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Are My Old Coins Worth Anything?

A lesson in valuing the change in your junk drawer

Gold coin, black & white column, red & white background
The Arrow

How do you get a fair price for old coins when you don’t know what they’re worth?

That was the question my father-in-law, Howard, and I faced last summer. He had a pile of change inherited decades ago: a 50-cent piece from 1826, a penny minted during the Civil War, a silver dollar from 1885 and six more from the 1920s. I had a $2 bill from the 1950s and some pristine John F. Kennedy half-dollars from 1964, the last year the U.S. minted silver coins for circulation.

It all seemed like a potentially valuable stash. And we were both ready to sell.

Fantasies of Antiques Roadshow began swimming in my head — those thrilling moments when someone says, “That little old thing you brought in? It’s worth a jillion dollars!” Here’s what I learned on my quest for knowledge … and riches.

LESSON 1: Most things are common.

My 1964 Kennedy half-dollars weren’t as rare as I’d hoped.

“The mints made them in the millions. People saved them in the millions,” said Mark Schimel, New York City store manager for Stack’s Bowers Galleries, one of the biggest coin auctioneers. “They all look beautiful because people didn’t spend them.”

LESSON 2: Common things can have some extra value.

Like other 20th-century half-dollars, quarters and dimes minted before 1965, my half-dollars are 90 percent silver. That gives it a “melt value,” used by dealers as a way to value it for purchase and sale — though they won’t necessarily melt it down.

Doug Musinger, owner of Brighton Tokens & Coins in Rochester, New York, explained that every dollar’s worth of those pre-1965 coins, after wear and tear, contains around 0.715 ounces of silver. So one day last fall, when the metal was trading at $19.37 an ounce, a dollar’s worth of silver coins contained about $13.85 worth of silver — nearly 14 times the face value of the coins.

If I had walked in that day with a handful of dimes and quarters totaling $3, Musinger said, he would have bought them for $36, or 12 times face value.

LESSON 3: Oldies aren’t necessarily goodies.

I had high hopes for Howard’s 1920s silver dollars. They were 100 years old! No wear, no tear! Silver value about $15 alone! Sadly, I learned I might get only $25 or $30 apiece for them.

Why? Millions more of these coins were minted than people needed, explained Sarah Miller, managing director of the New York City office of Heritage Auctions. “They sat in government vaults for decades,” she said.

LESSON 4: Condition can count for a lot.

“The same coin from the same year can be worth $4 or $4,000, depending on its condition,” Musinger said. Before valuable coins are bought and sold by serious collectors, they’re usually assessed by independent third-party firms that will assign the coins a number grade, on a scale of 1 to 70, based on scratches, corrosion and luster.

Howard’s 1826 half-dollar was in good shape. Examining it through a loupe, Miller guessed a grading service would place it in the 40-to-50 range — something a dealer would sell for $150 and buy for a little less.

But condition also worked against Howard and me. His 1885 dollar had a dark, sooty streak across Lady Liberty’s face and a prominent nick on the rim. “That’s an ugly coin,” said Musinger. “We’d pay $25.”

Cleaning up that soot probably wouldn’t have raised her value, because collectors hate coins that have been fiddled with. "Don't clean them," says Mitch Sanders, a columnist for The Numismatist, a magazine devoted to coin collecting. "That can destroy the value of a coin." Even the slightest effort at cleaning is detectable by experts.

Musinger liked the copper Civil War token, which was privately minted in the North in 1863, when desperate merchants struck their own pennies amid a shortage of coins. “It’s a great piece of history,” he said. But that’s where his compliments ended for the bent, worn and corroded coin. “It’d be in our junk box for $3,” he told me.

LESSON 5: Ultimately, value lies in rarity.

All too often on my quest, I heard the words “if” and “instead,” as in: “If you had a 1928 Peace Dollar instead of a 1922, it would be worth 10 times as much.”

What gooses the price of coins is quantity. How many coins just like it have survived in as good or better condition? How many were minted in a particular year and at a particular mint? While more than 17 million 1885 dollars were, like Howard’s ugly coin, minted in Philadelphia, only 228,000 were minted in Carson City, Nevada, carrying a “CC” mintmark.

“Even a damaged 1885 CC is worth a few hundred dollars,” said Miller.

Photos: Getty Images
Follow Article Topics: Money-&-Career