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Coin collecting: Toning up. March 15, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about one of the fun things about coin collecting. If you’re a pocket-change collector like me, you know how much fun it is to collect pennies, nickels, and quarters that have different designs. (Where are new dimes, U.S. Mint?!)

And I’m sure you know that coins change color over time. If you have old nickels, you may be grossed out by the greasy dull grey color they’ve taken on in their many years rattling around in pockets and purses. If you’re lucky enough to have found some “wheat ears” pennies in your change, you’ll have seen how they turned from their original bright copper to flat brown over time. (“Wheat ears” pennies had two ears of wheat on the back, and the design was used from the debut of the Lincoln cent in 1909 until 1959, when the Lincoln Memorial replaced it.)

Nobody would call these changes for the better. But there is a color change that is cherished by coin collectors. It’s called “toning.” Basically, it’s when a coin takes on attractive colors as it ages, and it’s another great reason to check your pocket change. Toning is usually most pronounced on silver coins—especially silver dollars, half-dollars, and quarters. You can buy spectacular examples covered with an entire rainbow of colors or just a couple, such as blue and gold, or coins that are now a gorgeous gold tone but started life as silver. (But buyer beware: Because toned coins have a higher market value than regular coins, there are a lot of fakes out there.)

But here’s what’s exciting: Regular pocket change can also be toned, and it doesn’t have to be old, either. Just last week, I found a Lewis and Clark nickel from 2004 in my pocket that had started to turn gold. Mind you, not that this is real gold, and not that pocket change ever has much more than face value, unless you really do come upon a rare penny or an old silver dime, quarter, half-dollar, or dollar. (I never have; they were pretty much all grabbed up after the Mint stopped producing silver coins in 1965 and went to alloys.) But toning is a fun and different look to add to your collection, and some of these toned coins really are quite beautiful.

So don’t forget to check that pocket change! As our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would say, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”


Richard Saunders


A penny saved is probably collectible. February 7, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about whether making cents makes sense. Canada has decided to officially retire its penny this month, making Canadian 2013 pennies automatically collectible for small-change enthusiasts like your truly. Next time a clerk hands you a Canadian penny with your change, think twice about complaining!

This once again raises the question of the continuing production of U.S. cents. The cost of the metals (mostly zinc) used to produce today’s pennies have risen above the face value of the penny itself: It now costs 2.41 cents to make each 1-cent coin. (To put this in perspective, consider a gold coin with a face value of $20, now valued for its gold content at between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the market.)

Congress has repeatedly tried to do away with the penny and make the nickel the lowest-value piece of change in circulation. But the uproar raised by coin collectors has so far kept the penny in circulation. As a collector, I’m all for the penny. But as a realist, I can’t imagine that its days aren’t numbered.

Collecting today’s pennies is a bit of an issue, I’ll admit. Even if you find some spanking-new, brilliantly lustered pennies in your pocket or at your bank, I’ve noticed that they quickly develop disfiguring spots, something I’ve never seen on older pennies. Once that happens, all they’re fit for is pocket change. Rats! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to the pennies in collector proof sets. (Mind you, perhaps they’re just responding to the humid air in my apartment and your pennies wouldn’t spot up like mine.)

At any rate, the only modern pennies that will ever have any real monetary value are the “errors,” those that somehow got messed up during the minting process and weren’t caught by the mint before being released. This rarely happens with any coin, which is why collectors love error coins. (Examples would be coins that are struck twice, creating a double image; coins with two fronts or two backs; coins struck off-center; coins with one date superimposed on another; and coins struck on the wrong planchet, the blank metal disk that becomes a coin when struck with the machine dies to stamp the coin. A dime pattern struck on a penny planchet would be an example of this.)

Valuable or not, I find collecting pennies fun, whether they’re the multi-patterned new Lincoln cents, the old “wheat ears” Lincolns, the “silver” war pennies, the classic Indian head pennies, or the 50-cent-sized, heavy old pennies that go clear back to the early days of our Republic, when, as our hero and blog mentor Benjamin Franklin noted, a penny was really worth something. In less-good grades, and with the exception of rarities, they’re affordable for everyone, something that certainly can’t be said about many collectible coins. (And of course, modern pennies are very affordable in the best grades, which means in the most perfect condition.) Not to mention that, every once in awhile, you might still turn up a “wheat ears” penny in pocket change! Try doing that with a silver dime or quarter.

So what’s your view? Keep the penny or kill it? I’d love to hear from you!


