Before Cleaning Any of Your Coins
By Dr. R. S. “Bart” Bartanowicz
Forrest Gump’s words rang in his head, “Stupid
is as stupid does.” Our numismatist’s 1945
“micro S” Mercury dime had come back from the
grading service as “cleaned.” The dime’s value
had been greatly diminished by his less than
He remembered the day of his fateful mistake.
The sun was shining, birds were singing and
flowers were in bloom. Amid all this loveliness,
he was sorting his coins.
He had quite a few Mercury dimes in two-by-two
holders. Looking through them, the 1945 “micro
S” dime literally leaped out at him.
He had forgotten about this purchase of many
years ago. It was a gem coin that he had meant
to send off to the grading service. Examining
the dime, he was impressed by the luster and
The only thing wrong was some dark “rim toning”
from 3 to 6 o’clock. The toning was a genuine
distraction to the rest of the coin.
Examining the coin through his loupe, he saw
that the coin had never been cleaned as was
evidenced by the luster and lack of hairlines.
The dark bluish hue of the rim toning just did
not sit well. Without the toning the coin would
What to do was his quandary.
The toning would not impact the coin’s high
grade, but it would have so much more eye appeal
if it were totally white. In his head he heard
voices saying “Clean the coin. Clean the coin.”
Cleaning any coin went against the advice he
always dispensed to newcomers, which was:
“Don’t clean coins unless you’re willing to
suffer the consequences from a botched
It was only a little toning and a quick little
swish of a commercial coin cleaner would
eliminate it. What could go wrong? To be safe he
would experiment with a coin or two from his
pocket change to make sure he had his technique
down so as not to mar the luster or leave any
He had cleaned coins in the past with a simple
washing, such as his coffee can purchases of
coins deposited in can and jars over the years.
He seldom used commercial coin cleaning
solutions unless the coins had been badly
contaminated with dirt, grease, PVC
slime/residue and other foreign matter.
These solutions had been used with inexpensive
coins. He considered this to be conservation vs.
letting the coins deteriorate due to surface
He used a cotton ball to apply the cleaner in a
gentle blotting motion so as not to create swirl
marks or hairlines. Still the toning seemed
resistant and stubborn.
As he prepared to blot again he heard the
voices: “A little more pressure and rub it just
a tiny bit to remove it all.” Now other voices
called out to him: “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.”
Snapping back to the present, our numismatist
murmured, “just a little rub,” as he applied the
cotton. He followed the cleaning with a quick
rinse of the coin in water. The toning had
disappeared and the coin look wonderful, but
perhaps with a sense of foreboding he did not
examine the coin under magnification.
Now, weeks later, he had the dreaded results.
“Stupid is as stupid does.” He would, of course,
be quiet about his failure. Had the coin come
back without mention of the cleaning and in the
grade he wanted he would have proclaimed himself
to be a genius.
The moral to our story is that sometimes things
are best left alone. With cleaning coins you
need to know what you’re doing.
There are several things along the way one needs
to consider before cleaning any coin. The first
one is: Why do you want to clean the coin? If
it’s because of toning, remember toning is a
natural condition that should not affect the
grade unless it is covering marks, blemishes
etc. Secondly, can you stand looking at a
botched job? For instance, a “pink coin” is not
attractive. This has been known to happen with
copper and bronze pieces.
Thirdly, can you afford to lose the value of
your coin if it is damaged in the cleaning?
Additionally, get all the advice you can.
Discuss the cleaning with a dealer or fellow
There are books that discuss the cleaning of
coins and all the pitfalls. Getting educated
Finally, if you have a coin that you are tempted
to clean, consider selling or trading in the
coin to someone who may appreciate it. There are
collectors who actively seek attractively toned
coins. This is the preferable route to ruining a
coin’s numismatic value.
If after all this you are still intent on
cleaning your coin do be careful. Try your
cleaning technique on some coins from your
Looking over the demographics of the hobby most
of us are not chemistry majors. Cleaning, or
better said conservation is best left to the