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Organizing Your Collection

The 1909 VDB Lincoln Cent is a popular coin amongst collectors. (All images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

The 1909 VDB Lincoln Cent is a popular coin amongst collectors. (All images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

As I'm writing this, Christmas is rapidly approaching. When that’s over, the New Year will be upon us. Among other things, the New Year reminds me of resolutions, the promise of changes we’ll make to improve our lives.

Perhaps you’ll vow to finally start exercising or eating right or losing weight. Of course, these changes are interrelated. There may be other changes you desire that are unrelated. There may even be resolutions that you ought to make that you haven’t even considered.

For example, do you have some coins? Do you consider yourself more of an accumulator of coins, or a collector of them? If the latter, where do you reside in the pantheon of collectors? That is, are you a beginner, middle-level collector, or an advanced collector, perhaps even a numismatist?

From my lengthy experience advising people about what to do with coins they’ve inherited, I’ve learned that many collections don’t really fit that label. They’re more accumulations of coins than actual collections.

In the 4th edition of Cash in Your Coins, Beth Deisher discussed three levels of coin collectors: accumulators, casual collectors, and numismatists. Accumulators are apt to have large numbers of coins, some with bullion value because of their silver or gold content. Accumulators may also be fascinated with a particular denomination and era of manufacture such as Lincoln cents with wheat stalks on the backs of the coins (Wheaties). These were minted from 1909-1958.

Coin accumulations come in all sizes, from the minuscule to the humongous. My mother-in-law once asked me to look at an elderly friend’s coins she had inherited from her husband. Her friend had only a dozen or so coins, all but one of which were what I call “spenders.” The single worthwhile coin was an 1877 Indian Head cent, the scarcest date in the series. It was in a low grade (G-VG), and its wholesale value was about $70 at the time. The rarity’s presence in a small group of spenders made me wonder what had happened to the rest of the husband’s collection.

From time to time, I have examined accumulations of the humongous variety. The value in these collections often depended almost solely on the bullion value of large numbers of silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars.

The most valuable accumulation I was asked to examine contained unsorted silver coins and more than 1,000 ounces of modern gold coins. With gold close to $2,000 an ounce at the time, the accumulator and his wife received a wire transfer of nearly 2 million dollars to their bank!


But as much money as the man made from his coin accumulation, I wouldn’t call him a real collector. He probably qualified for Deisher’s casual collector category, however. Such collectors may have become interested in the State quarter series, minted from 1999 (the bicentennial of George Washington’s death) through 2008. They may even have purchased albums to house the coins they found in circulation. Or, as in the case with the man with all the gold pieces, they may have bought them because they liked the idea of having some silver and gold coins as an investment.

Having been turned on to coins with the State quarters, such collectors may have gone on to work on a set of America the Beautiful quarters. This, in turn, might have led to collecting Presidential dollars or even some of the Mint’s various bullion series.

The casual collector pursues his or her collecting activities for the fun of it. Of course, if the collector gets into the Mint’s bullion offerings, then the idea of monetary gain or coins as an investment may enter the picture.

At this point, the casual collector may decide that he needs to keep up with the coins he’s bought, and this implies record keeping, developing an inventory of purchases, what they’ve cost and when they were acquired.

The casual collector is on the way to becoming a numismatist, a serious or perhaps advanced collector. This is a person interested in learning the history behind the coins he collects, and who’s working on completing particular series of coins. According to Deisher, “. . .most numismatists maintain an inventory of their collection(s) and are meticulous record keepers with regard to acquisition costs and the pedigree or ownership history (if known) of their coins.”

So, what kind of collector are you? Are you simply an accumulator of coins, with no particular interest in the history behind the individual pieces? I hasten to note that there’s nothing wrong with this approach to collecting coins. Or are you a more serious collector?

Whichever type of collector you are, the first resolution you should make, assuming you don’t already do it, is to inventory your holdings. Once you have a complete inventory, you should resolve to keep it current, to record each new purchase, when you bought it, how much you paid for it, and who you bought it from. This will be important information for your heirs or for yourself should you decide to sell all or portions of your collection.

The State quarters program ran from 1999 through 2008. These quarters introduced many people to the idea of coin collecting.

The State quarters program ran from 1999 through 2008. These quarters introduced many people to the idea of coin collecting.

You can create your inventory by simply taking a small notebook and entering your holdings by pen or pencil. Start with coins of the lowest denomination and list them in order of dates, with the oldest first, and so on. Have a separate column for date of purchase, from whom it was purchased, price paid, and then later, how much you got for it if you sold it.

If you want to make a more sophisticated inventory, Google “coin inventory software” and marvel at the 7.36 million hits. From the hits, you can find free software, or you can purchase programs from the many ads that appear.

