DR 047: How to Value a Coin Collection

1878 S Morgan Silver Dollar MS65I recently started collecting coins. I only have a handful right now: mainly Morgan silver dollars. I tend to just pay $40 or $50 for a nice coin, and I don’t have a particularly valuable collection. I just enjoy collecting them.

One of my coins is a Morgan silver dollar from 1878. It’s an S mint – from San Francisco – and it’s fairly high grade. This coin is 140 years old. I can just imagine the stories this coin could tell if it could talk. That’s why I enjoy coin collecting. The history behind coins and currency is just amazing.

I don’t view my coins or currency or an investment because they don’t have any way to generate income. They’re just fun. It’s possible that I could hold a $50 coin long enough to sell it for $75 to make a bit of money, but it all hinges on what people are willing to pay for it. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Maybe you’ve inherited some coins from a family member. Or you’ve just got some old coins around the house, and you’re wondering what they might be worth. I’m going to walk you through seven tips to help you figure that out.

1. Know what you have

First, you need to know exactly what the coin you’re looking at actually is. This may not be as easy as you think. It’s easy to find out what kind of coin you’ve got. But you’ve got to go below the surface because there are certain things about a coin that can really affect its value.

For any given coin – whether it’s a Morgan silver dollar or a wheat penny or a buffalo nickel – certain years are more valuable than others. You can find out the more valuable dates with a quick internet search. Simply search for key dates for the type of coin that you have, and you’ll find plenty of resources that will tell you what the key dates are.

You’ll also want to know where a coin was minted because sometimes a date is considered a key date, but only for a specific mint. The coin typically will be stamped with the symbol for the mint location – Philadelphia (no indication of the mint means it was minted in Philadelphia), Denver, and San Francisco are the big three. But coins were also minted in New Orleans (O) and Carson City (CC) at times.

So when you’re searching for key dates, be sure to look at both the date and the mint. The difference in value between a key date/mint and a more common option can literally be tens of thousands of dollars or more. It’s all about demand. Some coins are just harder to find because not many were minted or because most of the coins of that mint/date combination are gone now.

A small detail about a coin can change its value dramatically. For instance, certain known errors in the minting of a coin can make it more valuable. It’s unbelievable the amount of work that’s gone into understanding the history of US coins, their errors and peculiarities. All of this can change the value.

The same thing is true of currency like national bank notes. Certain things about certain bank notes can change the value, and sometimes these things are difficult to see.

For instance, when a national bank note is printed, it has a bank serial number. The numbers start with one and go on up. Generally, a national bank note with the serial number 1 is extremely valuable (all other things being equal). Without this knowledge, however, and you might not even take note of the serial number.

All this to say that it’s important to understand what you have in terms of type, mint, and date, and also to understand if there are any aspects of a coin or note that can make it particularly valuable.

2. Understand grades

Besides the above-listed key details, you need to understand the coin’s quality – its grade. What kind of condition is it in?

There are services that will grade coins for you on a number system. It usually starts at one and goes all the way to 70. Called the Sheldon Grading System, it was developed in the 1950s by William H. Sheldon.

Coins in the 60s are considered mint-state (MS). So any score of 60 or higher represents an excellent quality. As you can see in the above picture, my 1878 S Morgan is an MS 65.

But the value depends on other factors, as well. For instance, my 1878 MS 65 Morgan silver dollar is in great condition, but it’s still not worth a lot of money. That’s because for this particular coin, a mint state condition is actually quite common. On the other side, some coins are so rare that even lower grades are quite valuable.

So how do you find out the grade if you don’t already know? You could have the coin graded professionally. But unless you’ve got a very valuable coin collection, that’s probably not the best first step because it’s expensive.

Search Google for coin grading, and you’ll find a couple of companies that grade coins. One is the Professional Coin Grading Services (PCGS). Another is NGC, the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation. Again, this is going to add some cost and it may not be worth it.

So try to get an understanding of what you have first. Graded coins, though, do sell for more than ungraded coins because you have an official, unbiased grade. Still, it’s often best to start by taking your coins to a dealer or coin show before you go to the trouble and cost of having them professionally graded.

Local coin dealers will give you their opinion on the coin’s condition. If you think you’ve got something particularly valuable, take it to a couple of different dealers. I think it helps if you deal with an established dealer who’s been in the business for a very long time.

I’ve gone to a number of coin dealers and coin shows, and I’ve always had very good experiences with coin dealers. It’s as if there’s an unwritten rule in the business that reputation is critical. So, I’ve found dealers to be very helpful.

They love talking about coins and currency, and they can give you tons of information about the coins you have. They also tend to be very upfront and honest. Still, you need to have your guard up, which is why I’d suggest going to more than one dealer with your coin or collection to talk about what you have. The easiest way to do this is to go to a coin show, where you’ll find lots of dealers in one place.

Once you’ve talked to some dealers, you have a sense of what you have and its grade. Even though coin dealers can’t give you an official grade like PCGS or NGC, they’re great at giving you a rough idea of the grade.

