What should I do with my jar of coins?

Some of the coins and bills in the family’s coin collection. Photo by Jane Brown.


By Jane D. Brown

“I’m rich!” Baldwin, our 9-year-old grandson, exclaimed as we poured out the contents of the tin can. Big coins, little coins, a few brand new and shiny, most old and well used. We told Baldwin he could have the proceeds if he sorted and counted them. With glee he dumped them  on the counter and began sorting into piles of pennies, nickels, quarters and Susan B. Anthonys. There were a few old silver dollars and some foreign coins, too.

A few weeks earlier he had seen us sorting the coin collection that was begun by my great grandfather in the late 1800s. Baldwin was hoping he’d find something precious in his pile.

At first we took each coin that seemed like it might be valuable (e.g., buffalo nickels, wheat pennies, a Mexican silver dollar from 1809) and tried to find a match online. But we soon learned we had no idea what we were doing.

Coin collectors and dealers have a complicated and precise way of establishing the value of old coins. Prices vary wildly on the many websites. What looks like the same coin to the untrained eye may be posted as worth $3 to $3,000.

We began to realize that finding a valuable coin is as unusual as finding a four-leafed clover. And even if you’re lucky enough to have a rare coin, its value depends on its quality or grade. Mint condition means just that – as it looked when first created, not after it’s jingled around in pockets and purses for years. We didn’t have any of those in our collection. Plus, we read that you’re not supposed to try to clean or polish coins. They are what they are.

Eventually we gave up trying to figure out if we had anything valuable. I stopped in the “Jewel Recycle” store at University Place to see if they could help. Seth, the pleasant clerk who rang me in, sat behind a plexiglass shield. He shook his head when he saw the coins I put in the red tray. “We’re interested only in the metal content, preferably gold and silver, not the coin.” He used his XRF Analyzer and showed me that my “gold” Nevada centennial commemorative coin was actually made of Zinc and Copper. Darn!

Baldwin Protzman searching for the possible value of a coin from the family collection. Photo by Jane Brown.

We did have a few gold pieces from the 1800s. My brother-in-law Gary offered to take those and the other coins we thought might be valuable to a well-reviewed coin shop in Winston-Salem near where he lives. He reported that the tattooed woman with the sidearm and four large dogs who waited on him “knew it all.”

In 45 minutes she went through the 20 baggies — about 350 coins — and concluded, “None of these are of exceptional value.” Even the Indian head nickels? “Plenty of these out there, so not worth more than five cents.”

All the silver dollars we’d saved from the bottom of our Christmas stockings all those years? She looked up a few of the old ones on a software program on her phone, but only three or four were worth a couple of dollars more. The ones with actual silver content she’d buy to have melted. She gave Gary several crisp $100 bills for the gold pieces that were worth $64 a gram that day.

Most of the rest of the collection my family has been stockpiling for more than a century she pushed back to Gary: “Put these in the coin machine at your bank.”

There are dozens of coin shops in North Carolina receiving hopeful visitors every day. Some walk in lugging jars of money, others have one or two special coins. The shops welcome all comers – that’s the business they’re in.  And while it’s possible you’ll strike it rich selling your coins, it’s also unlikely, unless you are a serious collector. You’re more likely to find that your jar of spare change is just that, spare change. Somewhat interesting but not especially valuable.

If you have a family collection like we did, you may find the value is more in the thought of generations of hands that have held and marveled at these pieces of metal.

I’m glad we kept the 1809 Mexican coin. It may have been acquired by my Great Uncle Walter when he was a mine engineer in Arizona while it was still a territory of Mexico. I am sorry to let the rest of our coins go back into the public domain, where no one knows or cares about their provenance. But we are in the downsizing phase of our lives, and some treasures will have to become only memories. 

Baldwin is disappointed that none of the coins in his collection are going to buy him his first car. But he is happy with the $23 we put in his savings account. And he’s going to keep looking. He might just find that three-legged buffalo nickel in his pocket one day.

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