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