To dip or not to dip…that is sometimes the question!
Posted on 7/5/2012
Much has been written about the subject of so-called “coin doctoring” in the last couple of years. I don’t like this term, as it suggests there is an evil element in the numismatic world trying to destroy our hobby. I don’t believe this is true. The subject has been much discussed and even the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) struggled for many months trying to define the problem. One thing that has been clarified is that “dipping a coin” is not “coin doctoring.” Nearly everyone has heard the term “dipping” but many probably don’t know the exact definition. It falls into the general category of rare coin conservation and most certainly is an interesting subject to discuss, especially for non–professionals.
For most, the term “dipping” refers to dipping a coin into a rather mild silver cleaner. There are several brands, but the most commonly used is Jewel Luster. This product has been on the market for decades. It is the bright blue solution familiar to anyone who has been around coins for a while. I have heard that Jewel Luster is actually not blue, but blue dye is added to discourage individuals from exposing their skin to the solution for prolonged periods. If you know someone with blue finger tips—which, believe me, I have seen plenty of—now you know the reason. I’m not sure of the long term health hazards of Jewel Luster, but any negative news on this topic would be of great concern to a large number of coin dealers that I know. It is highly recommended to use rubber gloves and work in a well ventilated area when dipping coins.
Many of you may wonder why individuals dip coins in the first place. The simple answer is the “market demand” for frosty white silver coins. Sometimes, you read Letters to the Editors in numismatic magazines howling about the evil act of coins being cleaned. Nearly all totally condemn the practice, and tout the virtues of fully original coins. The problem is most rare coin buyers prefer frosty white coins to deeply toned coins.
There are three basic types of appearances for silver coins. The most desirable is a beautifully toned example. Attractive toning varies greatly and can be a matter of personal taste. Beautifully toned Morgan Silver Dollars can bring astronomical prices, and there is even a specialty club devoted to such coins. I would estimate that less than 10% of all vintage Mint State silver coins have survived with what would be considered beautiful or attractive toning. Next are the coins that are frosty white, or nearly white. Most silver coins that are more than 100 years old have some sort of natural toning if they have not been dipped. Frosty white coins probably make up about 20–30% of all silver coins seen. The remaining 60–70% have some sort of natural toning acquired over the years. The appearance of these coins varies greatly. Many have light, golden toning, and I have seen some that were almost black in appearance. The varied appearances are a primary reason that rare coins of the same grade can vary greatly in price.
By reading the above commentary, one could easily assume that the simple answer to getting the most money for a toned coin would be to dip it. Unfortunately, it is not that simple! In fact, it is not even close to simple! Just as there are many varieties of toning there are many possible outcomes of dipping a coin. Dipping an expensive coin can be an exciting or terrifying experience. It is much like buying an extremely expensive scratch off lottery ticket. A moderately toned silver coin can be dipped and turn out to be a sparkling Gem. Sometimes though, the resulting dip will reveal dull surfaces, environmental damage, scratches, hairlines, or other hidden damage and repair. The temptation to dip a dull or dirty coin can be great, but the practice is rife with risk. I have personally seen great success and brutal failures. A friend of mine paid over $100,000 for a 1901–S Barber Quarter around 1989. The coin was purchased raw and subsequently submitted for grading. The coin had natural, but rather unexciting, golden toning. It came back MS 66, and was not worth the six–figure purchase price which was paid for it. This particular dealer is famously unafraid of risk and dipped the coin! The result was one of the most spectacular Gems of the issue known. Upon resubmission, the coin graded MS 68 and was sold for a tidy profit. On the other end of the scale, I still have a Monroe Half Dollar that I purchased for over $5,000 around 1990. The coin looked to be a great prospect for dipping and I took the chance. A wide streak of grey environmental damage was revealed that I had not seen. I still have this miserable failure in my collection of hard–learned lessons (along with a few missed fakes).
Trying to predict the potential for success or failure before dipping a coin is very difficult. At the end of the day dipping almost always carries some degree of risk. I have seen about as many coins ruined as I have seen improved over the years. The practice will continue, however, as the market applies a premium to coins with frosty, white surfaces. The next time you are tempted, remember the risk, and get a second opinion, if possible. NGC has worked hard over the years trying to help collectors and dealers with this complicated issue. I applaud them for opening an affiliated company, Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS), and bringing an enhanced degree of professionalism to this subject. Hopefully, this article has given some clarity to an issue that many find mystifying.
Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.