How much is my coin worth?

Many collectors have come across a particular coin from time to time and wondered whether they had something of great value in their possession. As a matter of fact the age old question "How much is this coin worth?" is probably the most frequently asked question about coins by non-collectors today. In order to assess what your coins are worth, you have to take into account a number of factors or even seek advice from experienced coin collectors. Remember, however, that the mere fact that a coin does not have significant monetary value does not mean that it is not interesting or that it should not form part of your collection.

The factors influencing the value of a coin are the following: rarity, demand, supply, age, condition, and other external factors. Any of these factors can be significant in itself, or it may require some help from one of the other factors. A coin could be common in low grades, indicating a low rarity, but very rare in high grades making it what is called a condition rarity. In such a case, the value of the coin makes a great jump in price as it moves from a lower grade to a higher grade.

Age

Age doesn't always increase the value of a coin. It actually has little effect on it, as there are many coins from the last 20 years or so that are much more valuable than coins from 2,000 years ago. For example, given the choice between a 2,000 year old Roman denarius or a U.S. $20 Gold piece, most non-numismatists will pick the Roman coin as being worth more. Hoever, the U.S. $20 Gold piece is worth considerably more than the Roman denarius.

Scarcity or rarity

Scarcity or rarity is a major determinant of value. The rarity of a coin relates to the number of examples that have survived over time. As a general matter, the rarer a coin the more it is worth. Because a high mintage figure doesn't necessarily translate into a low rarity, collector's should not rely on mintage figures alone to determine the rarity of a particular coin. Also note that rarity has little to do with the age of a coin. Many one thousand year old Chinese coins often sell for no more than a few dollars because there are a lot of them around, whereas a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel may sell for over $1,000,000 because there are only five known specimens in existence.

Rarity Scale

A convention for designating the rarity of a coin, such as Sheldon's system (with values such as R1 for common pieces and R6 for extremely rare specimens) and the Universal Rarity Scale invented by Alan Herbert (with designations such as URS3). The often used Sheldon scale is:

  • R8 = 1-3 known (estimated), "Unique or Nearly Unique"
  • R7 = 4-12 known, "Extremely Rare"
  • R6 = 13-30 known, "Very Rare"
  • R5 = 31-75 known, "Rare"
  • R4 = 76-200 known, "Very Scarce"
  • R3 = 201-500 known, "Scarce"
  • R2 = 501-1250 known, "Uncommon"
  • R1 = over 1251 known, "Common"

Oddly enough, coins that contain mistakes are often the most valued. Mistakes don't happen too often and are quickly caught so if a coin makes it into circulation with a mistake it can be worth a lot. The first version of the Italian 500 lira issued in 1997, depicted the map of Europe and Germany divided into East and West Germany. The coins circulated for a couple of months before the government decided to withdraw them, replacing them with new ones depicting Germany as a united country. If you owned such a coin, it would be unwise to return it!

Condition or grade

The condition or grade of the coin will influence its value. The better the condition a coin is in, the higher will be its assigned grade and the more it will be worth. An uncirculated coin that is in flawless mint state might be worth hundreds times more than the same coin in good condition but which has been circulated.

Grade - One of several terms summarizing the overall condition of a coin or other numismatic item. It describes the amount of wear that a coin has received and the less it is, the more valuable it is generally. Two popular grading guides are Photograde and the ANA Grading Guide. Both use a scale system from 1 to 70 measuring coins from About Good -3 to Mint State Uncirculated- 70.

Bullion value

Many coins have a bullion value determined by the value of the precious metals it contains. A gold, silver or platinum coin does not generally sell for much less than its melt value. Naturally, coins that contain high amounts of gold and silver are more valuable than coins containing copper, nickel, or zinc. However, a rare copper coin can be worth more than many common silver coins.

Demand

The demand for the particular coin, or how many collectors want it, will also greatly influence a coin's value. High demand increases values and low demand hurts values. Some coins that are relatively plentiful may command higher prices than scarcer coins because the former are more popular with collectors. For example, there are over 400,000 1916 D dimes in existence as compared to only about 30,000 1798 dimes. However, even though the 1798 dime is much rarer than its 1916D counterpart, the 1916D coin sells for significantly more. This is because many more people collect early 20th century mercury dimes than dimes from the 1700's.

However, demand can be very fickle. A series that is in demand today can go out of favor tomorrow. Demand can also be artificial. With rare coins, it really doesn't take much to run up the price. For this reason, a collector should do some research to see how the price has trended over the past year or two. Has there been an unusual spike in the price or has the price remained fairly stable? The main idea for demand is that "one man's trash is another man's treasure". If there is a high demand for the coin at the time you're trying to sell it, you will get a good price for it.

Coins go in and out of style just like fashions. If there isn't a high demand for the coin, it may just be out of favor at the moment or there may be some other reason (too common, weak metal content, poor design, etc). If it's just a matter of current taste, hold onto the coin until the market is better for it. If there's a reason why the coin isn't popular there's not much you can do. Coins made with precious metals tend to fluctuate the most; it really takes an expert to judge the market accurately and decide when's the best time to sell or buy. If in doubt for any reason, get an expert opinion.

Determine the value of your coins

To determine a coin's approximate value, you will have to:

  • Accurately and properly identify the coin. There is a number of widely circulating Standard Catalogs of world coins which you can buy on-line.
  • Grade the coin based on a careful observation of its condition.
  • Look the coin up in a coin catalog to find listed estimated retail selling prices for your coin. For United States coins, use A Guide Book of United States Coins by R.S. Yeoman, commonly called "The Red Book" by collectors and dealers. For World coins, the most widely used guide is a series of volumes called The Standard Catalog of World Coins by Krause and Mishler
  • For more current prices, based on what dealers are actually selling the particular coin for, you should check coin newspapers and magazines or auction sites, such as eBay