These are the most frequently asked questions about collecting coins.
How do I start collecting?
The best thing to do is just start picking up different things: coins, medals, tokens or notes that attract your attention. Also pick up a couple of standard reference catalogues such as The Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Coins or Haxby’s Coins of Canada. They will prove invaluable in the future. Eventually you will need a plan to organize your collection. Let this follow your interests and other hobbies. Most collectors decide to specialize in issues of a particular country or time period, or even a theme, such as trains. What you chose is up to you, there are no rules. The Canadian Numismatic Association also runs a correspondence course.
What coins should I buy?
There are three basic rules to follow: buy what you like, buy what you can afford, and buy what you consider reasonably priced. In other words, enjoy your coins, and don’t pay too much for them. Your collection should be fun to own and affordable. It is an old maxim that collectors should buy the book before they buy the coin. As a rule, it is better to own one high-quality coin than it is to own several mediocre ones.
How approachable are dealers to new collectors?
Most dealers are willing to help out a new collector with advice and information but not all the time. However this is a business and their time means money. If a dealer is busy with customers then wait, or come back later. If a customer shows up, offer to wait until after they have been served. It also helps if you repay their time with a little patronage. It doesn’t have to be an expensive item, but it proves that you are sincere about collecting.
Are coins and banknotes a good investment?
Yes and no. Some people have made a lot of money buying and selling coins, and others have lost fortunes. If you are serious about investing in numismatics, first spend a bit of time learning. Most successful investors were knowledgeable collectors first. A well-chosen coin collection will appreciate, but probably no better or worse than any other investment. By well-chosen we mean good quality coins purchased at reasonable prices.
I've got a bunch of dirty old coins and banknotes, how do I clean them?
Don’t! Chances are you’ll do more damage than good. The process of cleaning often leaves tiny scratches that will show up with a magnifying glass and lower the value of the coin. Physical dirt can be removed by careful washing with a hand soap and patting dry. Tarnish, called toning to collectors, does not lower the value of the coin. Although dips can remove the tarnish, they also remove any remaining mint lustre. The result is a coin with an unnatural appearance and a lower value.
How do I sell my collection?
It depends on the coins. Most people believe that auctions will get the fairest price, but not always. Dealers are also looking to buy coins or collections. The best thing to do is take an inventory and then contact a couple of dealers or auctioneers to see if they are interested. It is possible that they aren’t. If they express an interest you’ll have to make arrangements to show them the coins. If they make an offer urge them to take all or nothing. A dealer will generally prefer to take only the desirable items, leaving you with the common ones that are difficult to sell. If there’s a coin show in your area you may want to take your collections there. With a room full of dealers you won’t have to wait long for an answer. Once you’ve got some offers the decision is up to you, they are your coins. After checking out the retail price of your coins be prepared for a shock when you get some offers, there is a significant difference between dealer’s selling prices and buying prices, that’s how they earn a living. If nobody wants your coins don’t despair, you can always spend them.
Coins are often described using phrases like MS-63 or VF, what do they mean?
In most cases, the price of a coin depends on both rarity and condition, so determining the state of preservation, or grade, of a coin is important. At one time, coins were described with adjectives only and it was entirely subjective. Eventually the adjectives were standardized, and about 25 years ago married to a numerical system. The numerical system ranges from 1 to 70. A good coin (actually a bad coin to collectors) rates 4, Mint Condition coins start at 56, and 70 represents a hypothetical perfect coin at the moment of striking. For more on grading see the next item. A similar system is used forbank notes, with the addition of the term Crisp Uncirculated, or CU to refer to notes that still have the untouched feeling.
How can I learn to grade coins?
Coin grading is a complex subject where even experts can disagree. A basic grading guide can help the collector in valuing coins. When it comes to circulated coins the best thing to do is practice, and compare your results to those of experienced graders. Generally speaking, beginners tend to grade a coin a little high, and the owner of a coin tends to view it in a better light than the prospective buyer. The guide below will help:
Good – 4: A worn coin with designs visible but usually no remaining detail.
Very Good – 8: Well worn with few fine details remaining.
Fine – 12: The design and lettering are clearly visible but show signs of wear.
Very Fine – 20: Uniform light wear, but lettering and major elements sharp.
Extremely Fine – 40: Very slight wear with all details sharp, some lustre may remain.
About Uncirculated – 50: Traces of wear on all surfaces, at least 50 per cent of the original lustre remains.
Mint state coins are free from any signs of wear. Their grading is based on the quality of the strike, condition of the coin, and lustre.
MS-60: A mint state coin showing some bag marks and edge nicks.
MS-63: A mint state coin with few surface marks and most lustre remaining.
MS-65: A quality coin, appearing almost perfect, minor flaws only appearing on later examination.
What are my old coins worth?
Although there are exceptions, most old coins are not particularly valuable unless they are very well-preserved. The best place to start is by making a trip to the reference section of your local library. There are a number of catalogues, some for specific countries. When in doubt the Standard Catalogue of World Coins or the Standard Catalogue of World Paper Money offer fairly complete lists of almost everything.
I have a dollar bill with the dates 1867-1967 instead of a serial number, what's it worth?
Those notes were printed in 1967 as part of the celebrations of the centennial of confederation. Many were hoarded as souvenirs and they can be bought for just a couple of dollars.
I understand older money is worth more than face value because of the silver content, is that true?
Canadian coins between 10 cents and $1 struck before 1968 are between 50 and 92 per cent silver, depending on the coin or year. They are worth a bit more than face value, depending on the price of silver. If coins are in good condition, the collector value may be even higher.
I have a coin that looks like somebody at the mint made a mistake, is it worth a lot of money?
Mistakes do happen, and some get past quality control. Most error coins are worth a small premium over face value, although some spectacular errors can be worth hundreds of dollars to the right collector.
Are there valuable coins in my change?
There may be a few. As we said above, error coins are usually worth a few dollars above face value, and there are a few rarities. Banknotes with an asterisk in the serial number are replacement notes, and may be worth a small premium. In 1991, only 459,000 25-cent coins were struck (usually the number is closer to 100 million). Many of those coins went into collections, but Mint State versions are worth about $8. There are also scarce versions of the 1973 25-cent and the 1969 10-cent coin. Check out a standard catalogue for more information.
I think that they forgot to put the date on this coin. Is it valuable?
Check both sides. In a number of cases, the RCM has either moved the date to the Queen side, or added a dual date on the Queen side.
What does that P stand for?
In 1999 the Mint began converting the circulating coins below $1 to plated steel planchets produced in their new plating facility. The new coins have a slight difference in weight and the vending industry requested a mark to make it easier for them to calibrate coin-operated machines. The P mint mark was chosen. In some years both P and no P mark coins have been made. In 2006 the Mint announced that the p mark would be discontinued and all circulating coins would have a new mint mark, regardless of metallic content. Which leads to….
What is that funny mark that looks sort of like an M in a circle?
That is a new mint mark, based on a simplified RCM logo inside a circle. Starting late in 2006 it will be put on all circulating Canadian coins.
Why are only some 1-cent and 5-cent coins attracted to a magnet?
As explained earlier, there has been a change in the metallic content of Canadian coins. Prior to using plated steel, the 5-cent coins were made of a non-ferrous cupro-nickel alloy and the cents were plated zinc cores. Some 1-cent coins are still being produced on zinc cores, depending on which is cheaper at the time.