider can be obtained for an additional premium, or a separate policy can be obtained. ANA offers optional insurance for collections to its members. Maintain records about your collection and store a copy separately from the coins.

Most safes providing protection from fires do not provide very good protection from theft, and vice versa.

A fire can damage or destroy numismatic collectibles. Even if the flames don't touch your coins, the heat may be sufficient to melt them. One option is to keep your collection in a home safe providing protection from fires. Another option is to keep the collection (or at least the most valuable parts) in a bank safe deposit box.

Top priority for preventing theft should be measures to prevent or dissuade a burglar from entering your home, such as lighting and locks. More extensive tips are available from law enforcement agencies. Consider storing your collection (or at least the most valuable parts) in a safe deposit box.

Be discrete about being a coin collector. Avoid telling anyone you don't know well and trust, and when the subject does come up, be sure to mention that you keep the coins in a safe deposit box or the collection isn't worth much (even if not strictly true). The more people you tell about your collection, the more likely that information will eventually reach the wrong person. If you regularly receive coins and/or promotional materials in the mail, consider getting a post office box and having all numismatically related mail sent there. (A PO box offers little additional security in the UK, where anyone can write to the PO to obtain the real address behind it.)

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Internet Resources

14. Numismatic Newsgroups

Two newsgroups on the Usenet portion of the Internet exist for discussions of numismatic topics:

If you need help accessing these or other newsgroups, contact your service provider.

These groups are distributed just about everywhere in the world where Internet access is available, and articles are posted by participants from several countries. While most articles are written in English, posts in other languages are part of the international nature of the groups.

In addition to usual "netiquette" (see news.announce.newusers), please keep the following guidelines in mind when posting articles to these groups:

  1. Only write about subjects that are "on topic" for the group, as defined in the group's charter (see below). Any area of numismatics is ok in rec.collecting.coins. Articles without numismatic relevance are not.
  2. When requesting information about a numismatic item, provide as much identifying information as possible, including (when known) what country issued it. Dollars, pennies, and many other denominations have been minted in multiple countries. Do not assume those who read your article will know which one you mean.
  3. Never post images or other binaries. It's ok to post a text only article with an offer to send images by e-mail or to view them on a web site, and they may be posted to appropriate groups in the alt.binaries hierarchy.
  4. If posting about material you wish to sell, include "FS" (for sale) or "FA" (for auction) in the subject header, e.g. "FS: Ancient Greek Coins"
  5. If posting about material you wish to buy, include "WTB" (want to buy) in the subject header, e.g. "WTB: Early U.S. Proof Sets"
  6. Limit the number of buy, sell and auction notices you post. One per day is generally accepted. More than 3 per day will get you a lot more enemies than customers. Combine announcements about coins you are interested in selling or acquiring into one post rather than separate posts for each item.
  7. Avoid reposting the same auction notices and other commercial articles too frequently. Once a week for the same announcement is plenty. Most news servers save articles for a week or more, and yours will still be there when each reader gets around to checking the group.

Charter for rec.collecting.coins

[from the "call for votes" during the proposed group creation in 1994]

rec.collecting.coins will be for the discussion of all things related to coin collecting. Suitable topics will include:

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15. Numismatic web sites

An FAQ on paper money collecting is maintained separately.

New numismatic web sites appear almost every week. Places where links are maintained include

Bob Johnson's COINSHEET Numismatic Directory
2-Clicks Coin Collecting Guide

Numerous registries and search engines such as Google and Yahoo maintain databases of web sites. Search on "coin collecting" or more specific keyword(s) at these sites to get related web page listings.

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16. Other numismatic resources available on computer networks

This section needs to be updated, i.e. verification that the mailing lists below still exist and addition of other resources such as forums on numismatic web sites.

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17. Are lists of coin values available online?

An online price guide for U.S. coins is available at the NumisMedia web site.

An online price guide for U.K. coins is maintained by Tony Clayton.

Precious metals spot prices are available at Kitco Inc.

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Coins as Investments

This material is not investment advice. It is only an introduction to coins sometimes purchased as investments and some of the risks inherent in this form of investing. More extensive research is advisable before making a decision to purchase any coin for investment purposes. The authors of this FAQ are not responsible in any manner or extent whatsoever for the results of any reader's investment decisions.

18. Risks of investing in coins

All investments entail risks. While coin collecting is a rewarding hobby and is sometimes financially profitable, anyone purchasing coins with the expectation that they may be a good investment should understand and be prepared for the risks inherent in such investments.

Because the risks of investing in coins are higher than for many other types of investments, they are not suitable at all for many investors. Even for those investors willing to accept higher risks in exchange for possibly greater returns, at most only a modest fraction of the portfolio (perhaps 5 to 15%) would be recommended by many investment advisors.

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19. Bullion coins

2006 American EagleCoins composed primarily of a precious metal and with no significant value beyond that of the metal are one form of bullion. Prices for bullion coins vary with the spot price of the metal. Many investors prefer coins to other forms of metals, such as bars, because coins do not need to be assayed when sold.

