Myth About Cleanliness Washed Up

Question: You are forever warning your readers not to clean their coins. I have yet to see an unclean coin in a numismatics shop, which means to me that they must clean them in some undamaging way. What is the secret? Also, in inventorying my safe deposit box, I came upon the following coins, which I would appreciate having you appraise: 10 1883-O and 10 1886 silver dollars; a 1936 San Francisco Bay Bridge half dollar; an 1897 quarter; a $5 gold Indian dated 1913, and a gold $20 Liberty dated 1900-S.--N.K.H.

Answer: The answer remains unalterably the same: Do not clean your coins. This is true for the collector, especially, and the dealer as well. However, many dealers don’t heed this advice, especially with common, circulated coins. The reason you don’t see unclean coins in coin shops is that unwary collectors, especially neophytes, are attracted to a shiny finish, perhaps overlooking scratches or rubs that indicate a coin’s true condition.

David L. Ganz in “The World of Coins and Coin Collecting” says: “Most experienced collectors and dealers respond with a single word when asked how to clean coins: ‘Don’t.’ Any attempt at cleaning a coin . . . has the identical effect: The cleaner will eat away at the metal, though perhaps only microscopically, and create a distinctively unaesthetic appearance that can be seen under a 10-power magnifying glass.”

Moreover, Ganz warns: “Leave copper coins alone. They can almost never be cleaned properly, even by an expert.”


Now, naturally, there are some cleaning tricks. But the main trick is knowing which coin will benefit from cleaning and which should be left alone. So, the basic rule remains the same: Don’t.

Your 1883-O dollars (which I hope are uncleaned) are worth $10 each and up; the 1886 dollars are $11 each and up; the 1936 commemorative half dollar is $100 and up; the 1897 Barber quarter is $3 and up; the $5 gold piece is $250 and up, and the $20 gold piece is $450 and up.

Q: A recent column really piqued my interest when you answered a query about a $20 gold piece. I dug out an old gold coin that I remembered I had around here. It’s a $5 gold piece dated 1908 with no mint mark. It appears to be uncirculated, no wear on feathers or anywhere. What is its value and where and how would I sell it? Other than a dealer, that is.--E.C.

A: Your half eagle is either a Liberty-head or Indian-head type (both were made in 1908). The Indian head is worth a little more than the Lib as a rule. Prices start at about $165 and go up from there. As a general rule, I do not recommend selling coins to a private party because you are in no position to certify the authenticity of your coin should there be any problem. Also, there is always a security factor in coin transactions. While a dealer might not give you the greatest value for your coin, he won’t stick a gun in your ribs either.


Q: I have several half dollars dated 1963 and 1964. What is the value?--C.G.

A: Your silver half dollars are worth $2.50 each and up.

Q: You had an article in The Times in January about pennies, the small ones, I presume. I have several of the old large copper pennies. The dates are: 1827, 1830, 1831, 1837, 1843, 1848, 1850, 1851, 1852, 1853, 1854 and 1856. Their condition is only fair; some of the dates are easily read, and some are not too clear. Are any of them worth anything?--N.C.Z.

A: Large cents are an interesting series and were issued from 1773 to 1857. Some of the very early coins are quite valuable in almost any condition. Copper coins are more susceptible to wear and to the elements than silver and gold. This means that they are also more difficult to find in mint condition. Your large cents are worth $3 each and up.


Q: I have an American trade dollar with a full figure seated; date is 1878. On the back is an eagle with wings extended. It is in good condition.--M.T.M.

A: Your trade dollar is probably an 1878-S, because the 1878 and 1878-CC can be quite expensive. Trade dollars were issued primarily for use in the Orient from 1873 to 1885. The 1878-S is fairly common with more than 4 million issued. Your coin is probably in the $35-to-$50 range.

Coin Calendar

Saturday--The Azteca Numismatic Society is sponsoring a talk by Clyde Hubbard on “State Coinage of the Republic of Mexico” at 6 p.m. in the Marina Room of the Los Angeles Airport Hilton Hotel, 5711 W. Century Blvd. This is in conjunction with the C.O.I.N. convention running Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For Azteca Society inquiries, write: P. O. Box 33035, Granada Hills, Calif. 91344.


Coin News

A tribute to famous women of the American Revolution is paid by the U. S. Capitol Historical Society’s 1985 medal (pictured), designed by Karen Worth. Deborah Samson is depicted on the obverse; the reverse features Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. Also on the reverse is an honor roll of 23 American women. The new medal is the eighth in a continuing series. It is available in 1 1/2- and three-inch bronze antique ($8 and $27.50 respectively); 1 1/2-inch sterling proof ($50); three-inch sterling ($250), and 1 5/16-inch 18-karat gold ($575). Inquiries should be sent to the U. S. Capitol Historical Society, 200 Maryland Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002.

Don Alpert cannot answer mail personally but will respond to numismatic questions of general interest in this column. Do not telephone. Write to Your Coins, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.