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Urge to clean a strong one

I received an email yesterday on the topic of cleaning coins. The old hobby rule that you should never clean coins is a hard one to keep.

What follows is the text of the reader email and my response:

“After my Mom passed (and Dad many years before) I remembered that my Dad and brothers, who have also passed were into collecting coins.

“In modern times, I have collected proof sets, silver sets, silver Eagles as well as silver coins over the years.

“I then went into the safe and when I finally had the right combination and it opened; the entire door fell off. This was a four-foot high, two-foot wide safe.

“There were folders, 2x2s, albums, flips, coin tubes as well as paper Silver Certificates which are extremely flimsy and stuck together. Most all of the coins have a dark brown to black looking mold or residue on them.

“There are pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and halves. Nothing I am sure has been put in the safe for at least 30 years.

“Please tell me how would be best way to handle this assortment with the problems they have.

“I know you always preach to not clean coins but is there some way to “gently” get rid of some of the residue to be able to add them to my collection?”

Here is my email response with a correction or two of typos and word flow:

It is indeed unfortunate that your coins look so bad. However, cleaning them is not the first question to deal with.

First you need to evaluate the silver coins. Any of these that are not key dates or in Mint State will be valued solely based on bullion value. Even bullion coins get discounted a little if they show evidence of harsh cleaning. You should simply offer them as they are.

Lincoln cents and Jefferson nickels unless they are key dates or Mint State will basically bring you face value, even if they are not ugly, so don’t waste your time on these either.

Once you have sorted the coins to this degree, what you have left will be the coins where cleaning should be done by a professional. A bad cleaning job destroys more value than leaving a coin as its ugly self.

From your description of the Silver Certificates it seems likely that they were stored in PVC plastic. That leeches an oily substance that must be removed (from coins) by special chemicals. For paper money, nothing can be done to get the oily substance out and the notes will likely be worth face value.

This approach will maximize the value that can be realized from the coins.

That would leave you free to experiment with the ugly coins worth face value because you can do nothing to them that will reduce the value further. Once you see what happens to a coin’s surface from bad cleaning you will understand why collectors would not pay good money to obtain cleaned coins.

That’s my text.

I am guessing about PVC since it was not mentioned but the likelihood is great that PVC would be in some of the holders given the age of the accumulation. The description of the notes also seems to be a symptom of PVC.

Those are my thoughts. What would you do with such an accumulation?

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."