Someone once said “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This sublime statement has become a reality in the rare coin business. Toned coins are now extremely collectible and highly sought after. When I first bought and sold rare coins a few decades ago, toned coins were certainly a curiosity, but the demand for them was lukewarm at best. As a matter of fact, most collectors wanted their rare coins frosty white. Any coin with toning was soon slated for a bath in Jewel Luster, the coin dip of choice for most collectors. Jewel Luster has a mild blue die added to it to discourage people from exposing their skin to the chemicals. Believe me, there was no shortage of Smurf fingered coin dealers in the 1970s and 1980s!
Much has changed over the years. Collectors now have a deep appreciation for coins with attractive, original toning. What constitutes attractive is the question that many have different opinions about. I have mentioned that silver coins come in three basic looks. About 40-50% of the vintage (over 50 years old) coins seen on the market today are frosty white or mostly so. These are coins that have probably been conserved at one time, or were found in rolls or bags and not exposed sulfur or other contaminants. A large number of Morgan silver dollars found are seen this way.
Another 40-50% of the silver coins seen have toning that is not considered attractive. Many of the coins seen have toning ranging from light brown to an almost black appearance. In general, many of these are the coins which sell for significant discounts when offered for sale. The coins may technically grade quite high, but many collectors do not like the aesthetic appeal of the pieces. You might be wondering why if these coins sell for a discount because of the unattractive toning, someone does not have them conserved. That is a great question! The problem is that not all coins are candidates for dipping or some other form of conservation. Many coins with deep or uneven toning will look terrible if cleaned. That is why conservation should be left to the hands of experts. I can testify to the truth of this statement by telling you that I have attempted to improve the appearance of a coin, only to be horrified by the results!
Finally we have the small percentage of coins that are found with what can be deemed as attractive toning. I estimate that less than 10% of the silver coins seen on the market would fall into this category. As mentioned above, what constitutes attractive toning can be subjective. Coins with attractive toning are usually very frosty, with the toning appearing to be layered lightly on the surface of the coin. These coins can have toning that ranges from light brown to almost any color of the spectrum. Quite a few of these attractive coins are also found with partial toning. This means coins that are bight white with splashes of color. Sometimes coins that had been stored for years in bags will have crescent toning from being partially covered by another coin while being exposed to the toning effects of the bag. These coins are among the most sought after by toning aficionados.
Morgan silver dollars are one of the popular issues for collectors of toned coins. The premium paid for these coins can sometimes seem to defy logic. Last year I consigned an NGC MS64 1884-O silver dollar to auction. The coin displays beautiful toning on both the obverse and reverse. Apparently this is a very rare combination! An average 1884-O silver dollar is worth less than $100 in MS64. This coin sold for nearly $4,000! Classic commemorative half dollars (those struck from 1892 to 1954) are also extremely popular with the toned collector crowd. There have been auction records over the years that seemed totally impossible. It seems that collectors of toned coins are sometimes willing engage in mortal combat to obtain the coins they feel worthy of their collection. You can throw out the price guides when these coins cross the auction block.
As mentioned above, collecting toned coins is a matter of taste. In general collectors are now much more willing to pay higher prices for coins with great eye appeal. This mantra is taken to extremes when a truly beautiful coin comes to market. I have stated before that if I come across a stunning coin I almost always place the coin in auction. It seems that buyers for these coins sometimes have a better imagination than I do! Eye appeal has become a very important element for pricing rare coins. Toning is just one of the important factors that must be considered.