Thousands of people worldwide have caught the coin-collecting bug. Thousands more have over the centuries. The upshot is that coin prices vary hugely between the change in your pocket and millions of dollars.
How do you tell a valuable coin? Well, sometimes it’s easy. The so-called ‘flowing hair’ dollar, the first dollar minted in the USA, was the first coin to make the $10 million mark back in 2013 and was clearly stamped with a 1794 date. Not all valuable coins have to have such a momentous date, however, and its useful to be clued up about coin rarity and coin condition, even if an expert opinion is usually advisable.
Collectors of all types love rare examples, but few more than coin collectors. Unlike other metal items, however, coins don’t usually feature maker’s marks (although some ancient coins can be placed with surprising accuracy) so design and material are key.
Key features include colour, weight, size, shape, design, dates and any other inscriptions you can find. The more information that you can gather, the better – this not only helps identify a coin but might help you suss out a fake.
Age is, of course, important to rarity, but it isn’t all-important. Coins were made to withstand years of circulation and, in many cases, centuries. As a result, even ancient coins are found on a regular basis in Eurasia – the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the UK alone has recorded almost 1.5 million finds since it began in 1998, of which half-a-million are coins. That’s 25,000 coins per year on one database!
The importance of age can lie in the context of the lifetime of the coin, especially in modern cases like the earliest US Dollar. Similarly, unique designs or inscriptions on a coin type can also be significant. For these kinds of factors, you need to be somewhat clued up, so an expert opinion is always advisable. With this in mind, a coin with particular historical significance might be detailed online, so it is often worth an internet-search.
For coins that are already known to be valuable, provenance can be key. Just like a painting, rare coins are sometimes exhibited, sold at major auction houses, or owned by renowned collectors. Any documentation or history can bolster the case for a coin’s authenticity – particularly important given the quality of many modern fakes, often originating in China.
Coin Prices & The Market for Coins
Coin prices have seen a bit of a boom-and-bust cycle over the past 20 years, making them the subject of a bit of speculation. The primary factors behind this have been the 2008 financial crisis and the changing prices of precious metals which peaked in 2013. In more recent years the market has become more stable.
Online bidding has made the market for rare coins a truly international one, and modern world coins are a growing part of the market. In more general terms, the price-gap between the best rare coins and the general collectors’ market is growing, perhaps in part due to this international competition.
Coin collectors can to some extent be divided into categories; many collectors have a niche in which they specialise, although generalist collectors are also not uncommon. Coins which attract different types of collectors are often command higher prices. Collectors might be interested in a particular series of coins, currency, year, design, denomination, or even an association with a historical event. An uncommon design dating to a historic year might attract a greater number of potential buyers.
Coins have often passed through many hands if they have been in circulation. This makes coin condition a priority for many collectors. How can you tell a coin’s quality? High-value coins are generally assessed by third party companies to ensure they are genuine and to determine their condition. This is generally measured on the Sheldon Scale – a 70-point scale from poor to mint which is recognised by collectors across the world.
Of primary importance is the sharpness of the features, and for modern coins the survival of the coin’s original ‘lustre’ is also to the credit of those towards the top of the scale. On older coins, the survival of the peripheral lettering is often an important factor, as inscriptions on the edge give coins much of their appeal. An ancient coin in too good condition can raise suspicions and as such should be appraised by an expert.
Even condition, however, is not always appreciated in the same way. Some collectors have a particular interest in coins with errors, damaged coins, or even clipped coins. Clearly these can’t be considered in the same way as regular coins, but they may still carry value.
It’s clear that, while identifying a coin can be easy, predicting its value might not be. Armed with the details mentioned above, and a little knowledge, however, you can make sure you know the real worth of your coins.