Cleaning Coins – Please Don’t!

Another question from the show this weekend came from a novice to coin collecting, buying, selling and trading.

Why do coin dealers and collectors tell us not to clean our old coins?

Let’s say your old coins look dull and dirty, but their design shows clearly with very little wear on the either the head’s design, the tail’s design, the year or the rim. To the untrained eye, the coin doesn’t look pretty and shiny. But, to the numismatist, that old coin without very much wear may be a rare (read valuable) find in that condition.

If you’re selling an old collection, your best customers – the ones who will pay the most – are the coin dealers and numismatists. Numismatists look for coins as close as possible to their original state as when the coins left the Mint. This does not mean they need to be shiny, instead they need their original design clarity.

What happens when you clean coins? Whether you polish them with a brush or abrasive cleanser, you remove metal, thus part of the design clarity gets polished away.

“Oh, but,” you’re thinking, “what about those commercials on TV about dipping coins into liquid cleaner where they come out shiny?” Even dipping coins removes part of their exterior metal – that is the design – as well.

Now, what if your coins are not that nice. They’re both tarnished and worn. In that case, their value resides in their silver content not in their numismatic value. Whether cleaned or dirty, their value exists in their melt value for the silver.

You can save yourself the time and effort for cleaning them. It doesn’t help. Plus, if you are really industrious and clean them too much, the already worn coins may not weigh as much as expected. Therefore, you may not receive as much for the coins’ silver content.

Now, having a little fun…

Do you know how parents get frustrated with their children’s “why” questions and respond “because I said so?”

Similarly, the short answer to the “why shouldn’t I clean old coins” question is “because the numismatists said so!”

Closing on a serious note, do not clean your old coins. At best, you waste your time. At worst, you dramatically decrease their resale value from numismatic rare valuables to just melt (for silver) or to just pocket change (for clad coins).

Just remember, “ugly” is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s not important what you think is pretty, but it is important what the numismatist thinks.