So how do you turn that information into a value? Again, start with the dealer.

Dealers have what they call “grey” sheets. It’s a wholesale guide to coin values published over a series of weeks in the Coin Dealer Newsletter (CDN). They are printed on grey paper, thus the term grey sheets.. They provide the bid and ask prices of US coins and mint sets.

So the CDN is a good place to start. It will give you a sense of what the coin might be worth.

3. Check eBay

1878 S Morgan Silver Dollar MS 65eBay

Believe it or not, you can check coin prices on eBay. A ton of coins and currency are sold there. I’ve never sold any coins or currency on eBay, but I have bought currency on eBay. And a lot of coin dealers sell some of their inventory on the auction site.

The great thing about eBay, of course, is that it’s easy to search for particular coins or currency. You can look at what’s being sold at the moment and what prices they are fetching. You can also look at past auctions. I’ve found this to be a great way to get an idea of a coin’s value.

You can search for the exact coin that you have – including the mint and grade. If it’s fairly common, you’ll probably find several auctions and get an idea of pricing.

4. Follow auctions

If you’d like to track coin prices over time, follow the auctions for all of the coins that you have. You can do that easily on eBay. Just watch an auction to see what a particular coin sells for.

Another way to do this is with Heritage Auctions. It’s an auction house that auctions everything – not just coins and currency. But they do auction a ton of coins and currency. You can sign up as a member for free, and you can get great information about past auctions and what a coin or currency sold for. It’s like eBay, but this site is dedicated to collectibles and auctioning collectibles. It provides a ton of history on coins and currency.

Heritage Auctions  Morgan Dollars

I will give you one caution about Heritage Auctions. I’ve purchased a couple of coins for my small collection from there, and their bid and ask spread is really large. The fee they take between what you pay and what the seller receives is significant. So that’s something to keep in mind, particularly if you want to sell your coins.

5. Check databases

There are specialty databases out there that can give you the idea of value. The one I’m most familiar with is for national bank notes – the National Bank Note Census. There’s a history behind this database. Basically, national bank notes come from local banks, so you can have fun buying notes from your home state.

The census database offers information on the bank, the size of town its in, and detailed information on how many notes of different denominations the bank issued.

So one of the things you can do with this is to figure out the value of the notes based on how rare they are. You can log in (there’s a fee for this one), and they’ll show you transactions of bank notes as well. You can trace your actual bank note, if it’s in the database, using its bank charter number and serial number. You can see when it was bought and sold going back decades.

This is the database I’m most familiar with, but there are plenty of specialty databases where you can get more information about coins and currency. Check to see if there’s a specialty database to track the sale and purchase of the types of coins or notes you have. This can help you get more information on the value.

6. Keep your collection safe

Keep your coin collection safe. So many times I’ll see someone with a coin collection in a shoebox, and the coins are all just thrown together in there clanking about. When the coins hit each other, they leave marks. This will devalue the coins, so I highly recommend that you keep your coins in separate containers – at least until you get their value assessed.

You don’t want the value of these coins to be diminished because they weren’t properly maintained. If you get them professionally graded, they’ll actually come back to you in a sealed case. This is great for displaying and looking at the coins, but it also keeps them safe. The same is true with currency. When they grade currency, they’ll put it in a sealed rigid plastic holder.

Even if you haven’t had your coins or currency graded, at least keep them separate from other coins to keep them safe. And then stash your collection in a safe place where it won’t be damaged by moisture, sunlight, fire, or prying grandchildren.

Published or Updated: March 30, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. J. Money says:

    Love it man!! And SO SAD I won’t be able to join you in Baltimore this weekend for the show…. Pick up an extra coin just for me – I give you permission ;)

    • Rob Berger says:

      J, it was lots of fun. I just wish I had more money to spend!

  2. joe s. says:

    Very nice write up. I would add that currency (paper money) is not as popular as coins. I would steer away from currency if I was just getting into numismatics. You got that MS65 coin for 50 dollars? That’s a great price. It probably sells today for 175-250. I can never find a Morgan dollar at that grade for less than 150. This article must have been written 5 years ago, or more. I would write that off as a great investment, especially since you had no intention of making money off it!

    • Rob Berger says:

      Joe, solid advice on coins vs paper money. And yes, it was a great deal on the Morgan dollar!

  3. David Chapman says:

    The 5 cent piece that you mention …the buffalo nickle is actually spelled nickel.The reason I know that is because I “nailed it” in my 3rd grade spelling bee. Haha Enjoying the articles.Keep up the good work! Cousin David proofreading expert

    • Rob Berger says:

      David, that is funny! All I can say is that it’s a transcription error. Oh, and that you are a much better speller than I.

  4. Knowing what you have and follow auctions are really important in coin collecting. Its really good to watch what your items are really going for in today’s market. Prices for items can change a lot, so being in the know is really valuable. Thanks for the great breakdown!

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