How To Clean Silver Coins Safely
There are few areas in numismatics as controversial as the matter of cleaning coins. This is certainly true among people who collect or invest in silver coins, which are prone to tarnish. Tarnishing, known as patina among numismatists, is something that coin collectors generally desire – especially when the patination has taken on an eye-appealing color or form.
Silver coins will acquire natural toning over time.
In the realm of coin collecting, the general rule of thumb is to simply not clean your coins, period. Cleaning a coin can impair its surface and hamper its appearance, causing the coin to lose a significant amount of its collectible value and monetary worth.
It’s often the case that a cleaned coin suffers a decrease in value (above spot) of 20% to 30% or more. Harsh, abrasive cleanings sometimes cut the numismatic premium by more than half. Many silver coins that have been cleaned will lose virtually all their numismatic premium, causing such pieces to be traded only for their bullion content. While this, of course, does not negatively impact a cleaned silver coin’s merit as a bullion vehicle, it does eliminate its potential for being traded as a numismatic item – a lucrative market for collectible silver coinage.
While we address this topic to answer questions some people may have on how to clean silver coins, we want to make it clear that cleaning coins is generally not advised, nor do we endorse it. Incorrectly cleaning coins, especially with abrasive agents or caustic chemicals, can cause irreparable damage to the coin and irrecuperable loss to its value.
In many cases, an improperly cleaned coin will not receive an official grade from a professional grading service.
It’s usually best to leave a coin exactly as it is found, not attempting to clean it or alter it in any way. If a coin is in such a state that stains or other surface imperfections greatly impair the coin or its appearance, it’s best to consider submitting it for conservation or restoration through a professional third-party coin grading service.
What follows is a list of common ingredients and methods that are used by the public for cleaning silver coins:
5 Methods for Safely Cleaning Silver Coins
1. Baking Soda
One of the most abrasive mediums for cleaning silver coins, yet certainly most efficient at removing tarnish, is baking soda. It’s also one of the cheapest items most of us have in our kitchens, making it quite convenient for many people who want to clean their silver coins.
One of the most common ways of using baking soda to clean silver coins is to mix it with just enough water to turn the white, powdery substance into a stiff paste that can be rubbed into the surface of the coin by hand or finger. The baking soda is used for scouring out dirt and tarnish from crevices on the coin (such as areas in and around designs and around lettering). Then, it is rinsed away with clean, tepid water before the coin is pat dry with a soft cloth.
While many toothpastes are slightly less abrasive than baking soda, this common oral-hygiene product is popular in coin cleaning circles. This is because it is effective for cleaning silver coins – while also leaving them minty fresh. And though toothpaste is generally more expensive than baking soda, typical tube-dispensed toothpastes are ready for action, with no mixing required.
The toothpaste is rubbed onto the coin until the offending dirt, tarnish, or other surface imperfections are removed or softened in appearance before being rinsed clean under water and pat dry with a soft cloth.
3. Lemon Juice
Moving on from the physically abrasive to the chemically acidic, we present lemon juice – a sort of miracle household agent with a fresh scent that zests up food and can clean just about anything. Following suit, lemon juice is frequently used for cleaning silver coins, eating away dirt and tarnish.
The problem with lemon juice is that while it may not necessarily leave behind the deep scratches and striations left in the wake of a harsh cleaning by baking soda or toothpaste, the acid does eat away a thin outer layer of metal from the coin – in part how the cleaning effect is achieved.
Still, lemon juice is swift at cleaning, especially when used as a bath (in a non-corrosive vessel) in which the silver coin sits for a few minutes at a time between rinsings with water. The cleaning efficacy of the lemon juice is sometimes enhanced by mixing salt or baking soda into the wash. The coin should be rinsed clean with tepid water after it is bathed in lemon juice and pat dry with a soft cloth.
4. White Vinegar
Another common kitchen product swoops into clean silver coins! Like lemon juice, white vinegar is used far and wide not just as a cooking agent but also as a cleaner, thanks to its acidic chemical makeup and tendency to neutralize odors (even if vinegar is itself a bit odiferous). White vinegar is sometimes used without any additive as a bath for cleaning silver coins. This can be quite effective for removing tarnish or grit (though in doing so the acidic medium does eat away at the metal on the coin).
Baking soda is frequently added to white vinegar to make the silver coin cleaner even more potent. Though, there is a word of warning: baking soda and vinegar, when mixed, creates a rather bubbly carbon-dioxide reaction – the type used to create science-fair volcanoes.
5. Silver Dip
A controversy among controversies is the use of silver dip in numismatics. Some who otherwise oppose cleaning coins will look more leniently toward forgiving the use of silver dips because they can be somewhat less abrasive or caustic than some of the other agents listed above.
Yet, purists will say that any cleaning – or dipping – of a coin is still an artificial alteration and should be avoided. Cautionary folks will warn that silver dips can still be caustic and/or abrasive and, if used too overzealously, will not only damage the silver coin, but also give it a falsely bright appearance, potentially rendering it uncollectible.
Silver dips vary in strength and application, and, if employed, should be used only per the instructions on its packaging.
Cleaning silver coins should be done carefully and sparingly.
Other Coin Cleaning Methods and a Parting Word
Further online searching on how to clean silver coins safely will likely yield a myriad of other coin-cleaning methods. Entire chapters of books (and even whole books) have been written on the philosophies around cleaning silver coins and the techniques for doing so.
Ultimately, we again advise against cleaning coins on your own. Remember, this is a numismatically risky venture best left in the hands of professional conservationists and restorers only for the purpose of preserving a silver coin – not necessarily for trying to make it appear to be a better or higher-grade piece than it really is.
Read more about coin collecting from the numismatic experts at Gainesville Coins:
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