Another resolution you might consider is to consolidate your accumulation. If, for example, you have a cigar box filled with a mixture of war nickels, silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars, now might be a good time to separate the accumulation by denomination. While you’re putting all of one denomination, say quarters, together, take out the ones that aren’t silver and put them with other spenders. When you’ve done this with all the denominations, resolve to cash in the spenders at your bank.

If there are spenders you really want to keep (for example, circulated Bicentennial quarters and half dollars), put them together in a sandwich bag clearly marked “spenders.” By doing this, you’re letting your heirs know that they’re really not valuable.

If you have albums of coins in your accumulation, put them together and organize them by denomination and series. For example, you may start with your partial Indian cent album, then your early Lincoln cents, later Lincolns, V-nickels, Buffalo nickels, and so on, perhaps ending with a set of Peace dollars you picked up somewhere.

If you have foreign coins you’ve retained from your travels that don’t have any bullion value, divide these by country and put them in sandwich bags clearly marked with the countries of origin. You might also note that these are common coins that have little or no numismatic value.

As you’re organizing your accumulation, you may come upon some coins that you’re no longer interested in keeping. Perhaps the coins were hole fillers that have been replaced with better examples in your albums. These lower grade duplicates can be sold, and the money used for later purchases.

You may realize that you have some partial sets that you’ve lost interest in for one reason or another. Resolve to turn them into cash for future purchases.

How are the coins in your accumulation housed? Do you have some coins with numismatic value that are just loose in a box or bag? If so, resolve to put them into 2 x 2 cardboard holders with clear windows. You can identify each coin with notations on the cardboard part of the holder.

If you have coins in albums that use flexible plastic pages or the coins are in flexible plastic flips, you need to rehouse them as soon as possible. This is especially true if you notice that any of them look a little green around the gills. If there is some greening around the edges, it means that the chemical (PVC) that makes the plastic flexible has begun to leach out onto the coins.

I’ve noticed PVC damage on some of the coins in collections I’ve been asked to examine and have even seen it on some of my coins. If you find this on your coins, you need to remove them from the offending holders/albums, dissolve the PVC in acetone, and put the coins into holders that don’t contain the plasticizer.

A Google search on “non PVC coin holders” produces an astounding 2.5 million hits. As you might guess, some of these holders are for sale on both Amazon and eBay. At one site, I read, “. . .we pride ourselves on caring for your collection. We only offer PVC FREE, acid free, coin safe archival quality premium products for the safe storage of your prized collection.” I don’t know how much such holders cost, but they’re bound to be preferable to holders putting “green slime” on your coins.

The 1932-D Quarter is a key date that was often counterfeited.

The 1932-D Quarter is a key date that was often counterfeited.

If you have any coins worth at least $100, particularly if these coins are scarcer dates or gold, then you might resolve to have them certified by services such as ANACS, NGC, and PCGS. A Google search for any of the certification services will provide you with information about cost, what coins they will or won’t certify, the benefits of certification, and so on.

One major advantage of having valuable coins in your collection certified is a guarantee that the coins are authentic. This makes them much easier for you to sell at the grade certified on the coin’s holder. I personally would not buy an uncertified key date such as a 1916-D Mercury dime or a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent from a seller on eBay. I might be willing to purchase such a coin from a major seller such as Heritage Auctions or David Lawrence Rare Coins, but these coin dealers and many others no longer sell uncertified or “raw” coins.

A second advantage is the holder (slab) enclosing the certified coin. The holders both protect the coin from environmental contaminants and protect from changes inside the holder. In other words, you don’t have to be concerned that any of your coins will acquire green slime. Also, if you drop one, it won’t put a dent in the coin.

To summarize, a date near the beginning of the year is a good time to begin to organize and inventory your coin accumulation if it’s not already organized and inventoried. Think seriously about getting rid of coins that for one reason or another are no longer worth holding onto. You can use whatever funds you get for them to purchase new coins for your collection.

Take a serious look at how you’re housing your coins. If any of them are in pliable plastic flips, you should rehouse them to avoid their contamination with the dreaded “green slime.”

Key dates in popular series are often counterfeited or constructed from common dates in the series. Back in the “bad old days” before certification of authenticity, there was a significant chance that key dates such as the 1932-D and S quarters, the 1914-D cent, and the 1916-D Mercury dime were really Philadelphia-Mint products with mintmarks glued or soldered onto them. Coins like these and many others should only be purchased when certified by a major service.

You should resolve to have any better, expensive dates certified by a major service. Your heirs will be glad you did.

Chances are very good that your organizing, inventorying, and rehousing efforts will prove to be more fun than work. And that’s what your collecting hobby is all about, having fun!