EVALUATING YOUR COLLECTION
10 WAYS TO LOOK AT COINS
By SCOTT A. TRAVERS
COPYRIGHT © 1995, 2003 BY SCOTT A. TRAVERS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Looking at rare coins is one of the great pleasures of
our hobby. Every true collector delights in picking up a rare
and valuable coin–or even a more common coin with some
special characteristic–and studying it carefully and
There’s more than one way to look at a coin, however,
just as there’s invariably more than one side to every story.
And knowledgeable numismatists should–and do–look at a coin
in all these different facets before reaching conclusions
about that coin: whether to buy it, whether to sell it or how
much it is worth, for example.
The physical details are fairly standard. Every informed
collector knows enough to pick up and handle a coin only by
its edge. And I generally recommend that in looking closely
at coins, you use a 5-power or 10-power magnifying glass if
you’re making a general evaluation and a 20-power glass if
you’re zeroing in on some specific feature, such as a mint
For the most part, however, the different ways of
looking at coins are not so much physical as mental. What
makes these approaches different from one another isn’t how
you look at coins, but WHY–what’s going through your mind
while your eyes are on that coin between your finger and your
With all this in mind, here’s my list of the 10 Top Ways
to Look at Rare Coins:
(1) Looking for beauty.
This may very well be the most significant way to look
at a coin, for beauty is really what coin collecting is all
about. In looking for beauty, you might be looking for a
certain type of toning … or a coin that’s extremely well
struck … or you might be looking for a coin which best
displays the artistic genius of the person who designed that
particular coin type.
Collectors who purchase coins for their artistic
significance are buying them for their beauty–and whether
you’re buying a Lincoln cent that grades About Good-3 or a
proof Morgan dollar grading 69 on the 1-through-70 scale, to
you each coin you purchase is beautiful in its own way.
(2) Looking for positive attributes.
In looking at coins they own, many people tend to feel
they’re in a higher grade than they really are. When
something is yours, it always seems better than when it
belongs to somebody else. It’s only natural that when you own
a coin, you’re looking for its positive attributes. And if
you have a coin to sell, it’s always going to seem nicer to
you than if you were trying to buy it from somebody else.
Looking for positive attributes is always a useful
approach, even when you’re buying, rather than selling–for
these are the characteristics that will give you pride of
ownership if you buy it, and truly enhance its value if and
when you later decide to sell it. Magnificent toning … a
needle-sharp strike … blazing mint luster–these are the
kinds of attributes you should look for.
At times, a coin’s positive attributes can blind you to
its flaws, and you need to be on guard against this danger.
Take the good features into full account, but don’t let them
(3) Looking for imperfections.
In purchasing coins, it’s only natural to look for
imperfections, because those may lower the price you have to
pay. If you convince the seller that a coin is not as good as
he or she first thought it to be, you might be able to buy it
for considerably less than the price first quoted.
Looking for imperfections is a good policy just on
general principles, aside from the edge in may give you in
your bargaining. After all, if you don’t look for
imperfections when buying a coin, you might not find them–
and then you’ll really get the short end of the bargain.
(4) Looking at both the strengths and the weaknesses.
You need to evaluate each of your coins as impartially
as you can. If a coin has been assigned a high grade, you
need to ascertain just what strengths went into that
determination. Conversely, if the grade is low, you need to
pinpoint the weaknesses that contributed to that rating. You
need to check for eye appeal, mint luster, strike and all the
other characteristics which, when combined, serve as the
determinants of the coin’s grade or level of preservation.
(5) Looking at a coin as if it were a clock.
This is an approach I explain in detail in my book The
Coin Collector’s Survival Manual™ published by
Bonus Books. Essentially, you view the top of the coin as 12
o’clock, then scan the coin in a clockwise direction (or
counterclockwise, if you prefer), tilting and rotating it as
you do so. You do this first with the obverse of the coin,
then repeat the procedure with the reverse.
I liken this technique to proofreading a letter. If you
simply skim a letter, you probably won’t spot too many
mistakes. But if you examine it closely, and in an orderly
way, you’re far more likely to pick up any errors. Similarly,
you may miss important details on a coin if you view it
simply as a whole, without scanning each sector individually
and in a logical sequence.
If you look at enough coins with the coin-and-clock
method, you’ll be able after a while to readily identify
their strengths and weaknesses and expertly determine their
overall grade and value.
(6) Looking for valuable varieties.
One of the most interesting–and potentially rewarding–
ways of looking at coins is to seek odd characteristics that
set certain coins apart from others. Whether you call them
“errors” or “varieties,” these coins hold undeniable
fascination. And, in many cases, that translates into very
substantial premium value.
