By Sarah Miller
How is it that one 1881-S Morgan silver dollar can be worth around $1,500, while another coin of nearly the same date and grade combination sold just a few months later for $90?
In this case, the answer can be mainly attributed to a quality that has fascinated countless coin collectors for years: beautiful rainbow toning. When trace amounts of sulfur or other chemicals come in contact with the surfaces of a silver coin over a period of years, the color and appearance of its surfaces will begin to slowly change.
For example, the paper envelopes and canvas bags that were once used to store coins have often resulted in lovely toning after years of storage, especially in warm or slightly damp environments. Mint set packaging from the 1940s and 1950s as well as some older coin albums were also environments that resulted in pleasant toning on silver, copper, and even nickel coins’ surfaces.
Such natural toning over time is the coloration that occurs gradually due to the coin’s environment and without the false acceleration of human “help.” It occurs through a combination of nature, storage, and chance. On the other hand, artificial toning created by humans is often added to a coin’s surface by the application of heat, the addition of chemicals, or other deceptive methods.
When left to its own devices (no pun intended), the thin layer of sulfide that forms over the surfaces of a coin may range from a pale blush of color to lovely and vibrant hues. It is this type of toning, a true happy accident, that many numismatic connoisseurs covet and seek out for their collections.
Not all toning is coveted, however. Just as it is possible for a coin’s storage conditions to eventually result in a beautiful combination of hues, the oxidation of a rare coin’s surfaces can also result in dark tones that obscure the surfaces and seem to mute the original mint luster. Such heavy toning is not as commonly sought out by collectors as the more vibrant hues and is not always considered to be desirable.
Even so, such toning is a mark of originality, which is a favorable factor in a world where many coins have been cleaned or otherwise altered since the time of minting. At the same time, individual preferences and the subjectivity of what is considered to be beautiful leaves the door open for the collectability of many different shades and coloration patterns. This includes both brighter and darker shades of toning according to each collector’s preferred appearance for their set.
Regardless of what type of toning one prefers—pale hues, vibrant rainbow tones, or darker and more muted colors—there are several ways to collect toned coins. This can include looking for attractively toned coins of a particular denomination, creating a toned type set, or simply seeking out pieces that appeal to you without concern for the denomination or date.
Such lovely coins can also be incorporated into an existing set, adding pleasant variety to an otherwise matched group of numismatic items. The brilliantly toned Morgan dollar mentioned above, for example, would complement a type set, a set of Morgan dollars, or simply a group of attractively toned items in any numismatist’s holdings.
With endless options for the collector, toned coins’ subjective nature can add to their appeal and allows numismatists to make their own decisions regarding toned coins’ values beyond the basic information provided by price guides. Whether you are new to the idea of collecting toned coins or have been seeking out these lovely items for years, the world of attractive toning within numismatics presents fresh ways to add to one’s collection.
Looking for attractively toned coins emphasizes aesthetics and personal preference in the collecting process in addition to the rarity and desirability of a particular coin. All in all, pursuing toned coins for one’s collection presents yet another way to collect what you enjoy and can add variety and beauty to any devoted coin collector’s set.
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