What Are My Coins Worth? - Old Coin Values August 16 2013

As a professional numismatist and a guy who's known to be crazy about coins, this is a question I get asked a lot.  And if you're looking to sell your coins, the answer becomes very important.  


Let's say Jim just inherited some old silver coins from his grandfather, perhaps a few Morgan dollars, and decides he wants to sell them.  Jim doesn't know anything about coins, so he decides to take them down to his local coin store or pawn shop and ask the dealer how much they're worth.  The coin dealer offers him $50 on the spot, and to Jim, $50 for a few $1 coins seems like a pretty good deal.  He happily walks out of the store with $50 in his pocket to put towards that nice watch he's been saving up for.  

Jim just lost $450.  


Jim lost the money because he made a big mistake—he didn't do the proper research before trying to make a sale.  While many coin dealers are honest, it's always safer to learn the value of your coins before trying to sell them.  


For those who want the quick and easy route, there are many great online resources for finding out how much your coins are worth.  One of my personal favorites is Fiverr, where you can get an honest coin appraisal from a professional numismatist for only $5.  Whether you've got a large collection or just a few silver coins, all you have to do is send a few pictures and a short description and he'll tell you how much your coins are worth.  The reason I refer people looking for appraisals to Fiverr instead of coin dealers is because the numismatists on Fiverr are an unbiased third party.  Because they're not looking to buy your coins, they have no incentive to cheat and give you a lowball appraisal.  All you get is an honest, straightforward valuation.  


But for those who like to do their own research, you might be wondering what actually makes a coin valuable?  There are several main factors:


Age:  How old is it?  In general, old coins tend to be worth more than coins struck more recently.  The older a particular coin is, the greater the collectible and historical appeal.  Older coins also tend to be more scarce, as many coins are lost or destroyed over time.  This is by no means an absolute rule—for example, you can still buy many ancient Roman and Greek coins for a paltry sum.  But as a general rule, for any given coin series (i.e. Washington quarters, Mercury dimes, etc), older coins will tend to be relatively more scarce and valuable.   


Walking Liberty silver half dollar

Condition: Nicer coins bring higher prices.  The greater the amount of detail and the smaller the amount of visible wear, the higher the price.  Uncirculated or “mint” coins are the cream of the crop, and bring the highest prices.  An uncirculated coin is a coin that has no visible signs of wear or use—it was never used by the public.  Uncirculated coins usually have luster—the original sheen or shininess of the metal preserved from when the coin was first struck. This Walking Liberty half dollar is a good example.  


Type: This is probably the single biggest determinant of value. How much a coin is worth depends on how big the market for that particular coin is.  For example, U.S. coins are much more widely collected than any other nation’s coins.  The market for American coins is bigger than any other market within the field of numismatics (other large markets include British coins, Ancients, and bullion coins).  This means that even if a Canadian coin is relatively more rare, chances are it still won’t be worth as much as a more common U.S. coin.   Certain series are also much more widely collected than others.  Hardly anybody collects Jefferson nickels, so good luck selling them.  But Mercury dimes are highly collectible and will sell in any date or condition.   


Rarity: Rarity is comprised of all the other factors previously listed.  Age, condition, and type all play a role.  But the central determinant of rarity is how many coins were actually minted.  Coins with certain date/mintmark combinations might be much rarer than others because their mintages were so small.  For example, U.S. coins with a “CC” mintmark are generally much rarer than coins from the same series with other mintmarks because the Carson City mint struck a relatively small number of coins. 


Given those factors, where do you then look for prices?  Look to the holy book of coin collecting, The Red Book, AKA "A Guidebook of United States Coins."  The Red Book has accurate and up-to-date coin prices for every single date and mintmark combination of every single U.S. coin.  Whether you're an aspiring numismatist or just want to get rid of some coins, The Red Book is the one book you should buy.  And it's available in both hardcover and Kindle formats!


If you have any questions about valuing your collectible coins, or suggestions on what I should blog about next, please leave a comment!