U.S. Coin Price Guide

Coin Collecting

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Mintage, Grading, Survival Rates Play Roles in Coin Values
By Robert R. Van Ryzin

What's it worth?

That's a question you hear many times as a coin collector. Mostly such questions originate from people new to the hobby-most often those who have inherited a few coins or come across a strange-looking or old coin in circulation. Now they want to know in the short and simple if they are rich and how they can cash in on the newly discovered treasure.

On the surface it would seem to almost anyone not familiar with the hobby that any old or unusual coin must be valuable. However, when it comes to numismatics, not everything is that simple. Just because something is old or different doesn't mean it's of great value. If you're not familiar with the hobby, it might surprise you to learn that even some Roman coins, minted thousands of years ago, can still be purchased for well under $100. Why? Because thousands survived, found years later as part of buried hoards.

Except for the burying, the same is true of many U.S. coins encountered in collections passed down from generation to generation. Often maintained in these little hoards are silver dollars from 1800s, Indian Head cents, and a hodgepodge of 19th- and 20th-century silver halves, quarters and dimes, mostly in circulated grades.

While of some value (in many cases solely for their bullion content), most of these coins are not rare. Why? Well, take the U.S. silver dollar as an example. Millions and millions of silver dollars were struck in the late 1800s as the result of inane laws that attempted to support the price of silver and the silver mining industry. Thus, you'll find coins 125 years old selling for under $10. This is not to say that there aren't rare dates and mints in this series, or that your hoard might not have one, but many of these coins are relatively common. Get to the 20th century, and, although the pre-1964 silver halves, quarters and dimes are worth a premium due to their silver content, you'll find that mintages increased and large numbers survived.

The current 50 states quarter program is another example. Many new collectors have been introduced to the hobby by collecting the various state issues. In fact, the release of such coins into circulation has brought much needed attention to the hobby. Combined with the issuance of the 1999 Anthony dollars and the golden Sacagawea dollars, there's finally something to look for in pocket change besides scarce minting varieties. As such, many new collectors have quickly learned a bit more about what makes a coin valuable, what's likely to make it increase (or decrease) in value over the long-term, and the many sources besides pocket change with which to build an interesting collection.

Yet those who are setting aside the state quarters with hope of making a lot of money someday are likely in for a shock. A one-panel newspaper cartoon I saw posted at a colleague's desk says it all. In the scene, a woman finds a state quarter and exclaims that she plans to keep it. The man with her jests that if the other 180 billion minted get destroyed, her coin will be worth a fortune. In this instance, mintages are just too high for such a coin to ever have much value. This isn?t to say that you shouldn't collect statehood quarters, or that there's nothing worth pulling from circulation. It's just that your motives should not be to make money. You should look at such a collection as a means of having fun and learning more about hobby and the minting process.

A quick way to introduce yourself to the coin making process and in turn learn what is natural to a coin's surface and what is not is to take a magnifying glass to one of these state quarters. You'll find you've entered a whole new world. Not only will you get a better view of the design, you'll also begin to notice that not all coins, though "shiny," are the same. Some will be heavily marked from contact with other coins prior to their release into circulation, or from wear from handling by any number of others before you. Learning the difference between what the hobby terms "bagmarks" and wear will serve you well.

Once you start taking a close look at such coins, you're likely to become enchanted with closely examining each coin that enters your collection. That's a good thing. Maybe you'll become interested in errors/varieties, a specialized field focusing on things that go wrong in the minting process, such as coins with doubling, incorrect rotation, or struck off-center. But even if don't, you'll gain a wealth of knowledge that will help you to become your own expert - learning how to easily distinguish what's natural and not natural and to recognize signs of wear and post-mint alterations (such as cleaning) that reduce a coin's value.

Another thing you'll notice when looking at a coin under magnification is the absence or presence of what is known as a "mint-mark." This is important. Especially with 19th- and early 20th-century coins, you'll often find coins that have an increased value because of their minting facility.

A classic example of this is the 1916-D Mercury dime. It was the first year of issue for Adolph Weinman's design featuring a Liberty with wings on her hat, and the main mint in Philadelphia struck more than 22 million dimes that year. As first year of issue and last year of issue of any coin design are generally saved in large quantities by the public, on assumption that such coins will be rare, much of this mintage survived. Therefore, even in uncirculated these pieces sell for less than $100, or less than $10 in circulated grades.

On the other hand, few people paid any attention to the Denver release of dimes. First off, that facility only produced 264,000 Mercury dimes that year, making the coin considerably scarcer than its Philadelphia counterpart. Secondly, fewer people were paying attention to mintmarks in those days. Thus, even in Good-4, a very low grade, the 1916-D retails in excess of $800. In MS-65, at the high end of the uncirculated spectrum, it sells for around $20,000.

