By James Church on January 26, 2022Reading Time: 5 minutes
This article will explain the basics of identifying potentially rare and valuable United States coins in your pocket change, providing a beginner’s guide to coins that may be found in current circulation. It is hoped that this brief guide will help you realise a profit from any unusual coins which might just be jangling in your pocket!
Learn how to identify collectible coins that may be in your pocket
Gain methods for assessing the rarity of coins you might find in circulation
Find out how you could realise far more than face value from your change
The dollar system of coinage for the United States Dollar has remained broadly unchanged since 1792: dollar ($1), half-dollar (50ȼ), quarter (25ȼ), dime (10ȼ) and the cent (1ȼ, or a ‘penny’). Two of the key changes have been the removal of precious metal content after 1964 and the introduction of smaller cent coins, which took their present dimensions in 1864. Therefore, it is always worth checking your change as there is a chance that older valuable United States coins may slip into your wallet. However, they are very unlikely to be from before the early 1900s!
The mintage (number of coins produced) is a key factor in determining value. Coins of any given denomination, mint (e.g. those marked ‘S’ for the San Francisco mint) or year will vary in the numbers produced. Those of low mintage will generally command a premium as fewer coins created leads to fewer available to collectors. A second key factor are error coins, where a standard coin has been produced with unintended variations. These subjects will be discussed further below.
Standard reference books are an essential source for information. The most widely used is The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins (a.k.a. the ‘Red Book’), edited by Q. David Bowers, which has been published annually since 1946.
PCGS publish articles on coin collecting and also hold pricing data for graded (professionally assessed and encapsulated) coins. However, Ken Potter and Brian Allen’s book Strike it Rich with Pocket Change is focused upon valuable coins in circulation today rather than including historical coins too (a huge subject!).
It is also beneficial to search for similar coins being sold at internet auctions, specialist auctioneers and with private dealers to gain a sense of current prices. Remember, a dealer will sell a coin for significantly more than they would offer you to permit themselves a profit!
Error coins are a specific collecting category and the values of different errors are detailed in Alan Herbert’s The Official Price Guide to Mint Errors. A basic price guide for common error coins is listed by CoinSite.
Firstly, check that it is indeed genuine! Fakes do exist and even a genuine coins may have been tampered with to resemble a rarity. The US Mint provide authoritative data on the coins which they produce. Seeking an opinion from a reputable collectibles auctioneer or dealer is a sensible move.
Amongst the most recognisable collectible coins that may appear in your pocket are earlier designs of familiar denominations. Two of the most common are:
In each case, there are key rarities or varieties which command higher prices.
The mintmarks denote the mint at which a particular coin was made. For instance, coins marked “D” were issued by the branch mint in Denver. A particularly rare coin from this mint is the 1939-D “Jefferson” Nickel: a ‘key date’ due to the lowest mintage in the series (3,514,000).
In the past, the mintmarks were added separately by the branch mints. Mis-aligned, overlaid or missing mintmarks provide a further area of interest for collectors of error coins which is worthy of further study.
Silver coins are worth more than ‘face value’ (the amount as stated on the coin). Before 1965, all half dollars, quarters and dimes were minted with 90% silver. Rising silver prices would result in coins being worth more than their face value, so the silver content was replaced with base metal after 1964.
As the half dollars, quarters and dies in regular use today are the same size (although they weigh less and have different designs), it is possible that silver coins may be mixed amongst the coins circulating today. Any of these coins minted before 1964 are worth setting aside as silver bullion. The half dollars continued to contain 40% silver until 1970.
The identical size and similar style of these coins to those used today means some find their way back into circulation. The most common types of silver coin you may find are:
Most of these coins will be in a ‘circulated’ condition (worn through years of use) and so will be valuable as bullion (precious metal) rather than as specimen coins. Those which remain ‘uncirculated’ (without noticeable wear) may command a substantial premium in value.
During the Second World War, a shortage of nickel (a metal required by wartime industry) forced the US Mint to change the composition of the nickel (5ȼ) coin to include 35% silver. Most nickels produced from 1942 to 1945 are worth substantially more than face value due to this silver content.
Rare errors often command a high price. Generally, the more noticeable the error, the higher the value. Familiarise yourself with the famous error coins and keep an eye out for anything unusual. A penny can be worth far more than a cent!
The process of coin production is detailed by the US Mint. Errors are broadly classified into three types according to the minting process:
A planchet is a plain metal disk with a rim ready for minting. For example: the 1943 “Lincoln” copper penny is famous as a small proportion of that year’s coins were minted from copper when wartime shortages required the substitution of copper for steel in pennies as an economy measure. The coin grading service PCGS keeps records of examples sold at auction, with the record an incredible $372,000!
A die is the stamp used to impose the image upon the planchet. For example: the 1955 double die “Lincoln” Penny is one of the most famous die errors. The doubling up of the image, date and inscriptions is clear. Prices listed by PCGS range from $1000 to a record $24,000 in mint condition.
The strike is the process by which the die hits the planchet to create the coin. For example, when the die is not properly centred upon the planchet, a lop-sided coin is produced.
There are many possible errors in the minting process, making this a rewarding collecting category. Some errors are difficult to spot so take time to learn what to look for.
There are many possibilities in your pocket change! Finding a famous rarity in your wallet may be a remote possibility but the potential financial benefits mean it is worth casting an eye over the coins you have in hand. The coins discussed in this article are worth more than their face value and some may be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Keep your eyes peeled!