Thoughts on Coin Conservation

Posted on 3/31/2011

Several of my very good friends in Lexington, Kentucky are involved in the restaurant industry...

Several of my very good friends in Lexington, Kentucky are involved in the restaurant industry. One fellow was CEO of Long John Silvers and later Churches Fried Chicken. Another owns and operates two very successful, upscale eateries. Occasionally we discuss topics of health and menu selections in their restaurants and others around the country. Both have told me on separate occasions that they are constantly pressured to offer healthy selections on the menu. The public demands it. Many state and local governments have gone so far as to require calorie totals on menus. But after putting healthy options on their menu, a great irony becomes apparent. These healthy alternatives do not sell: remember the McLean Burger? One of my friends tells me that despite his offering of great salads, etc., his best seller is the bacon cheeseburger!

You might wonder what this has to do with coin collecting. Ask any collector if they want a cleaned coin. They will most assuredly say “no”: They want original material. The facts, however, are similar to the situation illustrated above. Let’s say I offer two Morgan silver dollars for sale of the exact same date, mint mark, and grade and the only difference is that one is bright white and the other is lightly toned. The bright white example will sell five times faster than the original, lightly toned coin. Everyone wants original, bright white, uncleaned coins that are in many cases 150 years old. Some rare coins survive in this state of preservation, but not many. But there are safe and effective methods to remove light toning offered by professional conservators. Dealers who have a coin conserved are in most cases giving the public what they want.

Letters to the editor and message boards are filled with tirades on the issue of coin cleaning and the evils of conservation. These rants are ill-informed and lacking in a grasp of the facts. “Cleaning” and “conservation” describe very different processes but the terms are incorrectly used synonymously. Cleaning refers to the use of abrasives and/or chemicals that dramatically and irreversibly disrupt a coin’s surface, while conservation may only involve the removal of residues, grease, and sulfides from a coin’s surface. By removing potential harmful residue, professional coin conservation can stabilize the surface of a coin from deterioration and improve its appearance.

Additionally, much has been written in recent months about “coin doctoring” and the controversy surrounding it. This subject is confusing and disturbing to the average collector. Let’s examine the facts. First, coin conservation and coin doctoring are completely different. Coin doctoring has been defined as adding a foreign substance to the surface of a coin to enhance its appearance. This can be damaging to the coin in many ways and is a deceptive practice aimed at masking a coin’s true condition. Understandably, nobody wants to own a coin that has been enhanced in this manner. Proper coin conservation is effectively “anti-doctoring” because materials are removed from a coin’s surface allowing it to be assessed in an honest state.

Many years ago the subject of conservation and cleaning of rare coins was an unspoken secret in the rare coin industry. Everyone wanted bright white coins and gave little thought to how they got that way. Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS) brought the subject to forefront when they began to offer this service. They have worked hard in the last few years to educate the public about this complicated subject. NCS offers written material, information on its web site, and conducts seminars on grading and conservation. Coin conservation education is an ongoing process.

The Smithsonian Institution was faced with this learning curve a few years ago when it’s rare coin exhibit of over 40 years was taken down for storage and remounting. Surprisingly, museum standards of 40 years ago were to attach coins in an exhibit by placing a substantial wad of wax to the reverse and sticking the coins on the wall. This was done to even the most extreme rarities in the collection, including the 1849 and 1933 Double Eagles. Smithsonian curators and conservators had little or no knowledge about the subject of restoring rare coins. The museum reached out to NCS for expertise.

Experts at the Smithsonian studied the methods of conservation utilized by NCS for many months before giving approval. It’s not everyday that a $10,000,000 coin is conserved. The wax and other contaminates were removed from the 1849 and 1933 Double Eagles. Other great rarities in the National Collection have had wax removed as well. Later the coins were encased in a special NGC-developed museum holder to prevent future mishandling. Today, 200-300 of the greatest United States coins in the Smithsonian have been put into NGC holders. Hopefully, sometime in the future other coins, including world rarities, will be protected from potential mishandling as well.

Although coin conservation can sometimes be misunderstood, if utilized properly, it greatly enhances the value of a rare coin. We’re fortunate that these topics are discussed openly so that collectors can better understand their coins and why they look the way that they do. And more often then not, a blazing white gem is a very appealing coin – the bacon cheeseburger of numismatics that everyone wants!

Jeff Garrett bio


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