The Virtues of Toned Coins

by Mark Salzberg
 

While grading is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in American numismatics, there is another issue that can lead to much discussion pro and con. This is the subject of toning on coins. It seems that every few years someone writes an article or letter to the editor attempting to warn collectors away from toned coins. This is usually answered almost immediately by a number of responses in defense of naturally toned coins. Even so, the long-term effect of negative articles on toning has been to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of many coin dealers and collectors. There are some who refuse to buy toned coins or do so reluctantly, and I believe this is a misguided policy.

 

Any experienced coin collector or dealer knows that most metals used for coining have a natural tendency to acquire toning over time. This is a completely natural process that occurs as atoms at the coin's surface interact with their environment, forming new compounds. The resulting veil refracts light according to its variable thickness, producing one or more colors within the visible light spectrum. These may appear in a uniform pattern, coloring the entire coin evenly, or they may produce intermittent blushes of color. Perhaps the most desirable toning is that which appears in concentric circles of distinctive colors. These typically emanate from the coin's border and reach toward its center, with the latter often remaining untoned or just lightly toned. While toning is not always so finely drawn, in many instances the beauty of such atmospheric action on a coin can be simply breathtaking.

 

The late Dr. William Sheldon, author of the book Penny Whimsy, knew well the appeal of natural toning on his beloved early cents, and he captured its allure in words: "Old copper, like beauty, appears to possess a certain intrinsic quality or charm which for many people is irresistible . . . copper seems to possess an almost living warmth and a personality not encountered in any other metal. You see the rich shades of green, red, brown, yellow, and even deep ebony; together with blendings of these not elsewhere matched in nature save perhaps in autumn leaves."
 
While Sheldon was speaking only of copper coins, it's true also that silver, nickel and, to a lesser extent, gold may likewise acquire attractive coloration over time. Again, this is not universal, as some coins become blotchy or spotted, but there are plenty examples of superb toning in the marketplace and such coins are eagerly sought by knowledgeable and experienced buyers.
 
Why then are so many collectors seemingly afraid of toned coins? There appears to be a predisposition in the United States coin market toward favoring untoned or "white" coins over those possessing rich coloration, and it simply doesn't make any sense. It's only natural that old coins, particularly silver pieces, acquire various degrees and shades of color over time. This is one of the most charming qualities of antique coins that distinguish them from more recent issues, and I believe collectors who don't already do so should learn to appreciate the virtues of toned coins.
 

In other areas of collectibles the value of natural toning, or patina, is widely understood. In fact, experts in antique furniture frequently extol the virtue of such original patina, and it often adds to the value of the object. Even collectors of toy trains or mechanical banks will agree that the original surfaces of a collectible item, no matter what its condition, are more desirable than any skilled attempt to replicate its appearance when new.

 

It's not surprising that persons new to collecting coins will consider a shiny example to be more appealing than one that appears aged. I suppose we all buffed our first coin acquisitions before placing them in our Whitman folders, but time and experience soon taught us that this is not the thing to do with coins. So then why do collectors still resist toned coins even when such pieces are so revered by experienced numismatists?
 
I believe the answer lies in the fact that some collectors and dealers perceive toning as a form of damage. Also, many are unable to distinguish original toning from so-called artificial toning, and that induces both suspicion and fear. Yes, people do induce toning on otherwise white coins for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it's simply to make the piece more natural looking, but there are also times when it's done to conceal harsh cleaning or some flaw in the coin such as hairline scratches or repairs. The fear of unknowingly acquiring these deceptive pieces seems to lie behind the resistance many collectors and dealers have toward toned coins.
 
That's where certification makes the difference. While the originality of a coin's color can be subjective, the experts at the various grading services usually know the difference between a naturally toned, original coin and one that has been altered in any way. Believe me, when it comes to "doctored" coins we've seen nearly everything, and that has only reinforced our appreciation of nice, original pieces. While encapsulated coins may not appeal to all collectors, no one is saying that you can't buy such coins for the assurance that they offer and then simply remove them from their holders. It's certainly better than having to rely on limited experience to determine whether a particular piece has a shady past.
 
While a coin that has very dark or otherwise unattractive toning may actually be improved by a skillful chemical dipping to remove the unsightly tarnish, many pieces are harmed through improper dipping. This is especially true when the work is being performed by someone who lacks either the knowledge or the inclination to do it properly. Such carelessness can lead to a coin that acquires unattractive spotting or staining over time, because the chemical was not thoroughly rinsed away. In addition, many coins are over-dipped, resulting in a loss of luster. This leaves a coin that has a very flat, lifeless look to it. Certification services come down hard on such coins, reflecting a coin market that places little value on impaired pieces. In contrast, an attractively toned coin may actually grade a bit higher than it would have otherwise, since nice toning is viewed in the marketplace as an asset.
 