Several governments produce gold bullion coins. Examples include the South African Krugerrand, the Canadian Maple Leaf, the Chinese Panda, and the American Eagle. Each sells for a small premium above the value of the gold in the coin.

Silver and platinum bullion coins are also produced by some mints. For example, the U.S. mint has made Silver Eagles (containing one ounce of silver) each year since 1986. Uncirculated silver eagles sell at a premium above spot silver, generally ranging from $1.65 to $5.00 per coin (depending on quantity, dates and source).

Common date circulated silver coins are also bought and sold as bullion. U.S. dimes, quarters and half dollars dated 1964 or earlier are 90% silver and were made with 0.723 ounce of silver for each dollar in face value (as some metal may have been worn off from circulation, 0.715 ounce/dollar is often used to estimate the amount of silver still present).

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20. Rare coins

Investments in rare coins are made with the expectation that their numismatic value will increase. Technically, "rare" means very few examples are known (e.g. no more than 75 to earn that designation on the Sheldon Rarity Scale), but coins with much higher populations are sometimes promoted as "rare coin investments."

Coins sometimes purchased for investment purposes include ancients, Morgan dollars, Walking Liberty halves and older gold coins. High grade coins are usually preferred.

An investor might include some rare coins in his or her portfolio if there is reason to expect demand from collectors and/or investors for those specific coins to increase. A savvy investor understands the risks inherent in coin investments and takes appropriate measures to minimize them.

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Miscellaneous Topics

2011 Red Book 21. Numismatic Publications

More than 200 books on various numismatic subjects are available from numismatic professionals and general booksellers. Many others are no longer in print but may be available in libraries, used book stores and other locations. A coin book bibliography is available at the Numismatic Bibliomania Society.

A number of periodicals are also published weekly or monthly. Some of them are listed below.

Book list originally compiled by John Muchow from the suggestions of rec.collecting.coins participants; updated October 2009 by Chuck D'Ambra.

Grading Guides
Price Guides
Expert's Guide...General Numismatic

Renaissance of American CoinageGeneral U.S.

Breen's Encyclopedia of Early U.S. CentsEarly U.S.
Specialized U.S.
A Catalog of Modern World CoinsWorld

Ancient Coin Collecting, volume 1Ancient

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22. What are proof coins? What's the difference between the various proof sets offered in recent years by the U.S. mint?

proof Marine Corps dollar (U.S.)Proof coins are specially manufactured for sale at a premium to collectors and sometimes for exhibition or for presentation as a gift or award. Proofs are generally distinguishable from ordinary coins by their mirrorlike fields (i.e. backgrounds), frosty devices (the major design elements) and extra sharp details. Recent technological advances have made it possible to strike coins with extraordinary cameo contrasts.

To obtain these qualities, each proof coin die is polished to produce an extremely smooth surface and used for a limited number of coins. Planchets are hand fed to the coin press, where they are struck at a higher than ordinary pressure, often multiple times. Struck coins are removed by hand with gloves or tongs. Modern proof coins are usually packaged in some type of clear plastic holder or case to protect them from handling, moisture, etc.

For many years the U.S. Mint has sold annual sets of proof coins. These "regular" proof sets usually contain one proof coin of each denomination minted. In 1983, 1984 and 1986-97, Prestige Sets were also sold. Prestige Sets include all the coins in the regular set, plus one or two commemorative coins issued the same year.

Since 1992, the Mint has also offered Silver Proof Sets, which include 90% silver versions of the proof dime, quarter(s) and half dollar. From 1992 through 1998, the Mint also offered a Premier Silver Proof Set. The two types of silver proof sets contain the same coins, with the premier set housing them in fancier packaging.

With the onset of the first circulating commemorative quarters program in 1999, regular and silver proof sets began including each quarter issued during the year. A separate quarters only proof set has also been offered each year since 1999, and a silver quarters proof set has been offered each year since 2004.

Beginning in 2007, a dollar coin honoring each of the deceased former Presidents of the United States is being issued at the rate of four per year. Since then, all four Presidential dollars have been included in regular and silver U.S. proof sets, as well as in a separate Presidential Dollars proof set.

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23. What are slabs?

A certified coin, or slab, is a coin that has been authenticated, graded and encased in a sonically sealed, hard plastic holder by a professional certification service. The holder affords protection from subsequent wear or damage but is not airtight and therefore will not prevent toning. Because any tampering with the holder will be obvious, it also prevents replacing the certified coin with something else.

Counterfeit and altered coins slabbed by major certification services are not unknown but are uncommon. The authenticity of a coin may be guaranteed by the company that slabbed it. Therefore, a coin slabbed by a major certification service offers some protection, especially when fakes are known to exist and the prospective buyer is not able to reliably determine its authenticity.

Some certification services will not slab coins that have been altered, whizzed, cleaned (dipping is often acceptable), artificially toned or otherwise damaged. Others slab the coin and identify the problem on the label.

