To Dip or Not to Dip? That's Sometimes the Question!

Much has been written about the subject of so-called “coin doctoring” in the last couple of years. I don’t like this term, as it suggests there is an evil element in the numismatic world trying to destroy our hobby. I don’t believe this is true. The subject has been much discussed and even the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) struggled for many months trying to define the problem.

One thing that has been clarified is that “dipping a coin” is not “coin doctoring.” Nearly everyone has heard the term “dipping,” but many probably don’t know the exact definition. It falls into the general category of rare coin conservation and is an interesting subject to discuss, especially for non-professionals.

Jewel Luster

For most, the term “dipping” refers to dipping a coin into a rather mild silver cleaner. There are several brands, but the most commonly used is Jewel Luster. This product has been on the market for decades. It is the bright blue solution that anyone who has been around coins very long is familiar with.

I have heard that Jewel Luster is actually not blue, and that blue dye is added to discourage individuals from exposing their skin to the solution for prolonged periods.  If you know someone with blue finger tips, which believe me, I have seen plenty of, now you know the reason.  I’m not sure of the long term health hazards of Jewel Luster, but any negative news on this topic would be of great concern to a large number of coin dealers I know. It is highly recommended to use rubber gloves and to work in a well ventilated area when dipping coins.

What does Dipping Coins Do?

Many of you may wonder why individuals dip coins in the first place. The simple answer is the “market demand” for frosty white silver coins. The solution cleans off foreign substances from the silver coins, leaving them much cleaner and truer to their original condition.

Sometimes, you read Letters to the Editors in numismatic magazines howling about the evil act of coins being cleaned.  Nearly all totally condemn the practice, and tout the virtues of fully original coins. The problem is that most rare coin buyers prefer frosty white coins. This reminds me of a statement made by a friend in the restaurant business.  He told me that everyone asks him to put healthy options on his menu. Guess what? Almost no one orders healthy food!  His best seller is the bacon cheeseburger.

Types of Appearance for Silver Coins:

There are three basic types of appearances for silver coins.

  1. First, and the most desirable, is a beautifully toned example. Attractive toning varies greatly and can be a matter of taste. Beautifully toned Morgan Silver Dollars can bring astronomical prices, and there is even a specialty club devoted to such coins. I would estimate that less than 10% of all mint state, vintage silver coins have survived with what would be considered beautiful or attractive toning.
  2. Next are the coins that are frosty white, or nearly white. Most surviving silver coins, which are more than 100 years old, have some sort of natural toning if they have not been dipped.  Frosty white coins probably make up about 20-30% of all silver coins seen.
  3. The remaining 60-70% have some sort of natural toning acquired over the years. The appearance of these coins varies greatly. Many have light, golden toning, and I have seen some that were almost black in appearance.  It is one of the reasons rare coins of the same grade can vary greatly in price.

Dipping is Not Always the Answer!  

By reading the above commentary, one could easily assume that the simple answer to getting the most money for a toned coin would be to dip it. Unfortunately, it is not that simple – not by a long shot! Toned silver coins have an infinite variation of surfaces and dipping can have an equal number of results. Dipping an expensive coin can be an exciting or terrifying experience.  It is much like buying an extremely expensive scratch off lottery ticket. A moderately toned silver coin can be dipped and turn out to be a sparkling Gem. Sometimes though, the resulting dip will reveal dull surfaces, environmental damage, scratches, hairlines, or other hidden damage and repair. The temptation to dip a dull or dirty coin can be great, but the practice is rife with risk.

I have personally seen great successes and brutal failures with dipping. A friend of mine paid over $100,000 for a 1901-S Barber Quarter around 1989. The coin was purchased raw and subsequently submitted for grading.  The coin had natural, but rather unexciting, golden toning.  It came back MS66, and was not worth the six-figure purchase price which was paid for it. This particular dealer is famously unafraid of risk and dipped the coin! The result was one of the most spectacular Gems of the issue known. Upon re-submission, the coin graded MS68, and was sold for a tidy profit.

On the other end of the scale, I still have a Monroe Half Dollar that I purchased for over $5,000 around 1990. The coin looked to be a great prospect for dipping and I took the chance. A wide streak of grey environmental damage was revealed which I had not seen. I still have this miserable failure in my collection of hard learned lessons (along with a few missed fakes).

Consult the Experts

Trying to determine the success or failure of a potential dipping is very difficult to predict.  At the end of the day, dipping almost always carries some degree of risk. I have seen about as many coins ruined as I have seen improved over the years. The practice will continue however, as the market applies a premium to coins with frosty, white surfaces.  The next time you are tempted, remember the risk, and get a second opinion if possible. NGC has worked hard over the years trying to help collectors and dealers with this complicated issue. I applaud their courage for opening the Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS) and dealing with an issue that, at one time, was considered taboo. Hopefully, this article has given some clarity to an issue that many find mystifying.