The devil may be in the details, and in coin collecting it is details such as original mintage and how many were saved and in what grades that make the difference between a coin that is worth a lot of money and one that is worth face value or slightly over.

Although learning these details and the overall market for coins can be daunting, and sometimes a hit and miss proposition, the beauty of this hobby is that anyone has the potential to become an expert and even a recognized authority in his or her collecting specialty. The key here, as in other fields, is knowledge. Along those lines, an old hobby axiom-"buy the book before the coin"- cannot be stressed too much.

Basically, this advice is meant to temper your enthusiasm and make sure you take your time and learn what you are doing before you invest large sums of money into a coin or coins only to regret your purchases later. So, how do you get this knowledge? Well, that's relatively simple. Coin collecting in this country began in earnest in the mid to late 1800s and since that time a plethora of hobby references, ranging from the general to series-specific titles, have been produced to aid collectors. In fact, when you get to some of these volumes from the 19th century, which may be outdated as to content, there has become such an active field of collecting numismatic books that some of the books have a value as well.

For the beginner, it is highly recommended that you obtain a basic price guide such as North American Coins & Prices, published annually by Krause Publications. Inside you'll find not only a detailed price listing for the coins of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, but also chapter upon chapter of basic hobby information. The price listings in this guide are retail-what you would expect to pay a dealer to obtain a given coin- but they will give a general idea within each series as to which are the rarest of dates and which are the most common.

Another essential beginner's tool is a good grading guide. There are several of these, including one produced under the auspices of the American Numismatic Association, Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins. It is crammed with pictures and text to help explain the grades used by collectors to describe a coin's state of preservation.

Once you get started and find that you're attracted to silver dollars, Lincoln cents or any other area of numismatics, you will discover a wealth of books covering the history and value of these items. These references will give more detailed information as to the general strike characteristics of a particular date or mint (e.g., is this P-, D-, or S-mint coin generally found strongly or weakly struck), and often times estimates of the number surviving in various grades.

A good place to start looking for such helpful aids is by writing to Krause Publications at 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990 and requesting a product guide. It lists all of Krause's books, magazines and newspapers related to coin collecting. Among these you'll find a monthly magazine called Coins, packed with feature articles on various U.S. coins and collecting tips. While Numismatic News, a weekly tabloid, takes an in-depth look at hobby and business news. It also provides a regularly updated price guide for U.S. coins.

In specialty areas, the firm publishes World Coin News and Bank Note Reporter. And, if you're just interested in the price guide aspect of things, every other month Krause's publishes Coin Prices, listing values for all U.S. coins from 1792. All of these publications can be found on newsstands as well. If you have an Internet connection, visit www.collect.com for a complete listing of periodicals and books available from Krause Publications.

So, getting back to the question of "What's it worth?"-you can easily see that it's not an easy question to answer. It depends on any number of factors, not the least of which is the condition the coin was saved in. To help you get started, I conclude with a brief listing from Coin Prices magazine of the various grades used by collectors and how to distinguish them.

Remember to take your time. Practice grading on inexpensive coins and you'll find that the more you learn about striking characteristics, wear characteristics, and the minting process, the better your judgment will be as to which coins fit best into your budget, which coins have a potential to increase in value and which do not, and what to look for in the way of varieties/errors. You'll also find that the key to collecting is not to make money, it's to have fun, make new friends, and enjoy the history and lore of this great hobby. Enjoy the hunt!


Careful consideration must be given to the grade of a coin before arriving at its value, since a minor difference in grading can mean a substantial difference in price. There are several factors to keep in mind when attributing varying grades of preservation. Determining the grade of a coin is both an exact science and a subjective judgment call. Complete agreement on the exact qualities that constitute a grade does not always occur between two individuals.

To help in this matter, beginning in the 1980s, several private third-party grading services were established. For a fee, a collector can submitted any coin to be judged impartially by expert graders hired by these services. The opinions of these experts are collated and a numerical grade assigned to the coin, which is then sonically sealed in plastic (a "slab" in hobby lingo) before being returned to the owner. The coins are also checked for authenticity and as to variety.

Major third-party grading firms include: ANACS, P.O. Box 7173, Dublin OH 43017-0773; Independent Coin Grading Service, 7901 E. Belleview, Suite 50, Englewood CO 80111-6010; Numismatic Guaranty Corp., P.O. Box 4776, Sarasota FL 34230; Photo Certified Institute, P.O. Box 8609, Chattanooga TN 377414; Professional Coin Grading Service, P.O. Box 9458, Newport Beach CA 92658; and Sovereign Entities Grading Service Inc., 401 Chestnut St., Suite 103, Chattanooga TN 37402.

