Are You Cleaning Away History?

Are You Cleaning Away History?


This large cent has good detail, but knowing the date, I have no need to clean it any further.

Many detectorists love history. They enjoy research and finding clues and items from the past and putting them together. A few of these people consider themselves relic hunters rather than coinshooters (people who seek coins more than other targets), but relics aren’t just Civil War finds. A token identifying the site of an old amusement park, the metal buttons or oil lamp parts that mark a long-vanished homesite, bullets or belt plates found at an old military site…those items belonging to the previous use of a place that show the exact location where history happened. Connecting the spot on the old map and tracking down stories to the place where you’re standing, holding a relic of that time in your hand, is a powerful and exciting experience.

If your only question when you dig up something is, “What’s it worth?” then we have different ideas about the “value” of history. But even then, if you’re only in it to cash in on what you find, you’re still going to want to pay attention. If you clean those coins or even rub them off with a dirty thumb in the field, you’re going to significantly reduce the price you can get for them, even a common date Mercury dime.


Civil War era Minie balls (three-ringer bullets), musketball and an 1857 Flying Eagle cent have more historic (and monetary) value because they were dug on the site of a military camp that was only in existence the duration of the war. These are not just Civil War era relics, but items used and lost by soldiers at that camp during the war.


The difference between many relics and coins is that coins have a value and demand beyond their value as a relic, which makes the issue of cleaning and preservation trickier than with non-coin relics. All of the sudden there are more people potentially interested in your find than archaeologists. The numismatists are looking over your shoulder as well.

While there’s a very limited market for old flat buttons or other non-military relics, there’s a very good market for old coins, with or without any provenance. Provenance is just a fancy word for the history, or story of an object. Knowing those buttons and a period coin came from the farm of John Randolph, one of the earliest settlers in the county may add to their historic importance, but doesn’t add much cash value. The coin is valuable with or without the provenance, and can pretty easily be sold. The buttons and the coin are really even more valuable with the provenance, but that value is not measured in dollars.

Unfortunately, there just aren’t as many collectors of flat buttons, or that many interested in the history of the county. Local historical societies are notoriously underfunded, understaffed and unappreciated, a hard place to get recognition for your finds. So, how do you personally value that coin? As a relic or as a coin? Or maybe it’s both. If you value it as a relic, you’d want to preserve the history along with the object. I’ll often write up an article or a blog post to remember and share the results of an interesting site and my research, even if the finds are meager. My blog post, Dayton Diggers’ Group Hunt at the Ross Farm, summarizes a hunt at the birthplace of a soldier who participated in a renowned Civil War event.


Glass shards, a piece of a bottle that had an open pontil base, the bottom of a flask with a polished pontil and the pieces of a “black glass” bottle were all good signs that I had discovered a pre-1870 homesite.

I’m interested in everything I can find at a site and I’ll often pick up interesting glass and pottery shards. All these pieces help me understand the use and history of the place I’m searching. I’m one of those people who leaves much of the corrosion, stains and even some dirt on the old coins I find. Generally cleaning only enough to identify the date, and often with nothing more than soap and water, and a soft toothbrush for copper and nickel coins. Some detectorists don’t agree with my thinking, but let me make my case for not polishing up coins.

First of all, I was a coin collector long before I was a detectorist. I understood cleaned coins were considered damaged by collectors, which put them in the class of holed, bent or otherwise mutilated coins. I learned that by cleaning a coin, you were damaging it. Shiny can be good, but only if it is original, not manufactured later.

Collectors generally value coins more highly the closer they are to mint condition, which means the condition they originally left the mint. Naturally these mint condition coins have sharper details which are easier to see. When you rub a coin, especially one of silver or gold, with even the mildest of abrasives, or when you find it in the field and rub the dirt across it, you create scratches and alter the surface of the coin. Higher grade coins can come out of the ground with mint luster still intact, especially in the detailed areas. What is mint luster? When coins are struck, the dies leave a shiny, but somewhat matte or frosty surface on the coin as the metal is forced into the die. When you polish a coin, you remove any of that matte luster that remains, a critical detail in the condition of a coin.

