By Lance Tchor – Founder and Co-President, WINGS® Coins LLC ……
PVC and coins don’t mix
Otherwise known as polyvinylchloride, PVC is found in many different plastic-based products. Despite the fact that the chemical has been identified as a carcinogen and pollutant, it is widely used in an array of industries with relatively benign outcomes.
Common items made from PVC include credit cards, shower curtains, toys, modeling clay, and artificial Christmas trees.
Sadly for coin collectors, PVC isn’t so kind to coins. It is highly reactive when it comes into contact with copper, silver, gold, and platinum. The interactions between a coin and PVC can have ghastly consequences. Damage presents on coins as green, gray, or milky streaks, and sometimes it also appears as spots, splotches, and blobs. Copper coins are most susceptible to the acidic effects of PVC, followed by silver, gold, then platinum.
PVC damage doesn’t discriminate. It will just as quickly ruin a common 1967 Queen Elizabeth II copper penny from Great Britain as it will a rare 1914 Mexican Caballito silver peso.
Unfortunately, PVC is a component in a variety of coin supplies, including soft vinyl 2×2 flips but especially older albums and coin holders. The epicenter of the PVC crisis in the coin-collecting hobby involved the extensive Harco Coinmaster album line.
Why World Coins Suffer Disproportionately from PVC Damage
The well-known Harco Coinmaster albums, instantly recognizable among longtime collectors, feature brown leatherette covers and slide-insert plastic pages. Each album has anywhere from a half dozen to 30 coin pouches. Many Harco Coinmaster products were designated for world coins and accommodated coins of all sizes from many nations large and small.
For numismatists, the name Harco became notoriously synonymous with PVC when it was discovered that their soft plastic album pages contained abundant amounts of the chemical. The company quickly changed gears and began producing inert album pages, even offering free replacement pages and slide inserts to all of its customers.
But it was too late, the damage was done. Harco Coinmaster albums are no longer made, and many of the coins that were kept in these albums have suffered greatly, too.
Countless rare coins once stored in Harco albums acquired corrosive PVC damage. It can be argued that world coins took the brunt of the damage, as Harco’s extensive line of world coin albums were popular with collectors who often couldn’t find other appealing world coin storage options from other hobby supply companies. And when Harco didn’t have a pre-titled album designated for a specific world coin series, its line of blank album pages and customizable identification inserts filled the void perfectly.
But Harco Coinmaster albums aren’t and weren’t the only culprit.
Vinyl 2×2 flips – the kind often used by dealers to sell individual coins – also are culpable for much of the PVC damage seen on world coins today. Especially for world coin collectors in the United States, the options are few when it comes to coin albums and coin holders that are specifically geared toward coin series from other nations.
When the appropriate albums are unavailable, world coin collectors often leave their numismatic treasures in PVC-laced vinyl coin flips. It’s a common mistake that has rendered dire consequences for many world coins.
The PVC Crisis Today and What It Means for World Coins
Decades of exposure to PVC-contaminated coin supplies have left many world coins essentially uncollectible. Even though some PVC residue can be removed from coins by placing the affected coins in an acetone wash for about 30 seconds (a process for which collectors must follow all safety precautions), the deleterious effects of PVC are irreversible.
From the numismatic standpoint, PVC damage has assured at least one thing: world coins do have an attrition rate. In addition to losses through circulation, fire and theft, natural disasters, and bullion melting, a large number of world coins are no longer in numismatic channels due to PVC damage.
That means the surviving populations of many world coins, especially those from older, obsolete series, are much smaller than mintages stated in reference books such as the widely read Krause Standard Catalog of World Coins. Thus, many world coins are actually much scarcer than some collectors (and coin dealers) realize.
Tips on Avoiding PVC Damage
Those who buy world coins should be on the lookout for pieces that may be affected by PVC damage. Green and gray streaks and spots are telltale giveaways. So, too, are coins with pitted surfaces – damage that could have arisen from long-ago contact. Also to be avoided are coins with cleaned or polished surfaces, perhaps scrubbed to remove PVC residue and its distinctive green or gray surface discoloration.
Once a PVC-damaged coin enters a collection, the dangerous PVC residue on that single coin can actually spread like a virus to other coins. That’s why it is absolutely critical to avoid buying any coins with PVC damage. For the same reason, hobbyists should consider eliminating from their collections any coins that exhibit symptoms of contamination. It may be an emotionally difficult decision to make, but it can spare other beloved coins from suffering a similar fate.
The PVC problem is serious. So much so that most reputable third-party coin grading firms will not accept coins that contain even the slightest traces of PVC damage.
While innumerable world coins have been lost, thankfully many others have evaded such fates and are still available in their original condition. Collectors can preserve their coins by storing them in inert albums, holders, and flips. Proper storage will not only help a coin retain its natural appearance and numismatic value, but also will ensure that world coins cherished today will be around for future generations to admire, collect and enjoy.