Understanding coin values and determining your coins value at first seems daunting. It’s really a simple process that involves a little detective work and three simple steps.
Three factors define coin values:
- Condition of the Coin
- Rarity of the Coin
- Desirability of the Coin
Ultimately, coin values are determined by what someone is willing to pay when the coin is sold. In other words, the Law of Supply and Demand.
Coin values go up when supply is low and demand is high. Conversely, coin values go down when supply is high but interest in the coin is low.
A common misconception held by many beginning coin collectors is that because a coin is old it is valuable. For the vast majority of coins that’s just not true.
Modern coins can have a high collectible value because of a uniqueness particular to that coin.
The three factors we’ve defined above control coin values, so lets take a closer look at them.
Above all of factors, coin values are determined by the coins condition.
Severely worn or damaged coins, coins that have been cleaned, coins that have been altered in some way are going to be worth far less than “honest” coins.
So how do we define and describe a coins condition?
Systems to define the condition of a coin and its subsequent grade have evolved over the years.
In the very early days there were only 2 grades – New and Used. Pretty simple, right?
This evolved over the years into the system still used today to describe ungraded, or raw, coins.
Those grades are commonly called:
Poor (P), Fair (F), About Good (AG), Good (G), Very Good (VG), Fine (F), Very Fine (VF), Extra Fine (EF), About Uncirculated (AU), Uncirculated (U) and Brilliant Uncirculated (BU).
Grades from Poor to About Uncirculated are used to describe coins that have been collected from circulation. It is an indication of the wear a coin has experienced over its life.
Misconception – People will often describe a coin as being “Very Good”. But as you can see, a “Very Good” coin is not all that great. In “coin language” it means the coin is only average compared to other coins of its denomination collected from circulation.
An Uncirculated coin means just that. It has never been used for commerce, has absolutely no wear other than bag marks. It is as it came from the mint presses.
An Uncirculated coin may still not qualify as Brilliant Uncirculated, which is reserved for the most perfect of coins. The BU designation is reserved for those coins that have the best strikes from the press.
The Sheldon Scale
William Sheldon is credited with creating the coin grading system primarily in use today. Known as the Sheldon Scale, it is a numerical scale from 1-70 that corresponds to the system above with 1 being the Poor end of the scale and 70 being the perfect, or nearly pefect, Brilliant Uncirculated coin.
In the Sheldon Scale:
Poor=1, Fair=2, About Good=3, Good=4-6, Very Good=8-10, Fine=12-15, Very Fine=20-35, Extra Fine=40-45, About Uncirculated=50-58, Mint State=60-70 and Mint Proof State=60-70
If you’ve poked around a few coin shops or checked out the coin auctions like at eBay you’ll have seen coins designated VG, MS64, AU55, F45. Now you’ll know what those designations mean!
Grading coins, though, is subjective. What I may think of as an AU50 you may see as only a F45. Learning to grade coins is a skill you’ll want to start learning even before buying your first coin.
Rarity of Coin
The second factor that determines coin values is Rarity. How many of the coins were minted originally? How many have survived over the years? Some of this information can be found in the yearly mintage reports of the coin.
But mintage doesn’t account totally for rarity. How many coins have survived the years after loss and various meltings?
Of course scales have been designed over the years to measure rarity. The most commonly used, and the one simplest for me to remember, is the Sheldon Rarity Scale, developed by William Sheldon, in the late 1950s.
The Sheldon Rarity Scale:
- R1 Common, readily available
- R2 Less common – Available at most shows, but in limited quantity
- R3 Scarce – somewhat difficult to find, only a few likely at larger shows
- R4 Very scarce – may or may not find at larger shows/auctions
- R5 Rare – unlikely more than 5 at shows or auctions each year
- R6 Very rare – Almost never seen, only one may be offered for sale in a year’s time
- R7 Prohibitively rare – one may be offered for sale once every few years
- R8 Unique, or nearly so
The average collector will seldom consider the rarity scale.
How many collectors are looking for a particular coin impacts its value. A coin isn’t going to be very valuable if no one wants to buy it!
The desirability of a coin can be judged by keeping track of the market through auctions and other sales of the coin.
Several sources of this information are available but generally the most trusted information is that which you collect through your study of the coins you’re interested in.
