Appraising a Coin Collection - Aspiriant Wealth Management

Appraising Dad’s Coin Collection

We all have them. Whether they’re jingling in your pocket, filling a jar, or just lying around the house, have you ever wondered, “Is this coin worth more than face value?” I recently had that experience while cleaning out my late father’s apartment. I found a vintage candy box with dozens of old silver dollars, dated from 1886 to 1927 and a bunch of pennies, roughly in the same date range.

For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for investing, in large part thanks to Dad. He once showed me how $10 grew to $20, if you opened a savings account that paid 5% interest. (Yes, that was the rate back in the 1970’s!)

Back to the coins. Dad wasn’t really an active collector. I recall him showing me the box just once when I was about 12 years old. The silver dollars were a high school graduation gift. The old pennies were my grandmother’s; Dad got them when she passed.

Clearly, my fascination with the value of money was growing as another item I found at Dad’s place was a sheet of paper in my handwriting. I had painstakingly listed out every silver dollar (all of them were either Morgan or Peace dollars) with an estimate of its value at that time. Of course, since there was no internet back then, I must have checked out a book at the library to research each coin’s value — how very Young Sheldon of me.
John's early coin estimate

Dad bequeathed the coins to me and my two younger sisters, so I volunteered for the task of getting the best price possible and splitting the proceeds equally with them.

Do your homework

Now in the 21st Century, I started my research online — Google searches, eBay, coin appraisers, and so on. Once I had digested that information, I went from the virtual world to the real world, meeting with several collectors and dealers. Their estimates were all roughly the same, except for one lowball offer and one from a private collector who was on the high end of the range. However, when I followed up with him by email, he wrote back that he was ill and would get back to me in a couple of days. Despite a couple of emails from me, I never heard back from him again. (#ghosted)

The next highest bidder was the owner of a coins and collectibles shop in Pawtucket, R.I. The proprietor was great. He noted that someone had tried to clean a couple of the coins and left fine scratches on them. However, whenever a coin was borderline as to whether it was worth $26 or $28, on multiple occasions I heard him say to himself, “We’ll let it slide,” meaning he was giving me the higher price.

I had estimated that all the coins in total were worth approximately $1,500. I sold them to the proprietor for $1,427. Not bad for about $50 in face value!

Ironically, the single biggest item wasn’t a coin. It was a steel-engraved, 1917 $1 bill, tri-folded and placed in a small cardboard display case, with an oval cut out of the front so you could see George Washington. There was some writing on the back of the display that leads me to believe that it was a promotional giveaway when you opened a new account at a bank that is long since gone. It was obvious that the bank had folded the bill to fit inside the display. The proprietor gave me $70 for the whole thing. He said that if the bill didn’t have the creases, we would have been talking hundreds of dollars. Oh well.

On a side note, I told the store owner about the private collector who ghosted me. He replied, “Oh, that’s Fred (not his real name). Stay away from him — he’s bad news.” Lesson learned: Be sure to research your appraisers and buyers. Ask friends, family or even your wealth manager if they have a recommendation.

Value appreciation

Collecting coins is a fun pastime and relatively easy to invest in. And like with any financial investment, time usually works to your advantage.

Cleaning out Dad’s place with my sisters was a sad duty, but we did come across some fun finds — old pictures, report cards, lots of New England Patriots swag. (He was a season-ticket holder since 1985.) When sorting through a loved one’s estate after they die, just be sure to factor in the full value of what they left behind — including sentimental value. In this case, I didn’t have as strong feelings about the coin collection as I did about the collector.

My marching orders from Mom, who predeceased Dad, were to “pay as little as possible in taxes and split the rest evenly between you and your sisters.” Dad’s estate probably won’t settle until early next year, but my sisters and I are doing our best to honor their wishes. Our plan is to get together once it’s settled and toast Mom and Dad for the incredible legacy they left us.