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Magnification a vital tool to evaluate coins

This is my first column since returning from the Florida United Numismatists convention in Orlando. While there, I was reminded of how much fun it is to interact with collectors and examine their coins. I cannot count how many times I have found rare or interesting varieties on coins brought to our table or sent in to the grading service to be authenticated or graded.  When I identify them, the owner is very happy about his unexpected windfall, but I often think about the person who sold the coin with no clue as to what he had. That’s because I’ve been there once before.

Now, I want to encourage readers to look more closely at their coins. It’s fun to look at coins, especially when they are your own. Countless collectors/accumulators search rolls and dealer’s stock looking for interesting items. All you need to do is look closely.

Even bank-wrapped rolls of state quarters or Presidential dollars can yield surprises. Did you know that there are many different collar types and finishes (besides the major lettering errors) on the Presidential coins? Additionally, slippage can cause shifts in the spacing of their edge design.  These searches can provide hours of “cheap thrills.”

Once you have decided to take a serious look at your coins you need to know what to look for. If you are concerned with counterfeit or altered coins, it’s best to take a grading class or educational program at a major coin show or at the American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar. A couple of these programs were just offered at the recent FUN show.  Since coins with altered surfaces are still common in the marketplace, by examining coins closely before your purchase, you’ll avoid most but not all surprises when you look at them later.  I’ve also been in that position several times before, so I’ll review some of the characteristics to look for on altered coins in a future column.

If you are looking for varieties, the date and mintmark areas are good places to start.  For most of our coinage before the clad era, the date and mintmark were placed on the die by hand. To illustrate this, a good group to begin with is the Indian cents. Rick Snow has expanded his first book on these coins into a set of four books showing misplaced dates and varieties.

The Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of U.S. Coins is another important source for this type of material.  These coins and others are not always attributed in dealers stocks or even in major grading service slabs. All you need to do is to look for them and don’t get discouraged.

I have the luxury of having a digital camera mounted to a stereo microscope on my desk. It is very easy to lay down my hand lens and use the microscope for a closer look at a coin’s surface. If I see something interesting to write about, a micrograph is only a click away.

A microscope coupled with florescent light is a surefire way to look for alterations and varieties. Give yourself this test.  What do you see in the micrographs of the 1872 Seated silver dollar obverse?  Figure 1 shows Liberty’s leg and dress at 40X.  This area is just to the right of her shield (not shown). Did you notice the curly raised lines that cross the folds of her dress? It’s nothing rare, but it’s an interesting “artifact” of the minting process.

Since the marks are raised on the coin, we know that they had to be sunken into the die. This leads to speculation that some string from a worker’s rag was left behind between the die and hub. It became pressed into the die as it was made, leaving a void for planchet metal to fill when the coin was struck.

Now look at the area above the date (Figures 2 and 3) on the same coin.  What do you see here? Directly under the shield point is the base of another numeral “1.” At first it was punched into the die too high!  What caused the two half moon shape marks over the “2” in the date?  

Hopefully I’ve got your interest.  Now get out your coins and look at them. 

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition



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