While these 3 factors define coin values it takes a bit of detective work on your part to determine your coins value.
Handling and protecting your coins properly is important to its value. Learn how at Caring for Coins the Easy Way.
In the end a coins value is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it at any point in time. Understanding how to value a coin along with grading coins will help you buy the coin you want successfully or sell the coin you have for a fair price.
5 Quick Steps to Find Your Coins Value
Everyday brings a new inquiry from someone asking, Whats My Coin Worth?
Sometimes it turns out to be a very nice coin that has numismatic value.
But the unfortunate truth is this. The vast majority of circulated coins are worth exactly their face value.
The exception to that rule are coins that have silver or gold content.
There are also some special interest and “error” coins that fall outside the normal guidelines, too, but those are still the exceptions.
Prior to 1965 all U.S. dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollar coins contained silver. Pre-1933 American Eagle, Double Eagle, Half Eagle and Quarter Eagle coins all contained gold. How much gold or silver is dependent on their denomination.
Coins with silver content, which includes U.S. dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars minted before 1965 that are not rare, scarce, proofs or uncirculated (basically uncirculated means it’s never been in anyone’s pocket) are going to be worth, with some exceptions, their melt value.
So, you’ve found this great old coin. How do you find out an approximate value quickly and easily? This just takes a little detective work and being honest with yourself about your coins condition.
- Identify the coin – Is this a coin minted in the U.S.? If not you’ll want to start your search with learning to Identify Foreign Coins.
- Locate the Mint Mark. If the coin was minted in the U.S., can you locate a mint mark? The mint mark will tell you which of the U.S. Mints produced the coin. Heritage Auctions provides a great resource for finding mint marks. The United States has used minting facilities at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, Denver, Carson City, San Francisco and West Point. The West Point mint is responsible for the beautiful American Eagle Gold and Silver bullion coins.
- Your coins mintage. Find out how many coins were produced. Knowing the number of coins like yours that were minted will tell you whether it may be a scarce or rare coin. Or maybe it is just one of millions produced.
- Determine your coins condition. This is the hardest part and requires being savagely honest with yourself about the condition of your coin.
- Your coins value. Once you’ve done the steps above it’s time to put it all together and find out a general idea of your coins value. You now know where the coin was made, how many were produced and, most importantly, the coins condition.
My favorite place for finding a coins value online is Numismedia’s Fair Market Value Price Guide. Remember it is a guide to coin prices not an offering to buy.
While I use Numismedia often you’ll always find a Guide Book of U.S. Coins on my desk.
It answers most of the questions you have to ask to determine the value of your U.S. minted coins.
- Grading Information
- Pricing Guides
- Mintage Numbers
And these are just some of the features! If you don’t have a copy you’re simply flying blind in the coin collecting world. Get a copy of A Guide Book of United States Coins today!
Keep in mind the coin values you find will be “retail” prices. If you’re trying to sell a coin, don’t walk into a coin dealer’s showroom expecting to receive the full retail value of a coin. You’ll be disappointed.
Coins that have been struck incorrectly…broken or worn dies, off center, on the wrong planchet or missing what should have been there…are known as error coins. Error coins are extremely popular, in many cases very affordable and in some cases can be quite valuable.
New ones are discovered daily! This is definitely a case for checking your pocket change cause you never know what might show up!
The challenge with error coins is they fall out of the typical price guides. Not everyone appreciates the odd, and sometimes ugly, coins that errors produce.
The resource I use the most for error coin valuation is Coneca, the Combined Organization of Numismatic Error Collectors.
5 Steps to What’s My Coin Worth
- Identify Your Coin
- Find the Mint Mark
- How Many Were Made
- Determine Coin Condition
- Check Price Guides
While the 5 steps to find Whats My Coin Worth above work in the vast majority of cases sometimes during this process you may indeed find you have a genuinely rare or scarce coin. In that case it is time to seek out a coin dealer in your area that you can trust to determine your coins true value.
Ultimately it’s up to you to determine you coins value. It’s your money, right? If you’re trusting all of your decisions based on what you read in an Internet forum or chat room you’re going to be disappointed more often than not.
Learn how to grade and value your own coins. You’ll become a far better, and happier, coin collector.