Richard Saunders

Penny ante. April 12, 2012

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask for your two cents’ worth about the fate of the U.S. cent, informally known as the penny. Canada declared its penny obsolete this past March; in Europe, only the Brits keep them in circulation. Is it time the U.S. sent Abe packing?

As a two-bit coin collector, I love pennies. But even I must admit that making them no longer makes “cents.” That’s because, at this point, the metal in the pennies is worth more than their face value—2.4 cents for every penny, according to Fortune Tech blog contributor Dan Mitchell (“Don’t mess with the penny lobby,” http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/).

And, due to the increasing demand for metals like copper and zinc, that disparity is sure to get higher. I’ve already read about people hoarding pre-1982 pennies for their copper content. (From 1864 to 1982, U.S. pennies were 95% copper; thereafter, they’re 2.5% copper, used as a plating over a zinc core, with 1982’s pennies splitting the difference. The exception is 1943, the year of the zinc-coated steel wartime cent, aka the “silver penny.”) As for the hoarders, I think these folks would be smarter to save nickels (25% nickel, 75% copper) or, say, aluminum foil. But I digress.

Apart from coin collectors like yours truly, the zinc lobby, and the folks who produce those change-to-bills converter machines you see in grocery store entries, is there anybody else out there who’s in favor of saving the penny? I’d like to hear from you either way.


                       Richard Saunders

Where are the parks quarters?! January 14, 2011

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask the burning question: Have you actually seen any of the National Parks Quarters in pocket change? As a chump-change coin collector, I bought one of those fold-up books to hold my collection of National Parks Quarters, issued by the U.S. Treasury following the huge success of the 50 State Quarters program.

That was last year. I still had yet to see a single parks quarter show up in pocket change until last week, when a Yellowstone quarter appeared in my pocket. But wouldn’t you know, it had a black smudge on it so I couldn’t even use it in my book!

Yikes. Where are all those National Parks Quarters? Are you finding them in your purse or pocket? What’s the holdup here?!! Let me know if other parts of the country are luckier than Pennsylvania in this respect. I hate to think that my quarters book is going to stay empty.

            Your friend,

                        Richard Saunders

Check your change. August 15, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to speak to fellow coin collectors and anybody else who’d like to save or make a little money during these tough economic times. As money gets tighter and tighter, people are dipping into their reserves. Or, say, their grandpa’s reserves. And that can mean hidden bonuses for you if you keep your eyes open.

What am I talking about? Let’s picture this scenario: Grandpa’s gone to the assisted-care facility, and Sonny’s trying to clean up his place. Sonny stumbles on a jar full of quarters. Money! Sonny’s not trying to rob Grandpa or anything, he just knows his old granddad doesn’t need these quarters in his new home but he, Sonny, could sure use some spare change. So he takes the jar back to his place and pours out a handful every now and then when he needs the change. What he doesn’t realize is that those quarters he’s dumping in the Coke machine are pre-1965 silver quarters that are worth a couple of dollars to over $70 apiece.

I was forcibly reminded of all this the other day when I was pulling out some dollar bills to pay for a purchase and saw that they had blue, not green, seals. Blue seals used to be a sign of silver certificates, back in the days when paper money meant something and you could redeem it for the equivalent in silver. Geez, had the government decided to change the color of its seals again? Nope. Turns out, those crisp, pristine bills were 1957 silver certificates that had somehow made their way back into circulation.

Are these bills worth a fortune? No. In the collectors’ market, the 1957s will bring from $3 to $15 or so, depending on condition and signatures. but that’s more than $1, right? And older $1 silver-certificate bills can be worth as much as—you’re reading this right—$55,000 each.

So my point is, it’s worth keeping an eye on your change and bills. When times get tough, you never know what’s going to end up in your pocket!


Got a penny, Penny? March 29, 2009

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk once again about dollars and cents, or at least, cents, popularly known as pennies. In a post last month (“A new look for Lincoln”), I wrote about how, to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, first released in 1909 to mark the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, the U.S. Mint was releasing four new designs for the back of the cent, starting in February on Lincoln’s birthday, then appearing every three months through 2009. So, where is it?!

I’m a pocket-change collector from way back. I’ve pulled nice examples of the state quarters and the new Jefferson nickels out of pocket change, and have been known to stop by the bank to see if the latest presidential dollar had arrived. (“I’d like five, please.”) Last time I stopped by the bank, I asked if they had the new pennies. The answer dismayed me: “No, and we’re not likely to get them.” What?!! Well, apparently the bank already has plenty of pennies, and the place (unspecified) that supplies them with pennies has plenty of pennies, and there’s just no need to order any of the new pennies.

