Most people with coin collections amass them deliberately, carefully selecting collectible coins over a period of time. But it is possible to end up with a coin collection that you didn’t create yourself. Maybe you inherited it or won it in a storage auction. However it happened, you may now be asking yourself, “What do I do with this?”

You can keep the coin collection and add to it yourself. Or you can sell it, either piece by piece or as a set. But first, you need to figure out what you have and what kind of value it might have. And you need to do it without damaging any potentially valuable coins in the process. Take a look at some tips that can help you get started.

Coin Handling Basics

It’s easy to think of coins as being far more durable than paper money, and you’re probably not used to taking any special care with the coins in your pockets or purse. This can lead you to be less than careful when handling a coin collection.

But despite the durability of metal coins, it’s easy to lessen their value when you don’t handle them carefully. The oils on your fingers can damage the finish, as can chemicals in certain types of coin holders. It’s also easy to scratch metal coins — even if you can’t see the scratches yourself, an appraiser with a loupe can spot them, and they will lessen the coin’s value.

That’s why it’s important to take the proper precautions. You should wear cotton gloves when handling coins from your collection, and avoid touching them with your bare hands. When you do need to handle your coins, try to hold them only by the edges and avoid touching the faces of the coins.

If some of the coins in the collection are in protective holders, leave them where they are unless it’s impossible to examine the coin without removing them. If you need to purchase coin holders for loose coins, choose archival-quality holders that do not contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as the chemicals can cause discoloration over time.

You should also handle coins over a soft cloth or pad. This will help prevent your coin from becoming damaged if you happen to drop it.

To Clean or Not to Clean?

If your collection contains very old coins, or if it just hasn’t been well-maintained and cared for, you may find coins that seem to be in need of cleaning. However, it’s best to avoid the temptation to start cleaning your coins.

Even if you have a rare and valuable coin, cleaning it can cut its value in half. What may look like unwanted tarnish on the surface of the coin is actually called patina. Metal naturally develops this patina over time, and to coin collectors, it only adds to the authenticity, and therefore the value, of the coin.

What’s more, the materials that are commonly used to clean coins, from baking soda to jeweler’s rouge, tend to be abrasive and can damage the surface of the coin. Not only can these materials leave tiny scratches on the surface, they can also scrub small pieces of metal off the coin. This means that cleaning the coin could erase identifying marks that can contribute to the coin’s value.

There are rare cases where a coin does need to be cleaned—when it’s crusted with dirt or corrosion, for example. But even in these cases, it’s best to leave the cleaning to an expert who can perform the cleaning without damaging the coin. Don’t try it yourself.

Understanding Coin Grading

Once you know how to safely handle your coins, you can begin to take an inventory to get an idea of what kind of value your collection has. You’ll get the most accurate valuation from a coin appraiser, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to get a rough idea for yourself before spending money on an appraisal.

Identifying your coins won’t be as difficult as you may think at first. You can find databases online or check out books from the library that can help you identify the coins in your possession. What you may find more difficult to determine is the grade of your coin.

The coin’s grade is a description of the coin’s condition, and there are many possible levels to choose from. Coin grades are ranked on a scale from 1 to 70. A 70 is a flawless, mint condition coin that’s never been circulated, while a 1 is a coin that’s so degraded and damaged that it’s difficult to identify.

You may not be able to pinpoint exactly what grade the coins you’re looking at are, but familiarizing yourself with the grading scale can help you make an educated guess. For example, you may not be sure whether your coin is a 25 or a 35 on the 1-70 scale, but since both of those grades are in the Very Fine range, knowing that the coin falls somewhere in that range can help you estimate what it might be worth.

Once you know what you have in your collection, it will be easier to decide how to proceed. Whether you decide to add to your collection or sell it, an expert service that buys and sells coins, such as Rocky Mountain Coin, can help you decide on your next steps.