Next week in this column I plan to discuss “cleaning,” “artificial toning” and “conservation” of coins. I invite readers, including those who grade or certify coins for a living, to send me an e-mail with your thoughts at .
As I see it, cleaning, artificial toning, and conservation are poorly defined in numismatics. We seem to have it that cleaning and artificial toning are bad and when mentioned, diminish the value of a coin. In contrast, conservation, as when applied to gold coins from the New York, Central America, Brother Jonathan, and Republic sidewheel steamships, to remove stains and rust but not alter the original surface, is perfectly fine. Both NGC and PCGS routinely certify such coins without additional mention.
As to toning, in Early American Cents, 1949, Dr. William H. Sheldon gives detailed instructions on how to make a brightly dipped or cleaned copper cent look acceptable once again. This can be done with the careful application of sulfur and mineral oil, then gently wiping. Countless such coins are presently certified without mention of this.
In 1954 at the Palace Collections Sale in Cairo, the coins of deposed King Farouk were auctioned. All of his copper coins had been brightened by polishing and had the color of the bottom of a recently-cleaned Revere Ware pan. I handled many of his patterns that were bought at the sale by Abe Kosoff and Sol Kaplan, and sold them to clients, describing them as such. This was in the mid-1950s. Years later Harry W. Bass, Jr. obtained a number of these—still as bright as when the king cleaned them. We auctioned them as such. Lo and behold! Nearly all of them later reappeared on the market, identifiable by tiny marks and the like, but now toned rich chocolate brown and certified without mentioning how they had been conserved or improved.
Many years ago David Hall and I were discussing the appearance of Morgan dollars rainbow-toned on both sides. Both of us had handled countless quantities of Morgan dollars from the 1962-1964 Treasury release and other early sources. Neither of us had seen a Morgan dollar toned on both sides. Colorful toning had been seen and admired on many coins, but on one side of the coin only. This was produced when the obverse or reverse of a dollar was directly in contact with the cloth of a 1,000-coin bag. Such bags became damp on occasion, and over a long period of years toning developed. Such sealed bags were kept in storage. To get toning on both sides a bag of coins would have to be emptied out and refilled, and a coin with toning on one side would have to be placed in contact with the canvas once again and spend many years gaining toning on the other side. I have never heard of this happening.
A leading dealer told me that one of his main sources of profit was taking brilliant Morgan dollars and subjecting them to a proprietary process of contact sandwiched between surfaces that when heated slowly and for a period of time would acquire gorgeous rainbow toning on both sides.
Another point to contemplate. In the 1950s a dealer who wanted to tone coins to become more attractive put them on an outside windowsill on the second story of his house and kept checking on them until they were just right. A collector had a coal-burning furnace that gave off fumes, and toned coins by placing them nearby.
And from me personally: In the 1980s I bought some new oak furniture made by Conant & Ball. In my inner office, I had a one-ounce silver medal recently received, one of the several designed by Frank Gasparro for Bowers and Merena Galleries. A visitor was coming, so I put it in the desk drawer and forgot about it. A few weeks later I took it out—and it had the most beautiful delicate electric-blue toning I had ever seen—from the oak wood.
One more thing: For many years it was standard practice for collectors of early copper coins, colonials, the curator at the American Numismatic Society, and others to take a camel-hair brush and gently brush copper coins every once in a while to keep them glossy.
In the field of autographs, documents, art from all eras, antiques, prints, and more, including in leading museums, cleaning with careful methods is common practice as are minor repairs. When such are sold at auction, a painting, for example, is not sold as a Rembrandt oil “cleaned and with some repairs.”
Millions of dollars of value has been lost to the owners of coins who have had them certified and returned with “environmental damage,” “artificial toning,” “cleaned,” etc.
Is there a better way the field of numismatics can address the improvement of the appearance of coins without using adjectives that destroy value?
Let me know what you think!
Beyond that, this might be a good subject for a forum sponsored by the American Numismatic Association at a convention: How can the appearance of a coin be improved without having it be unacceptable for certification services to grade without qualifiers?