What’s a poor collector to do?! Well, there’s always the U.S. Mint. I headed over to their website (www.usmint.gov) and clicked on their online catalog. Trying to find any pennies took a nearly Herculean effort, but I finally spotted them under the “Bags and Rolls” listing. Now, I wasn’t really in the market for a whole roll of pennies, but I figured hey, if that’s the only way I can get some, at least they’re only pennies, so they won’t cost bazillion dollars. I clicked the link. Guess what? “SOLD OUT.” Aaaarrrgh!!!

Has anybody out there actually gotten any of the new pennies in pocket change? If so, lucky you. Maybe you’d better hang onto them!

And by the way, in case you’re wondering, this post’s title is the first line of a Depression-era jazz song, “Got a Penny,” that’s performed by The Nat King Cole Trio in one of my classic jazz collections. It seemed appropriate!

A new look for Lincoln. February 13, 2009

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about dollars and cents—specifically, Lincoln dollars and cents. As you all know, our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born on February 12th, 1809, so this year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.

But here’s something you may not know: To mark his hundredth anniversary back in 1909, the U.S. Mint created a commemorative penny, the Lincoln cent. It replaced the Indian-head penny, supposedly just for the anniversary year. But the new design proved so popular that we’ve been saving and spending Lincoln pennies for the past hundred years.

The original Lincoln cent had a pair of idealized Art Nouveau wheat stalks on the back, and is now known as the wheat-ears cent. Then, in 1959, the design was changed to show the Lincoln Memorial on the back. (Numismatists, aka coin collectors, call the back of a coin the reverse and the front the obverse, just so you know. They’d also as soon drop dead as refer to a cent as a penny, for reasons that have never been clear to me.)

To celebrate Lincoln’s Bicentennial, the Mint is planning to issue not one but four new penny—I mean, cent—designs, starting on his birthday, February 12th, and then releasing a new design every three months through the year. Only the back (reverse) design will change, following Lincoln’s career from his birth in a log cabin in Kentucky through his youth, early career, and presidency.

Then, in 2010, there will be a new, permanent  design on the back of the venerable cent. The Lincoln Memorial will go the way of the wheat ears. I have to say, I’ll miss it. But I’m looking forward to seeing the new design, which will celebrate Lincoln’s keeping the States of America united. Wonder what it will be?

New pennies aren’t the only thing the Mint has up its sleeve. Also on February 12th, it released a commemorative Lincoln silver dollar, featuring a striking image of Honest Abe on the front and the end of the Gettysburg Address on the back. (Pardon the pun—coins are referred to as being struck rather than stamped with their images.) Can’t quite remember the end of the Gettysburg Address? “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Today’s pennies have just a thin veneer of copper over a zinc base, but when the Lincoln cent debuted in 1909, its composition was 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. The U.S. Mint is releasing special sets of the Bicentennial pennies in the original composition, if you’d like to purchase a piece of history.

Two other things you should know about Lincoln pennies: First, the original design created a scandal when it appeared in 1909. The designer’s initials, VDB (for Victor David Brenner), appeared between the wheat ears at the bottom of the back of the penny. Apparently, people were outraged, believing that the intitials stood for some occult or Masonic credo. A great outcry arose, and the designer’s initials were hastily pulled from subsequent strikings. In 1918, they were finally restored—discreetly this time—on the back of the coin. Today, of course, the comparatively rare 1909 “VDB” cent commands premium prices among collectors, and the even rarer 1909-S (San Francisco Mint) “VDB” cent can sell for thousands of dollars.

The second thing you should know is that during World War II, Lincoln cents turned “silver.” These “silver pennies” weren’t really silver at all, but they looked like silver. That’s because our government needed every bit of available copper to make shells for the war effort. In 1943, Lincoln cents were made of zinc-coated steel. (They were hastily discontinued once it became obvious that they rusted.) I think everyone should have several of these in their collection for the historical value alone, but don’t be fooled by folks who are hyping them as great rarities: You can buy a circulated “silver penny” for 12 to 15 cents, and even uncirculated examples sell for about 50 cents.

There’s one final thing you should know about the Lincoln cent: Its appearance marked the first time a real person had been used on a U.S. coin intended for circulation. Previously, various artistic interpretations of “Lady Liberty” were typically featured, along with more prosaic numerical designs and the occasional eagle or idealized Native American. The Lincoln cent ushered in the era of representational coinage that produced the Franklin and Kennedy half-dollars, Washington quarters, Roosevelt dimes, Jefferson nickels, and Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars that most of us grew up with.