To Clean or Not To Clean Your Coins: We Have an Answer

Posted by Sara Watson on September 22nd, 2017

If you are new to the world of coins, the lackluster, tarnished pieces might dampen your spirit. But in the world of dimes and cents, dirty is beautiful. For that matter, you should never buy gold or silver coins that seem to have been recently cleaned. In the world of numismatics, cleaning is a taboo word.  If you ever ask an expert the ways to bring back shine to your vintage coins, the one piece of advice would be this: don't clean your coins. Why? Cleaned coins do not appreciate as quickly as their uncleaned siblings.  If you want your collection to fetch a good price over time, judge the pieces by their surface appearance at the time of purchase. How the faces of the coins look can make or break their fates in the international coin market. The preservation of the coin surface has, thus, become a critical price-determining factor for investment coins. An indiscreet, amateurish cleaning attempt may significantly inflict harm on your coins’ surfaces.  In fact, destructive scrubbing can diminish a coin's value by as much as 50 percent or even more.

At this point, you must be wondering how cleaning might impair a coin’s value. To know that, you have to learn about two concepts – cartwheel effects and flow lines.

  • Cartwheel effects refer to the rotating, windmill-like shine that catches our eyes when light reflects on mint-fresh coins. In the numismatic circles, cartwheel effect is one of the ways to appraise the condition of a coin's surface. As silver coins age, they tone and tarnish naturally. Due to these natural processes metal coins lose their mint-like shine, and eventually, the cartwheel effects vanish, too. In numismatic terms, tarnishing doesn't signify any real damage because the surface remains unharmed. Whether the surface is intact or not can easily be verified under magnification. Despite the loss of cartwheel effects, the coin still retains its value as long as the surface is in its original state. Thus, instead of reducing the market price, toning adds to the value of coins, as coin experts attribute an aesthetic value to this slight tinge.
  • Flow line is the other name for the luster that we get to see in new coins. These features appear when molecules in a metal object are forced to form lines in particular ways forming microscopic patterns. This outcome is one of the byproducts of minting process. These flow lines are extremely fragile, and some cleaning methods may damage these flow lines, ultimately making the coins look dull and ugly. Naturally, the dullness leads to a fall in the price.

When Cleaning Coins Can Be an Option

When you are selling some coins that bear a common date in the twentieth century (1900 to 1999) and have been cleaned, most dealers will offer you only a meager amount over their bullion values. You cannot expect to get any better price even if you use renowned grading services like PCGS or NCG to get them cleaned.  All your investment in trying to get them graded and slabbed will be wasted.

However, there are exceptions.

Sometimes, dealers do offer a good price for coins that have been cleaned. Such bending of rules applies to those pieces that are so rare that people are eager to collect them despite their damaged surfaces. Coins that date back to the 19th century and earlier, generally enjoy such leniency.  Also, dealers will acquire your coins with any devaluation if the coins were cleaned long ago. So, what should you do when you suddenly come upon something that’s very very special such as a rare Indian Head Cent from 1909  (a coin that can fetch you a princely sum of 0 anytime) or a US 1834 or 1835 series silver dollar? Thanks to the time on them, they are likely to come dirty and tarnished.  You may be in two minds – should I take the risk of cleaning it or should I leave it in its present condition? What if the coin gets damaged in the process? Our answer would be: take the risk; but proceed carefully.

Here are a few tips that would help you get some shine back on your antique coin without affecting its value in any way:

  • Experts will not stop you from cleaning a coin that has been discovered by a metal detector. Remaining buried under the ground for a long time leaves them unrecognizable. A little clean-up helps, although it has to be done very carefully. Soak them in distilled water overnight. If it is still unrecognizable, you must take it to a professional.
  • When it comes to proof (early samples of a coin series) or uncirculated coins, never venture to clean them yourself, no matter what. Even if it has a small stain or a drop of glue that you think you can remove easily, do not risk it.  Let a professional remove these from your coins.
  • Don't bother about discoloration. What is lack of color to you, is toning to the numismatists. They actually look for some tinge in rare coins as it ensures that the coins have never been damaged due to cleaning.
  • What is the surefire way to damage rare coins? Using commercial gold and silver cleaners on them. They are harsh and abrasive and, therefore, may destroy the fine details found on the coin surface.

If you are new to the world of numismatics, keep two points in mind. First, always buy gold or silver coins that have no history of cleaning.  A cleaned coin will show very little appreciation and will not add any significant value to your collection.Secondly, never clean any of the coins in your collection. Even if you must, always seek professional help. If you feel that any uncirculated, proof, or copper alloy coins in your collection need some treatment, consult your dealer, first. They are the best people to advise you on the care and handling of these products.

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Sara Watson

About the Author

Sara Watson
Joined: September 22nd, 2017
Articles Posted: 1