All of these services provide a value to the hobby in the promotion of a stable buying and selling environment. However, it is important that, as a collector, you learn to grade on your own. The following chart is a consensus based on the 10 most frequently encountered coins commanding premium values in circulated grades to help you get started. The descriptive grades can be applied to other issues. Qualities described are based on the standards developed and adopted by the American Numismatic Association.

MS-65 (uncirculated) - MS stands for mint state, which refers to a coin that has never been placed in circulation. An MS-65 is a superior mint-state example. It will be sharply struck with full mint luster. There will be no distracting marks in the field or on the raised areas of the design. The coin may be brilliant or naturally toned, but it must have superior "eye appeal" to qualify as an MS-65.

MS-64 (uncirculated) - May have light scattered contact marks. Luster will be at least average.

MS-63 (uncirculated) - May have some distracting marks in prime focal areas with a few scattered hairlines. Coins in this grade will generally have a pleasing appearance.

MS-60 (uncirculated) - The typical quality encountered in coins struck for circulation. No wear will be evident, but a small number of bag marks, nicks, or other abrasions will be present. Surfaces could be dull or spotted.

AU-50 (about uncirculated) - Just a slight amount of wear from brief exposure to circulation or light rubbing from mishandling may be found on the elevated design areas. Those imperfections may appear as scratches or dull spots, along with bag marks or edge nicks. At least half of the original mint luster will usually be present.

EF-40 (extremely fine) - Coins must show only slight evidence of wear on the highest points of the design, particularly in the hair lines of the portrait on the obverse and the eagle's feathers and wreath found on most U.S. coins. A trace of mint luster may show in protected areas of the coin's surface.

VF-20 (very fine) - Coins reflect noticeable wear at the fine points in the design, though they may remain sharp overall. Although the details will be slightly smoothed, all lettering and major features must remain sharp.

Indian Head cent: All letters in "LIBERTY" complete but worn; headdress shows considerable flatness, with flat spots on tips of feathers.

Lincoln cent: Hair, cheek, jaw and bow-tie details will be worn but clearly separated, and wheat stalks on the reverse will be full, with no weak spots.

Buffalo nickel: High spots on hair braid and cheek will be flat but show more detail, and a full horn will remain on the bison.

Jefferson nickel: Well over half of the major hair detail will remain, and the pillars on Monticello will remain well defined, with triangular roof partially visible.

Mercury dime: Hair braid will show some detail, and three-quarters of the details will remain in the feathers. The two diagonal bands on the fasces will show completely, but be worn smooth at the middle, with the vertical lines sharp.

Standing Liberty quarter: Rounded contour of Liberty's right leg will be flattened, as will high point of shield.

Walking Liberty half dollar: All lines of the skirt will show but be worn on high points, and over half of the feathers will show on eagle.

Morgan dollar: Two-thirds of hairlines from forehead to ear must show, and ear will be well defined, while feathers on eagle's breast may be worn smooth.

Barber coins: All seven letters of "LIBERTY" on headband must stand out sharply, while head wreath will be well outlined top to bottom.

F-12 (fine) - This is the most widely collected grade. Coins show evidence of moderate to considerable but generally even wear on all high points, though all elements of the design and lettering remain bold. Where "LIBERTY" appears on the headband, it must be fully visible. The rim must be fully raised and sharp on 20th-century coins.

VG-8 (very good) - Coins show considerable wear, with most of the points of detail worn nearly smooth. At least three letters must show where "LIBERTY" appears in a headband. On 20th-century coinage, the rim is starting to merge with the lettering.

G-4 (good) - In this condition, only the basic design detail remains distinguishable in outline form, with all points of detail being worn smooth. "LIBERTY" has disappeared, and rims are nearly merging with the lettering.

About good or fair - A coin identifiable by date and mint but otherwise badly worn with only parts of the lettering showing Such coins are of value to collectors only a: space fillers and command a significant premium only in cases of extreme scarcity.

Proof - Created as collector coins, proof specimens are struck on specially selected planchets with highly polished dies and generally display a mirror like finish, sometimes featuring frosted highlight areas.

Prooflike and deep-mirror prooflike -These terms describe the degree of reflectiveness and cameo contrast on well-struck Morgan dollars. A DMPL coin may appeal to be a proof at first glance, and a prooflike specimen has a lesser (but still considerable; degree of flash. Bagmarks are more noticeable on PL and DMPL Morgans. Some common dates are scarce in this condition.

Collectors who want to study coin grading in greater detail should examine the Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins, which provides photos of coins in grades from about good to mini state.

Photograde by James F. Ruddy is handy reference for grading circulated coins.

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