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You may have a coin in your pocket—just a piece of ordinary change—that is worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
These days, plenty of these collectible coins are back in circulation, thanks to the popularity of automatic coin-counting machines that encourage people to gather up the old coins they have around the house and turn them into paper bills for spending. You can profit big by inspecting old coins—if you know which coins actually are worth much more than their face value.
In addition to searching through your own coin jar for the rare coins described below, make a habit of checking each time you are given change. People typically are able to find coins worth $10 to $50 fairly easily in their first year of collecting, while a coin valued in the hundreds or thousands of dollars can take several years of looking.
Example: Any dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollars minted in 1964 or earlier (when they still were made with 90% silver rather than little or no silver with a mix of copper and nickel) are worth more than face value. For instance, pre-1965 one-dollar coins are worth at least $15 and quarters are worth at least $3.
One way to start your search is by looking for the popular coins mentioned below.
1943 copper Lincoln penny is one of the most sought-after coins—about 40 have been found. That year, the US Mint switched to making pennies from zinc-coated steel instead of 95% copper/5% zinc and tin, but by mistake some copper pennies still were made, and those may be worth $25,000 to $100,000, or even $2 million in pristine condition. Helpful: Hold a magnet up to your 1943 pennies. If any aren’t attracted, you may have a very valuable find.
“Doubled-die” Lincoln penny. Look for noticeable doubling in the inscriptions “Liberty”…”In God We Trust”…and/or the date. Years include 1955 (estimated value: $1,000 and up)…1972 ($200 to $800)…and 1995 ($5 and up).
1984 and 1997 “double-ear” Lincoln pennies. A doubling during the minting process gave Abe Lincoln’s engraved portrait an extra earlobe. Estimated value: $25 to $250.
1964-D Jefferson nickel with misspelled motto. The middle word in “E Pluribus Unum” on the reverse side of the coin is spelled “Pluridus.” Estimated value: 50 cents to $25.
2005-D Jefferson nickel with a bison. In the valuable version, an engraving mistake makes it look as if a spear bisects the bison’s back and stomach. Estimated value: $50 to $1,200.
1982 no-P Roosevelt dime. Dimes produced at the Philadelphia Mint never carried a mint mark—a letter indicating where they were made—until 1980, when a small letter “P” was added on the lower right just above the date to signify Philadelphia. What to look for: 1982 dimes with no mint mark. Estimated value: $2 to $25.
2001-P double Statue of Liberty New York State quarter. Starting in 1999, the US Mint began minting a series of quarters with commemorative features from each of the 50 states on the reverse side. Although they are not very old, these coins are prized by collectors for their variety of mistakes. What to look for: The quarter commemorating New York sometimes displays a double image—two George Washingtons on the obverse (heads) side and two images of the Statue of Liberty on the reverse side. Estimated value: $25 to $1,500.
2005 Minnesota quarter of 10,000 mistakes. This is a play on the state’s nickname, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” because collectors have so far found more than 50 different versions of this coin with unique mistakes. The coin’s reverse side features a line of evergreen trees along a pristine lake. What to look for: In one version of this coin, an extra evergreen tree is floating in the air. Other versions have additional trees in different parts of the landscape. Estimated value: $5 to $150.
Kennedy half-dollar with missing initials. Engraver Frank Gasparro designed the reverse of this coin, which features the presidential coat of arms. He was permitted to place his initials, FG, just to the right of the eagle’s tail. What to look for: Some half-dollars made in 1966 and 1972 at the Denver Mint and in 1982 and 1989 at the Philadelphia Mint lack the initials. Estimated value: $5 and up.
“God-less” presidential dollar. For nearly 60 years, the motto “In God We Trust” has been required on US coins. But in 2007, the Mint started making a series of dollar coins to honor deceased US presidents and imprinted the date, mint mark and motto along the rim instead of the front or back. What to look for: An error on some coins with images of George Washington or John Adams (both issued in 2007) eliminated the lettering on the rim. Estimated value: $10 to $200.
HOW TO FIND EVEN MORE RARE COINS
If you are willing to scrutinize your coins more closely, there are more treasures to be found. How to proceed…
Scan the surfaces of a coin for mistakes. Start by inspecting the obverse side of the coin, paying attention to the date and mint mark (the letter signifying where the coin was minted, most commonly “D” for Denver, “P” for Philadelphia or “S” for San Francisco). Some of the most valuable errors, called doubled dies, occur in these features. The die is mistakenly struck twice in misaligned positions when a coin is made, leaving a faint ghost or double image of some or all of the letters or numbers.
Next, study the date, mint mark and mottos or inscriptions on the coin for typographical errors such as missing or reversed letters or numbers and letters spaced too far apart.
Finally, examine the reverse side for missing or unusual elements in the engraved designs. This is fairly common on a series of recent commemorative quarters that carry detailed engravings celebrating images from each of the 50 states, such as a bison or lake, on the reverse side of the coin.
Keep in mind that age may not be enough to impart great value to a coin. Example: Indian Head pennies, which were last minted in 1909, are commonly passed down as family heirlooms and thought to be worth a fortune. However, many are worth less than $10 because hundreds of millions of them were produced and they are very common.
To make coin details easier to see: Tilt the coin at various angles to the light. Purchase a small, 5x magnifying glass that you can clip onto your key chain—they are available at many drugstores and home centers.
Protect coins that you think are valuable in a “coin flip.” That’s a two-inch-by-two-inch plastic holder that you can purchase at hobby shops or online. Cost: Less than $10 for 50 flips. The condition and amount of wear on a coin play as significant a role in determining its value as its age or rarity. The same coin can be worth $5,000 or $50 depending upon its level of preservation.
Avoid putting valuable coins in jars with other coins where they are easily scratched or in plastic sandwich bags or cardboard containers because chemicals used in plastics and acids in cardboard can cause spotting and discoloration.
Important: Don’t clean a coin yourself in an attempt to improve its condition. Rubbing it with soap, steel wool or even a cotton swab can remove micron layers of metal from the coin, dull its luster and dramatically lower its value. Bring valuable coins to a professional who is qualified to handle them using special, nonabrasive, neutral solutions.
Rare coins can gain value with age. When you want to cash them in…
Get the coin graded and certified by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS.com). A coin certified by this highly respected organization can be compared with what similar certified coins have sold for recently. Typical cost of certification: $20 to $100.
If your coin or collection is valued at less than $250: Consider selling it yourself on eBay to save on dealer commissions.
If it is worth $250 to $10,000: Ask a PCGS-authorized dealer to sell it for you. The cost may be a percentage of the sale price (commonly from 5% to 10%) or a flat fee, which for a coin worth $10,000 could be $1,000.
If it is worth more than $10,000: Use an auction house such as Heritage Auctions (HA.com) or Stack’s Bowers Galleries (StacksBowers.com). But keep in mind that seller’s fees can be 15% of the value or higher.