Have you ever had a less-than-brilliant coin collecting moment that you aren’t very proud of? Well take heart, fellow traveler – we’ve all “been there, done that”…. and we’re better collectors for it.
By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes as a coin collector. They were bound to happen. When I started collecting I was an 11-year-old kid who thought it was perfectly OK to buff coins with pencil erasers or bathe them in vinegar and baking soda to give them a “nice, shiny” appearance. I even sold a few coins I wish I hadn’t. From a zest for coin-cleaning to seller’s remorse, I’ve felt a range of emotions as a collector, but my experiences (all of them) have helped make me a more well-rounded and, dare I say, wiser hobbyist.
And so, in the spirit of camaraderie, I’d like to share some of my more embarrassing numismatic lowlights to impart some lessons on what not to do with your coins.
Please grab a tissue. This may be hard for some of you to read…
#1 – Oh, Lighten Up!
When I was about 19 years old, my singular collecting objective was to complete a 20th-century set of United States coins grading Extremely Fine or better. My parents, cognizant of my numismatic objectives, always did their best to assist me in procuring the coins I needed, even while working with often anemic blue-collar wages.
So imagine my delight one Christmas when I unwrapped up a tiny present, precisely the shape and size of a 2×2 cardboard coin mount. It was the “key” coin to my 20th-century set: a Barber half dollar grading Choice Extremely Fine-45. My parents, I learned, bought the 1908 half dollar for about $110* (in the year 2000), and it was a nice-looking, lightly circulated specimen – a darkly toned beauty with problem-free surfaces and no evidence of past cleaning. A great type coin suitable for the $50 Capital Plastics holder in which it was soon to reside.
Unfortunately, at the age of 19 I hadn’t yet come to appreciate darkly toned silver coins that were nearly a century old. Tempted to somehow remove the dark toning, I took the coin to the dealer who sold it to my parents, and I asked him if he could make the coin appear a little lighter. He told me he could use a rub to get rid of some of the toning and asked me if I wanted to go through with it. I nodded yes and he obliged, probably quite hesitantly. He took the coin to his back office where, I presume now, he must have used some kind of dipping solution that he selectively applied with his thumb on certain areas of the coin, such as the main fields and on Miss Liberty’s face.
About 30 seconds later, he returned the coin to me as I stood near a coin case looking at the inventory. The coin had transformed from a dark grayish-green to a medium, silvery gray. The coin didn’t “look” cleaned – there was still evidence of luster near the edges of the devices and inside the protected pockets of lettering. But that deep patina, the patina I originally felt was too strong, too deep and too dark for my tastes was now gone.
And I missed it. I tried in vain for more than a year to recreate that original dark, green-gray color.
I learned there were a few coin “doctoring” tricks that could help me recreate the color. Of course, implementing those suggestions would mean having to disclose the re-toning efforts to anybody who would eventually buy the coin from me down the road. I covered the poor Barber half dollar in a mud solution and left it to bake in the sun. I placed the coin on hot incandescent lamps for more than an hour at a time. I baked it in a paper envelope inside an oven set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Alas, the coin was “done.” And not because it came out of the oven in just the right shade of green-gray. Any shred of the coin’s originality that had remained after the dealer lightened the coin for me was permanently erased during my multiple amateurish attempts to restore the patina that was already lost for good.
Lesson #1 – Appreciate original color and toning, and let the coin be.
#2 – Selling My Soul
There were certain coins I always wanted for my coin collection. A 1909-S VDB cent was the first, followed by any Draped Bust silver dollar. Why a Draped Bust dollar? My whimsical desire to own an 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar, the “King of American Coins,” drove my early aspirations to own an example from the Draped Bust dollar series. Eventually, I came to embrace the early dollar as an historic relic, among the first official federal coins bearing our nation’s unitary denomination – the dollar.
I finally acquired a Draped Bust dollar in the fall of 2010. It was a 1799 Draped Bust dollar graded Good-6 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), and it had nice, original color. I bought the coin on eBay from a power seller in 2010 for about $850. I thought it was a good deal, and really, it was. Fast-forward a year, and I entered the depressed housing market looking for a steal. I thought I finally found the house I wanted to buy – a cute mid-century rancher in an established suburban neighborhood in Florida.
The price was right, but I needed a little more dough to make the deal happen. I began eying that Draped Bust dollar I had bought. It represented an immediate $500-600 that I knew I could throw into my bank account and use to help cover potential closing costs after I signed the contract.
The bank was sure the house would be mine, and I was already planning in my head some of the minor renovations I wanted to make. I sold the coin to my local coin dealer the next morning.
But I was (literally and figuratively) a day late and a dollar short. There were plenty of real estate management firms carrying coffers of cash, and one such company found the house I wanted and made a deal on the spot. I lost the house and my dream coin was gone, to boot.