A case in point is the current national treasure hunt
for 1995 doubled-die Lincoln cents–coins on which the word
LIBERTY and other obverse elements appear to be doubled.
These cents are now trading for well over $100 apiece, so
those who find them in pocket change, laying out just one
cent, are reaping enormous profits. They’re also deriving
tremendous satisfaction from the knowledge that their
investment consisted almost solely of time, rather than
money–and that the discoveries happened because of their own
keen wits and sharp eyes.
There are many worthwhile coins in pocket change and old
accumulations. I recommend that you get a copy of The
Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties, co-authored by
Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton, published by Bowers and Merena
Galleries. This extremely helpful guide and handy reference book
will assist you in identifying and cherrypicking coins that otherwise
might escape your detection.
Often, people spend such coins without realizing their
value. And coin dealers sometimes have them in their
inventory–perhaps even in their “junk boxes”–without being
aware that they’re scarce and valuable oddities. Your
purchase of The Cherrypickers’ Guide will pay for itself
many times over if you’re able to find one of these
(7) Looking for upgrades.
Many coin dealers earn their living by going through
boxes of coins which have been certified by the Numismatic
Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC), the Professional Coin
Grading Service (PCGS) or ANACS and picking out coins that
might be good candidates for a higher grade. And you can
improve the grades of your coins, too–as well as the level
of your income–by gaining the expertise to do likewise.
Let’s say you found a coin graded Mint State-64 by NGC
or PCGS which, if resubmitted, might be good enough to
qualify for a grade of 65. In some cases, the difference in
price between a 64 coin and its 65 counterpart is many
hundreds of dollars, even though the difference in grade and
appearance is slight.
Looking for upgrades may not be the No. 1 way to look at
rare coins, but it certainly could end up being the most
profitable way for you, if you’re able to spot the right coin
(8) Looking for signs of wear.
Third-party grading services such as PCGS, NGC and ANACS
have given collectors and dealers a strong sense of security.
They trust the services’ grading–and, in most cases, that
trust is merited. Unfortunately, though, this also has caused
many hobbyists to let down their guard and relax their former
vigilance in checking each coin closely when they buy it. A
lot of them just don’t bother to look for signs of wear
anymore, as long as a coin has been certified and
encapsulated by one of the leading services. And this is very
The fact is, even the experts at the grading services
can–and do–sometimes overlook things as fundamental as
wear. You absolutely can find coins in holders bearing grades
such as MS-61, MS-62–or even higher–and discover, on close
inspection, that those coins have wear or friction on their
very highest points. Even though a grading service says a
coin is mint-state, it may have wear. And, if it does, it
isn’t mint-state, no matter what anybody says.
In looking for strengths and weaknesses on their coins,
people tend to look for obvious things such as flaws or
scratches or signs of coin doctoring. All too often, they
don’t examine the high points for signs of wear. Or, if they
do, they conclude incorrectly that the high points’ lighter
color is just part of the toning. In fact, it may be good,
Looking for signs of wear, and learning how to recognize
those signs, can be extremely valuable to you, and I
certainly suggest that you make this an integral part of your
(9) Looking for a specific type of toning.
Many collectors like sets of coins that are matched–and
when it comes to coins of the same metallic composition, they
like those coins to have similar toning. For instance, some
collectors like silver coins with concentric-circle toning–
perhaps an ocean-blue periphery which fades into a sunset-
golden center. And when they purchase silver coins, they try
to find coins with that kind of toning.
Matched sets tend to be more aesthetically appealing,
and therefore more valuable, than unmatched sets. They
bespeak a higher level of care on the part of the collector
who put them together. Thus, this would be a good way for
anyone–you included–to look at coins.
(10) Looking for signs of deterioration.
This recommendation is last, but it definitely isn’t
least. Looking for signs of deterioration is very important.
You could put a coin away for two or three years and find,
after taking it out, that its surface has been under chemical
attack–even if that coin is resting (supposedly safely) in
the holder of a leading grading service.
You need to look at your coins on a regular basis to
make sure they haven’t deteriorated–that they’re still in
the same level of preservation as they were when you
Incidentally, if you do find signs of new damage–say, a
greenish area–on a coin, that doesn’t necessarily mean the
coin’s grade has been permanently lowered by two points.
In many cases, it is a good idea to neutralize or degrease such
a coin in either denatured alcohol or E&T Kointainer’s Koinsolv.
Removal of polyvinyl chloride from the surface of the coin can
help maintain the grade and prevent serious loss of value. The
key is to check your coins–look at them closely–on a regular
basis, even if they’re stored in a place that is supposedly secure.
There you have them: the 10 Top Ways to Look at Rare
Coins. Follow these steps on a regular basis, and you’ll find
that your coins are looking better than ever.
Here’s looking at you, kid–and here’s looking at them!