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Tools of the Modern Numismatic Trade
By Alan Herbert
May 17, 2012

Excerpted from Warman’s U.S. Coin Collecting by Alan Herbert, available from

The most important tool for collecting coins is a magnifier lens: Every coin collector needs at least one magnifier.

A magnifier is rated by the increase in size of the image. A 1-power magnifier will show you a correctly sized image. A 10X magnifier will show the image 10 times larger than normal. “X” in this case means “times.”

You should never examine a coin just with the unaided eye, whether buying or selling. The mark of the experienced collector is the magnifier hanging from a lanyard around his neck. Magnifiers come with glass or plastic lenses. It’s quite worthwhile to spend the extra money on glass, as a good lens will last you a lifetime. I use a 14X lens that I bought in 1967 and there is not a scratch on the lens, despite a dozen trips to the floor.

Warman's U.S. Coin Collecting
Warman's U.S. Coin Collecting

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As a collector, you need a low power lens for looking at multiple coins, plus a stronger lens to investigate something you spotted. A low power usually lets you see all of the coin, while a higher powered one may only show you something the size of the date.

Obviously, a lens allows you to see more. That extra viewing power comes in handy when you suspect a coin of being a counterfeit, or an altered or doctored coin. The more coins you look at – and really see – the easier it will be to spot the problem coins. Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of coins that appear bright and shiny to the unaided eye, but under magnification reveal that they have been buffed or polished or even sand blasted to create that bright finish.

I have done a lot of authentication work in the past and I was fortunate enough to have a stereomicroscope given to me. This turned out to be invaluable in my work and I took thousands of pictures through it. If you have access to a microscope, it becomes an indispensable tool for authentication or research work. If you have some cash available, a good stereomicroscope will cost a minimum of $300.

For coins you need a stereo model with a 20X to 40X range. Anything over that, such as the 1200X scopes commonly found in schools, is overkill and useless for coins. With 60X you can find something “wrong” with almost every coin.

When using a strong hand lens or a microscope, turn and tilt the coin to get the light from different angles. This will expose such common problems as light, or reflection doubling, caused by the light bouncing off a shiny coin. It will also help you catch defects, doctoring or maybe even some hub doubling, which in some instances can increase the value of a coin. A handy trick for your microscope is to invert a plastic cup with a fl at bottom and put the coin on that. It allows you to turn the coin without touching it, cutting the handling down to a minimum.

Another handy tool that will safely handle coins is a pair of plastic coin tongs. They are made with jaws that contact a minimum of the edge of the coin so they are quite safe to use.

A must for the serious collector is a scale. Weighing a coin will tell you far more than cutting or scratching it. I have two scales. One is a Redding gunpowder scale, which uses grains rather than ounces, from 500 down to 1/10th of a grain, which is plenty for coins. They are available from any dealer who has reloading equipment for sale. The other is an Ohaus balance scale that is even more accurate and has provisions for running specific gravity tests – another research tool.

Between the two scales I can solve many of the coin problems that come across my desk. There are also electronic scales that will fit in your shirt pocket, invaluable at a coin show.

You should make it a practice to weigh each coin before adding it to your collection. It will easily catch some of the more flagrant counterfeit coins. The odds are that you already have a computer so this would not be an added expense. There is very usable software available to catalog your collection and some even will connect to a pricing source. If you have a digital camera you can store copies of your coins.

If you prefer not to get software for these tasks, you can always use the word processor you already have, as that has search capabilities that make it easy to use. I have been using WordPerfect software for this purpose for nearly three decades.

A good heavy-duty stapler is a must. You will be doing a lot of stapling on cardboard 2x2 holders and it takes some force to drive the staple through two layers. I have one that came from a government surplus sale that has served faithfully for many years.

Keep staples as far away as possible from the coin.

You will also need a pair of needle nose pliers to flatten the legs of the staples, to avoid damage to other coins. Some dealers seem to make a game of seeing how close they can come to the coin with the staples, a dangerous game you don’t want to play. The staples are a threat and the overhang of the stapler may damage the coin.

An inexpensive protractor is useful, especially when you find a coin with the reverse rotated out of its normal position.

Don’t forget a good light. Highly recommended is one of the goose-neck or swing-arm lamps that clamp on the edge of a table or desk and that you see at every coin show. For nearly all work a 60-watt bulb will do the trick, but some may prefer a 100-watt, especially for photography.

There are also halogen lights that are useful. Some photographers prefer them, but the regular incandescent bulbs will do the job. One warning: avoid florescent lights, as they tend to distort what you see on the coin.

Metal detectors are often touted as a coin collecting tool, but the unfortunate fact is that nearly all the coins recovered with detectors are corroded to the point of being valueless to the collector. I can cite examples of collectible coins, but they are definitely a minority.

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On May 19, 2012 Hank Carlson said
I have found a 1972 Kennedy half dollar. When I was looking at it, I flipped it over. The rotation on the reverse oz at about 10:00. Its on ms condition. Do you think I souls send it to NGC. Also wondering would that error make it more valuable? What do you think.
On May 19, 2012 Guy Harrell said
The author suggests needle nose pliers. I have found the electrician's pliers work better because they have broad, flat jaws with which you can flatten both legs of the staples in one squeeze.
On November 12, 2012 W. Harrison said
The author suggests needle nose pliers to flatten staples. I use to do this myself, while effective it does take a lot of time and care. I have found (especially at local shows or coin shops) you can find a stapler that will flatten the staples as you go in one motion. Saving time and is much safer. However do take into consideration the quality of staples as he suggests it does take a bit of effort for the staple to penetrate the 2x2 coin holder. So use a high quality brand, it is worth the extra expense.

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