On the bright side, the 692-square-foot home I had my heart set on in 2011 would’ve been too small for my needs today, and I eventually acquired an original, problem-free 1799 Draped Bust dollar that grades Very Good-10. So I guess there’s a silver lining behind every numismatic cloud.
Lesson #2 – Unless faced with a real financial emergency, think twice before selling the coins you love the most.
#3 – Haste Makes Waste
They say don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach. Unfortunately for my pocketbook, I’ve stopped by the coin shop several times after long, numismatically “dry” periods of saving up for specific coins only to wind up buying several incidentals that I didn’t really need for my collection, can’t necessarily return, and will only get half my money back if I sell.
I’ve bought everything from novelty colorized coins found in the half-price box to common-date, circulated silver dollars I don’t need for any type of coin set – and a wide range of sundries in between. Of course, for the high-rolling coin collector, my $5, $10, or $20 here-and-there purchases amount to nothing, really. But when you’re shopping for coins on a shoestring budget, spending that $5, $10, or $25 extra during a visit to the coin store may mean being short on funds for the coins you really want.
Recently, I’ve been reigning in my extra discretionary expenditures at the coin shop by paying closer attention to my want list and shopping with a numismatic mission in mind. It works, too. I’m spending money on the coins I really would like to put in my collection and am winding up with fewer coins and products that I can’t resell and just take up extra space in the bank vault.
Lesson #3 – Unless you have a virtually endless numismatic budget, keep a coin want list and stick to it when shopping for coins.
#4 – Cut It Out!
I guess I was a relatively good teenager. I didn’t touch my first alcoholic beverage until well into my 20s, I didn’t smoke or do drugs, and I never held any loud parties. But that doesn’t mean I never committed any youthful indiscretions. One of the worst? Oh boy, here goes: I used to eat up all of my government-sealed mint packages. Every one of them.
That’s right. I cut up my mint sets, broke the coins from my proof set holders and, in the process, downgraded several innocent gem coins from Brilliant Uncirculated and Superb Proof grades to Uncirculated “with fingerprints” and Impaired Proof.
I didn’t necessarily want to “play” with my coins, but I enjoyed breaking them free from their holders so I could insert them into my own aftermarket coin storage. Really, I don’t know what the rationale was behind that. Sometimes it’s hard for any of us to think back and get into our own former 13-year-old minds. But for some reason I just had to destroy those coin sets and rearrange the coins within them in my own fashion.
Rest easy, I didn’t tear apart any expensive coin sets. The “worst” of these incidences came when my Fiskars student scissors demolished my 1957 proof set which, back in 1994, cost all of $14 to buy. I’m sure tearing open that 1957 proof set didn’t help the set’s population count any, and it might be part of the reason why they retail for about $23. Maybe…
Anyway, to make a long story short, I am now far more concerned about the overall preservation of coins and keeping any original packaging intact. I’ve even built a 1959-to-date mint set collection, with every set in its near-pristine, original packaging. I’ll add that scissors never get anywhere near these coin sets.
So. To you parents out there, be patient. Teenagers really do grow up and mature.
Lesson #4 – Unless you have an overwhelming need to harvest coins from government-issued mint sets and proof sets, it’s better to be a good steward and keep these coin sets intact.
#5 – The Ol’ Vinegar and Baking Soda Trick
My foray into the hobby came in October 1992 when I found a 1941 Lincoln cent in my allowance change. Back before the Internet was teaching kids how to damage their coins by bathing them in vinegar and baking soda, there were plenty of richly illustrated, youth-targeted books and magazines geared toward 11-year-old boys such as myself who were more than willing to conduct “cool experiments” to make their “dirty pennies look brand new”.
The dreadful thoughts now coming to your numismatic mind can fill in the remaining plot of this story and, yes, I did treat all of my old Lincoln cents to that bubbly, patina-stripping spa experience. The best ending to come out of this story is that I still have that 1941 Lincoln cent and its common-date wheat penny counterparts that helped spark my curiosity in numismatics.
Those old Lincoln wheat cents are retoning now (for the most part quite unevenly, too). But that’s OK – they bear the battle scars of my early years in numismatics and help me reflect on just how far I’ve come since first diving into this hobby when I was a boy so many years ago.
Lesson #5 – Don’t clean your coins! Don’t clean your coins! And, don’t clean your coins!
As I’ve illustrated in this article, I’ve certainly garnered some solid numismatic experience through trial and error. I may have damaged a few coins in the process, but I’m glad my missteps didn’t harm any truly valuable or scarce coins. Ultimately, I’m a better coin collector today because of the lessons I learned the hard way. And maybe, just maybe, by sharing them I might help a few other hobbyists avoid the blunders I’ve made.
Do any coin collecting mistakes still make you wince years after the fact? Would you like to share them? Leave your stories in the comments below.
Don’t worry – you can stay anonymous if you want to.
*All vintage coin prices recalled through personal memory and records.
U.S. Mint Sets Currently Available on eBay