Brad Karoleff is a lifelong coin collector with a specialization in the early coins of the Philadelphia Mint. He is the proprietor of Coins Plus which operates four locations in the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, area.Visit one of our other blogs:
What you need to know before collecting 'classic' U.S. coins
Those collectors who specialize in United States coins from the 19th century are very familiar with the two-tiered market that exists for those series. Novice collectors are often confused when they first venture into the rarified air of these antique issues. This is my attempt at easing that transition from “modern” numismatics to the “classic” issues.
Most collectors begin their numismatic journey with a 20th century series. Lincoln cents were a popular starting point for collectors of my generation. Many adults today may begin with Walking Liberty halves or Morgan dollars. They get used to the availability of these coins in bright uncirculated condition by the hundreds at any major coin show. They quickly learn that a bright white coin certified by any of the major grading services often satisfies their collection. After identifying the look they desire it is not usually too difficult in building their collection.
The classic issues come with more diversity of character. They were used in commerce to a greater degree with fewer collectors and hoarders having saved multiple examples in uncirculated condition. More than anything else, there is a great diversity in the condition of the SURFACE of the coins. Numismatic abuse; mainly cleaning, have altered many of these wonderful coins. Others have been scratched, dented or otherwise altered to reduce their value and desirability to collectors. What is left in original condition is a miniscule percentage of the surviving examples and, therefore, more valuable than their compromised sisters.
Many advanced collectors refer to these unaltered examples as “crusty” as they have a “skin” of dirt and patina that they have developed over the last couple of hundred years. I often describe it to customers as comparing it to a bronze statue that has been exposed to the environment for decades. It develops a certain patina that is different from the day it was installed. It is what it is supposed to look like after serving its purpose. Coins are the same way. After decades of handling and storage they acquire a protective patina of oxidation and dirt. Removing it to expose the underlying surface is normally not a good idea.
A coin in original XF or AU condition from the 19th century should have original luster. This luster has usually bonded with the toning and/or patina of the coin. When someone removes this protective covering with an acid dip, or other method of cleaning, the luster goes with the patina. This leaves the collector with a “white” coin with lifeless surfaces, or even worse, a stained coin where the cleaning did not remove all the patina. Many of these “classic” coins were subjected to cleaning during the 1950-1960’s as part of the expanding collecting market. Beginning collectors were made to think that “brighter was better”. The cleanings rendered many of these beautiful coins to less desirable condition for today’s discerning collector.
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