Some coin types are more likely than others to tone attractively. While there are always exceptions to every rule, coins having more centralized devices tend to tone more symmetrically, as do those having very simple designs. For example, modern coins such as Roosevelt Dimes and Washington Quarters typically will acquire very nice toning. More complex coins, particularly those in which the devices are less well centered, frequently tone in an irregular pattern. A good example of this is the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, which tends to acquire unbalanced toning. Also seldom seen with rich and symmetrical toning are Peace Dollars. Though millions were stored by the U. S. Treasury in the same environment as Morgan Dollars, only the latter are commonly seen with desirable toning. In fact, a beautifully toned Peace Dollar is such a rarity that I don't believe the market truly appreciates this quality, clearly favoring brilliant over toned coins.
 
With the prevalence of certified and encapsulated coins in the current market, one doesn't see many high-grade collections being placed within albums anymore, as was the custom just twenty or thirty years ago. Largely unknown to the current generation of collectors and dealers is the power these cardboard albums held to turn white coins into splendidly toned beauties. Particularly noted for this attribute were the sulfur-rich albums manufactured by Wayte Raymond and his successors. Known variously as the National Album or the American Album, this line produced some of the finest toning seen on vintage silver coins. Some people are still acquiring these obsolete albums for the sole purpose of toning coins, though the results are not always predictable, and you proceed at your own risk. In any case, such toning takes years to develop, but there are evidently collectors willing to wait a decade or two to achieve the desired effect.
 
Certain coin types are notable for having particular forms of toning. For instance, many of the commemorative halves from the 1930s were mounted in cardboard holders and then placed within envelopes for delivery to their purchasers. These cardboard holders secured the coin by having a strip of paper projecting across the hole. The paper projection was cut so that it included a disc shape somewhat smaller than the coin. If left undisturbed for many years, the coins stored in such holders typically acquired a pattern of toning that mimicked the shape of this projection, or tab. For that reason, such coins are described as having "tab toning," and this feature is valued as an unmistakable sign of originality. Some of these holders were generic, being used for several different commemorative coin issues, while others were manufactured for specific coins. In either case, the resulting patina adds a dimension of aesthetic and historic value lacking in a coin that is brilliant.
 
It is this feature of toning that often adds a distinctive quality to coins, permitting them to rise above their peers. After all, there are thousands of 1942 Walking Liberty Halves in fully white, mint state condition, but how many are there with charming, original toning? Unfortunately, the population reports issued by certification services can't distinguish between toned and brilliant coins, with the sole exception of copper pieces. If it were possible to do this, I believe that many recent coins would prove to be quite scarce with nice toning. From my first-hand observation of thousands of coins monthly, I know this to be true.
 
Perhaps the most compelling reason to appreciate nice toning is this: Once removed, it may never reappear in the same manner. It takes many years for coins to tone naturally, though this process is accelerated in certain environments. The best toning occurs over a period of several decades, as witnessed by the superb coins seen in a number of prominent, old-time collections. For example, the Garrett Collection, assembled between the 1860s and 1942, was rich in splendidly toned copper and silver coins. The Eliasberg Collection, which included the former holdings of the Clapp Family, was a contemporary of the Garrett Collection, having been assembled between the 1880s and 1950. It too featured hundreds of stunningly toned coins, many of which were acquired directly from the U. S. Mints of manufacture when new. These were carefully set aside and never cleaned, permitting nature a free hand at providing them with gorgeous patinas.
 
It takes only a second or two to wipe away a lifetime of nature's splendid handiwork. The number of originally toned United States coins has dwindled over the past forty years, as a couple generations of collectors have been misled into believing that "brighter is always better." Unfortunately, no chemical or mechanical cleaning can ever make a coin look exactly as it did when new, and countless pieces have been irreparably harmed by unskilled attempts at cleaning.
 
At NGC, we recognize the appeal of both brilliant and toned coins, and each piece is evaluated on its merit, without prejudice for or against toning. But I believe that as values rise and the coin market becomes ever more sophisticated, originality will prove to be as important as luster in determining a coin's value. As with any endangered species, we have an obligation to preserve the natural character of such desirable pieces for future generations.
 
Mark Salzberg is President of Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America. He has been involved in numismatics for over 30 years. Mr. Salzberg may be contacted at NGC, P.O. Box 1776, Parsippany, NJ 07054 or by email at Msalzberg@NGCcoin.com
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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