Is there perhaps a rusty tin or old shoebox in the closet with grandpa’s coin collection sitting somewhere in your house? Could there be a rare three-legged buffalo nickel worth a hundred or thousands resting amidst the old wheat pennies and bicentennial quarters. Most likely, that winning lottery ticket isn’t waiting inside but who doesn’t love a treasure hunt and a chance to dream. These long days of quarantine provide the perfect opportunity to dig out that old tin or box and see what is awaiting inside.

Is there gold in Ft. Knox? There wasn’t in this particular case.

Coins provide a glimpse into history and for those looking for educational opportunities during these times, I offer up the ideas of spending some time learning about the minting process or the distinguished people depicted on the face of those various coins.  One can also seek out the meaning behind commonly seen and used symbols.  A 1980 dollar coin provides a launch point to the women’s suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony. A 1943 Steel Penny opens the door to a discussion on the country’s mobilization for the war effort, ration books and the widespread impact the war had on the home front. Holding a Sacagawea dollar coin affords the opportunity to discuss Native American history and the numerous contributions made.  Depictions of the glorious bald eagle may spawn an assignment to research whether Ben Franklin (that guy who used to be on the $.50 piece) really lobbied for the turkey to be our national symbol or not.

Example of 1944 Steel Penny via Wikipedia

Or maybe you are lucky enough to find a particular favorite of mine, the “hobo nickel”, and take a trip back to the Great Depression era when wandering free spirits used the buffalo nickel’s large Indian Head depiction as a canvas for their own engraved masterpieces. These modified coins were traded or sold for favors, food and more as folks traveled the country in search of work and opportunity. Every coin you encounter provides a starting point for a journey of some type. The library provides access to many online encyclopedias and other research databases to start these educational journeys.  And for more ideas, visit the United States Mint’s website for lesson ideas, history, videos and more.

Before and After – The Buffalo Nickel was the perfect canvas for the Hobo artist – image from author’s collection

For those interested in grading and value of individual coins or sets, there are excellent sources available online. PCGS and NGC are two of the leading third party coin graders in the business. In addition to their fee-based professional grading services, each of their sites offers FREE helpful tools for coin valuation and condition assessment. As value is determined by a combination of rarity, demand and condition, having a good magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe on hand to provide assistance in helping to navigate some of the finer points between grades is a must. The difference in price between a coin graded good or very good to one graded very fine to excellent can be dramatic. While an amateur appraisal is very different from a professional one, having some approximate indication of a coins’ value allows you to show up prepared and informed should you go to sell a coin to a dealer or when assigning a fair price for private sale.

The PCGS website also provides the Photograde tool which offers visual depictions of representative coins in numerous states of condition to help you determine the grade of a particular coin.

Example of Photograde comparison of coin via

As many coins were produced using silver or gold, having an idea of a coin’s melt value is also an important consideration.  Less rare coins in poorer conditions may have more value in the precious metal market than in the collector market.  NGC provides up to date melt values on their site as does the site Coinflation, where it also provides a handy calculator feature.

So good luck in your pursuits.  If you come across a coin you are unable to identify, library staff are available via chat reference.  We’ll be happy to try and help you out.

Paul Duryea is the Branch Manager of the Covington Library and an amateur coin collector.

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