In April, the Professional Numismatists Guild adopted a resolution
regarding “coin doctoring.”
Among the techniques banned: “Intentional exposure of a coin to
any chemicals, substances, or processes which impart toning, such that
the coin appears to be in a better state of preservation or more
valuable than it otherwise would be.” However, “Naturally occurring
toning imparted during long-term storage using established/traditional
methods, such as coin albums, rolls, flips, or envelopes, does not
constitute coin doctoring,” the policy reads.
In a recent column, I said that “long-term” was not defined. We
agree that toning added over the period of a century is long term, but
what about toning added within a few days or a week by exposure to
sunlight or fumes?
In his masterwork, Early American Cents, with its update, Penny
Whimsy, the standard reference on cents dated from 1793 to 1814,
William H. Sheldon gave careful instructions for conserving a coin
that had been dipped or cleaned so as to give in an unnaturally bright
surface. One technique Sheldon recommended was rubbing the coin with
Large cent collectors have used other techniques over the years,
including wiping the surface of a copper coin with a rag containing a
small amount of mineral oil to impart an attractive gloss to the
surface. Another standard method used by experts is to gently rub a
circulation-strike copper coin in grade less than Mint State with a
soft camel’s hair brush.
Then there is the definition of “cleaned.” Countless coins have
been returned in “body bags” by certification services stating the
coins have been cleaned.
However, this in many instances defies logic. Take 19th century
Proof silver coins — say Seated Liberty and Barber issues. Thousands
of such coins have been certified in grades from Proof 60 to 64, and
nearly all have hairlines in the fields. When the coins left the Mint
the hairlines were not present. How did those hairlines get there? The
answer: by cleaning the coins with a polish or an abrasive. A correct
description of nearly all Proof 63 coins, for example, would be:
“Proof, once cleaned and now with hairlines.” Proof 63 as a term
In other collecting fields, conservation is viewed as desirable.
The Star Spangled Banner and the Declaration of Independence both have
been conserved without lessening their desirability.
It seems to me that there is room for a book or essay on the
proper conservation of coins, tokens, medals and paper money.
Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries
and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached
at his private email, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or at Q. David Bowers, LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.