Grades are opinions. The same coin may receive different grades if submitted to different services or even if "cracked out" and resubmitted to the same service. Furthermore, grading standards for some uncirculated coins have changed since slabs were first produced (1986), so a coin in an early slab may may receive a different grade if resubmitted now. The grade indicated on a slab represents the opinions of no more than a few persons who examined the coin at the time it was submitted, and not the final word on the subject. As a result, slabbed coins given identical grades may have different market values. Whenever possible, buy the coin, not the holder.

Companies that slab coins include (in alphabetical order)

Prices range from $7.50 to $175.00 per coin, depending on the service and turnaround time, plus shipping costs in both directions.

The skills and equipment needed to encapsulate coins in slab-like holders can be acquired more easily than the expertise needed to accurately authenticate and grade coins. Holders from the services listed above are not the only types that appear in the marketplace. However, slabs from some "services" may not be regarded by experienced numismatists as legitimate and may not even be backed by a guarantee of the coin's authenticity. Learning about the service's reputation and soliciting other opinions about a coin's condition may save you from paying considerably more than its true market value.

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24. How can coins be removed from slabs?

Coins can be removed from NGC, ANACS, PCI etc. holders without great difficulty. An even simpler technique works for PCGS holders. Wear safety glasses or goggles when performing either method!

General Method

Tools required: vise, hammer, chisel; safety glasses or goggles
Method: Secure the slab in the vise along either long side. The vise should overlap only enough plastic to ensure that the holder is secured (1/4 inch or so). Tighten as necessary to avoid slab movement while you're using the hammer and chisel. Position the chisel in the seam between the two pieces of plastic near the upright corner further from the coin. Carefully tap the chisel with the hammer until the plastic pieces separate. Ideally, the chisel will wedge between the two pieces and can be used to pry them completely apart. Carefully remove the coin from the separated/fragmented plastic.


Tools required: lineman's pliers or wire cutters; safety glasses or goggles
Method: Position the pliers along either long side of the slab at the middle of the coin such that the cutting edges are outside the edge of the coin. Squeeze forcefully. The plastic will crack across the entire width of the holder. Carefully separate the plastic pieces and remove the coin.

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25. What metals have been used to make coins?

Tony Clayton provides extensive information on this subject.

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26. What's the best way to send coins to someone?

Here are some tips for packaging, addressing and shipping coins.  Shipping details are for packages mailed in the United States.


Coins should be packaged securely for shipping. Flattening any staples with a pair of pliers will reduce the chance of damage to adjacent items. Safe-T-Mailers, which are sold at some coin shops, are useful for a small number of flips, 2x2s, similar holders or slabs. Coins in these holders can also be sandwiched between pieces of corrugated cardboard (make sure they cannot slide out). "Irregularly shaped" objects are generally not accepted in letter size envelopes. If your "sandwich" is not much thicker than a greeting card, a letter or legal size paper envelope may work. Otherwise, use a padded envelope or bubble mailer (if not shipping by registered mail) or box the coins.

For larger quantities of individual holders, bundle them tightly together with rubber bands. When shipping rolls of coins in plastic tubes, place a small piece of foam, cotton or bubble wrap in the end to prevent the coins from moving and seal the cap in place with a piece of tape. Place bundles of 2x2s, tubes, and multi-coin holders (e.g. proof sets) in a sturdy box. Use bubble wrap, foam, styrofoam peanuts or newspaper to completely fill extra space, ideally with some padding between the contents and every side of the box.


To reduce the chances of the package being stolen, do not use any words in the address or return address suggesting it may contain something valuable. Omit words like Coin and Gold or abbreviate. For example, use XYZ Company rather than XYZ Coin Company and AGE, Inc. rather than Antarctic Gold Emporium, Inc.


Mail, rather than a private courier such as UPS, may be preferable for shipping coins. Some couriers do not insure packages containing coins. Different types of mail service are available, and optional extras such as insurance and delivery confirmation are available.  The optimal choices depend on the weight of the package, how fast you want it delivered and the value of the contents.

For packages weighing 13 ounces or less sent to U.S. addresses, first class mail is generally sufficient. The U.S. Postal Service considers the shape, as well as the weight, when determining postage. An item more than 1/4" thick will be treated as a first class parcel. For parcels containing coins that weigh over 13 ounces, choose between parcel post and priority mail. Shipping costs and estimated delivery times can be obtained on the USPS web site.

Insurance is additional. A package insured for up to $200 does not require a signature by the recipient. "Blue label" insurance, which is available for packages valued from $200 to $5000, requires a signature for delivery. Insurance fees are also available on the USPS web site. The USPS will not accept a claim for non-delivery of an insured package until 21 days after it was sent.

Registered mail is the safest way to ship valuables and the only way to insure for more than $5000. A registered package must be signed for by every postal employee who handles it, as well as the recipient. Postal regulations prohibit bubble mailers and all but paper tape (which does not include masking tape) for registered shipments.

Nothing is gained by using certified mail for coins or other valuables, and return receipts are only useful for proving that the addressee received the package. If the package is sent by registered mail or is insured for more than $200, it must be signed for on receipt anyway.

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27. Clubs and other collector organizations

A database of local, regional and specialty clubs and some international organizations is maintained are available on the ANA web site.

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