Glean before you clean when unearthing coins

Ontario residents dig up token, coin 

By Jesse Robitaille

Who knows what’s under all that dirt?

That’s the question being asked by many interested collectors following two separate numismatic discoveries that were reported in Canadian media outlets on the same day this July. For collectors, it’s exciting to consider what treasures could be found beneath the Earth’s surface.

But that same question is also being asked by experts like Sean Isaacs, CCN Trends editor and owner of Alliance Coin and Banknote, who says it’s wise to determine exactly what it is you’ve found in the ground before doing any cleaning. Once a coin is found, Isaacs, said the first thing to do is determine what’s underneath all the dirt and corrosion; only then should one move ahead with cleaning.


On July 6, the Alliston Herald reported local resident Dan Morris recently made an unexpected discovery after digging in the front yard of his home by hand rather than with the help of a contractor.

“Sometimes when you’re in the dirt doing the job, you find treasures,” Morris told the Herald.

After cleaning his discovery with “HP Sauce and a toothbrush” for a number of days, Morris determined he found a nearly 160-year-old token that was issued by the Bank of Upper Canada in 1857.

Meanwhile, about 320 kilometres away, in Essex County, Ont., Robb Meloche unearthed an 80-year-old commemorative coin celebrating Chrysler’s first decade in auto manufacturing. CBC News reported Meloche and his 10-year-old daughter found the coin in about 15 centimetres of dirt under a tree in his yard. Using his metal detector, he unearthed the coin dated 1924 on one side and 1934 on the other.

Meloche told CBC he cleaned the dirt off but “couldn’t really see what the date was” despite using the multi-purpose cleaner CLR. Finally, after looking on the Internet, he was advised human saliva would do the trick.

“So that’s what I did, and when I did that, I started to see the date,” Meloche told CBC. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”


Because the mantra usually heard coming from the mouths of numismatists is “don’t clean coins”, these methods of cleaning might cause some to cringe; however, Isaacs said there are some ways to clean unearthed coins like the ones found in Ontario last month.

Whenever someone unearths a coin, he said his advice remains the same regardless of the situation.

“Caution is the rule of the day, and once value is determined, you can go ahead with cleaning or storing,” said Isaacs. “If it’s a pre-Confederation token, it’s a good idea to have it looked at before cleaning it. Conversely, if someone finds a British large penny, which is a pretty common piece, there are a couple home remedies someone could use to make it cleaner.”

However, Isaacs said, first thing’s first: identifying the coin you’ve found before attempting to restore it.

“We say never clean a coin, but in some cases – like with a copper piece – they can be cleaned, but you do want to try to identify the value first because it could be quite devastating otherwise,” he said, adding it’s wise to determine the rarity of a piece as well.

Once you know what you’ve found, Isaacs said, you can decide whether to clean it or not. The method you use will depend on what you’ve found and where you’ve found it. What’s more, how it’s cleaned will be determined by the piece itself, such as the metals and alloys used to produce it.

“For example, actual dirt can simply be rubbed of with a soft sponge,” he said, adding it’s best to avoid anything with abrasive bristles. “A bit of a soak and sponging off can do wonders, but you don’t want to clean it excessively to the point where you lose that contrast. It can hurt eye-appeal.”

And it’s important to use a soft brush, he added, because even toothbrushes can damage some coins.

“Soft brushes and Q-Tips are good for dislodging dirt and applying pressure without scratching, but if you scrub a rare blacksmith token, which aren’t struck well anyways, it could be totally removed.”

Corrosion is another issue altogether, Isaacs said.

“I’ve used certain commercial dips with devastating results, so you do have to be a little bit cautious,” he said, adding he hadn’t heard of the HP Sauce method, “but given its acidic nature, it probably has some cleaning properties.”


Isaacs said as far as he’s aware, there are no laws that limit the unearthing of coins in Canada.

“Unlike in some European countries, if you’re in a public area and have permission to search, I don’t think there are any laws that say the government gets first crack at found material,” he said. “I think certain significant material, like Indian chief medals, have some limitations, but I don’t think there are laws against keeping found coins.”

Isaacs said he personally found some commemorative tokens while searching Quebec’s Magdalen Islands with a team of numismatists.

“Sometimes finding a simple thing provides the most thrill. Knowing it was there since pre-Confederation times makes an unexciting coin all the more exciting. If I wasn’t afraid of water, I’d be in the ocean looking with my metal detector,” he said, adding he has “quite a few customers” who use metal detectors to search for coins.

And while Meloche told CBC he had only used his metal detector about 15 times, he has found many things, including “pennies and other random junk metal.” What’s more, he told The Windsor Star he also found an old lead toy that he has since misplaced.

“You never think you’d find something like that in your backyard,” Meloche told CBC, adding he’s been watching other Chrysler tokens listed for sale on eBay, one of which sold for $2 US and another that fetched $38 US.

Although he’s not required to do so, Meloche said he’s considering giving the coin to the Canadian Transportation Museum in Kingsville, Ont., lest he lose it like he did the toy.

“If I keep it here, it’ll probably get lost,” he told The Windsor Star.

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