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Coin Collecting: A Guide To Coin Condition

[Old Coins]  [The Value Of A Coin]  [Guide To Coin Condition]  [Coin Values That Go Up]  [Value That Rubs Off]  [What Makes A Coin Collector]  [What To Collect]  [Phonies And Coins]  [Proof Coins]  [Designs On Coins]  [New Role For Old Distillery]  [What To Look For In Your Change]  [Unusual Coins Of U.S.]  [Commemorative Coins]  [Collecting And Investing In Coins]  [More Coin Collecting Articles] 

( Published 1963 )



The little old lady came into the coin shop. Carefully she opened her handbag and extracted a large well-worn copper cent. Then she announced:

"I'm sure this old penny is very valuable. It's been in my family for more than a hundred years. It's very old. Why, it's so old, even the date is worn off."

It was the dealer's unpleasant task to tell her that her dateless coin was worthless-at least, that it was without numismatic value. Not only was the date long since gone from the coin, it was so worn that even the type was not clear.

Almost without exception, a dateless coin is valueless to the dealer and to the collector. An exception might be found in the 1796 United States silver quarter dollar. This quarter, first issued by the U. S. Mint, was of a particular pattern and was struck in the year 1796 only. So, if the type could be made out, if the portrait was identifiable, it would have some value over and above its face of 25 cents.

To the collector, such a coin would be a "space filler"-a legitimate piece of metal to fit properly in his 25-cent collection until he could find or was able to afford a better specimen. While a quarter of 1796 in "Fine" condition will bring many hundreds of dollars, such a dateless and thoroughly worn but identifiable coin probably would be worth only a few dollars.

Since it is condition that's so important in determining coin values, let's try to understand something about coin grading. An understandable comparison might be made by matching coins and motor cars. This comparison will go something as follows:

COIN CONDITION/MOTOR CAR CONDITION

Gem Uncirculated:
Brand new. You go to the factory and buy lated it-no chance for anything to have happened to it-it's right off the assembly line.

Uncirculated :
Also brand new, but you go to your dealer's showroom for delivery. It may have been transported on one of those truck trailers and some dust and weather may have had their effect. These minute signs of handling may be compared to the "bag scratches" often found on absolutely Uncirculated coins. Such coins, sealed in canvas bags for transport, have been jostled against each other and they've picked up just enough tiny dents and scratches to have lost the rating of "Gem:"

Extremely Fine:
Once around the block. No accidents, a quite uneventful journey. But, as anyone knows who's ever bought a new car, its origi nal value has been materially depreciated. Similarly, the Extremely Fine coin may have been in circulation only a day or so (once around the block), but the full mint bloom has faded.

Very Fine:
A few weeks old, maybe left out overnight in a rainstorm or two. Tires aren't quite as fresh and the finish hasn't quite the same original luster. But there are no dents showing and the motor purrs as smoothly as ever.

Fine:
Excellent mechanical condition, maybe a scratch or two here and there, but most desirable in appearance. Tires are starting to show wear and the chrome hints at some future rustiness.

Very Good:
Still desirable in general, but perhaps hailstones have dented the roof somewhat. There's no doubt about the make or year or model. Considerable tire tread wear, but a lot of mileage left.

Good:
Lots of wear showing, but still good, dependable transportation. All original parts in place and functioning. Tires almost worn smooth but not dangerously so. Quite acceptable as a second car or for those whose budget is limited.

Fair:
Has four wheels, a motor and that's about all. Not desirable at all unless it's of some rare vintage year.

Poor:
Where's the nearest scrap heap?

If you can visualize the life cycle of a motor car from the day it emerges bright and shiny from the factory until it's ready for the junkyard, you'll have a fairly good idea of the life cycle of the average American coin.

United States proof coins-those hydraulically struck from specially polished dies-which now are issued each year primarily for coin-collecting purposes, might be compared to the custom-built motor car. The amount of handwork involved differs greatly, but that's the closest comparison possible, distant though it may be.

While the condition of a motor car can be improved by the installation of a new motor or the replacement of wornout tires with new ones, the same cannot be done successfully with coins. If a coin's rim is seriously dented, it cannot be replaced like a car's fender, or even straightened out. If the face of Liberty is almost obliterated, no surgery will enable you to lift it out and put in a new one.

As mentioned previously, another factor that will have a bearing on the value on your United States coins is the total number minted in any year.

It stands to reason that a bronze cent of which only 852,000 were struck (and this back in 1.877) should have considerably more value than a cent of 1944, when the combined output of the three United States mints totaled more than z billion coppers. The smallest 1944 production was from the San Francisco mint, which issued a total of more than 252 million of the copper coins-quite a contrast to the skimpy 852,000 of some 67 years earlier.

But the number minted isn't always a safe and certain guide. Collector-demand plays a very large part in the final determination of what a coin is worth. For some unexplained reason (perhaps because it's so easy and inexpensive to get started collecting them), the small cents of the United States long have enjoyed tremendous popularity with collectors of almost all ages. And, with such widespread demand and a limited number of certain cents, the collector who wants to complete his date set has to pay higher and higher prices for certain dates.

One example of this tremendous demand for the small cent is that same 1877 Indian Head cent mentioned earlier. The U. S. Mint that year turned out 852,00o such cents. The same year, the mint issued a total of 397,670 $20 gold pieces-less than half the number of cents.

If the Uncirculated Indian Head cent of 1877 catalogs at $400 (it may be higher any minute now), that is 40,000 times its face value of one cent. Thus, an 1877 $20 gold piece, less than half as common as the cent, ought to be worth at least 40,000 its face value, or $800,000. But, alas, it is not!

Demand far outstrips supply in the case of the 1-cent piece; there are plenty of $20 gold pieces to go around. So, in the same catalog listing the 1877 cent at $400, you'll find the 1877 Uncirculated $20 gold coin listed at a mere $95.

Similarly, in 1914, the U. S. Mint at Denver turned out 1,193,000 bronze cents, all duly marked with the "D" mint letter. The same year, 448,000 $2.50 gold pieces were issued-less than half as many.

While the Uncirculated 1914-D cent was quoted at around $400, the twice-as-scarce $2.50 in gold had a catalog quotation of a mere $35 in Uncirculated condition.

Thus, collector-demand continues to play hob with the best-laid statistics.