1858 halves four figures

Each of these halves has it’s own distinct “personality.” The coins on the left have not been cleaned. Notice how coin A, while similar in grade to coin B, looks old. The darkness around the details enhances their appearance, while the cleaned coin looks rather flat and lifeless. Coin C, while a better grade than coin D, shows a rich golden luster. Coin D has a lot of detail, but the obvious scratches from dirt being rubbed across it, followed by more cleaning have removed all traces of the original frosty matte luster. The scratches detract from the details and the cleaning gave the coin an unnatural appearance like the one above it.

With many forms of cleaning, you are damaging the coin and also reducing it’s value. People say, “I don’t care about the value,” or “I’m not going to sell it.” Well, you won’t live forever, so someday, sometime, that coin will have a new home. You may polish a coin to please yourself and meet your own immediate needs, but you’re a poor custodian of its value and history.

Let me compare this to buying a new car. Let’s say you and your neighbor both buy the same new car on the same day. A few months go by and the cars are dirty. One Saturday you both decide to wash your cars. You decide to use scouring powder and a green kitchen scrubber to wash your car. Your neighbor uses special car wash soap, lots of water and a soft cloth. What a Saturday! Both cars are now clean, but your car is covered in small scratches and looks dull, the neighbor’s car is bright and shiny. Your car is now worth thousands of dollars less than your neighbor’s car because you didn’t use an appropriate cleaning method. Oh well, what does it matter? It’s your car and you’re never going to sell it anyway.

When you aggressively clean a coin, you’re removing the history. One of the reasons I love finding old coins while metal detecting is that I know where they were lost, and sometimes even when. Sometimes I can even narrow down a family name to associate with the coin or it’s loss. I can speculate as to the specific person who may have lost that coin.

1941 half

This half dollar was found near what had been a World War II era military site. Some rusted nails, likely discarded during the demolition of the buildings after the war, sat on top of the coin for many years, adding character and interest to an otherwise common coin.


The red rust stain on a silver half dollar is part of that coin’s story. It tells of where the coin was laying for a number of years and it serves as a reminder to me of how and where I found that coin. No other coin has exactly that rust mark on it. Once I clean that off, it’s no different than any other cleaned half dollar of the same grade and date.


Copper and nickel coins sometimes retain their original surfaces when found. Often they can be hard and well adhered. But sometimes, the surfaces have become a smooth flaky greenish-grey crust that may contain the last traces of detail left on a coin. That crust will often come off when a coin is merely rinsed, leaving a pitted rough red surface and removing those traces of detail. Your Matron Head large cent or Shield nickel may have had traces of the date when you dug it, but it can be easily and carelessly washed off.


I’ve been told by some that my habit of leaving corrosion or traces of soil on a coin accelerates deterioration. I’m not inclined to give that opinion much weight. Moisture is the biggest contributor to corrosion. By removing the coin from the wet soil and keeping it in a dry, climate controlled environment (an apt description for most anyone’s house), I’m making a significant impact in reducing the potential for continuing deterioration. There’s a difference between preservation and cleaning. I support preservation activities, especially simple and low cost ones, that stabilize the coin and maintain it’s condition without worsening or altering it.


These coins were found over the course of several hunts, scattered in a grassy roadway median near an old school. The cents have been filed down in diameter and thickness to resemble dimes, probably to be used to cheat a telephone or vending machine.

Detectorists get upset when they find a coin that was damaged before or while it was lost, and sure there’s some merit to wishing for an undamaged coin. But I have to say I think the shot, marked, bent, cut and burned coins can be some of the most interesting I find. Their surfaces show their history and tell a piece of their story, that an undamaged coin would not. Sure, cleaning a coin then becomes part of it’s story, but it’s a chapter that in a few minutes erases all the years of chapters that came before it. Who are you to say that your chapter is more important than those that came before? Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Old coins are a limited resource. They’re not making any more Seated Liberty dimes with original surfaces. Once you clean that surface off, it will never come back. It’s gone forever. Wow. 150 years or so that coin was around, preserved in the soil and sporting it’s original surface and in seconds, it’s gone. Wouldn’t you want to preserve that 150 years of history as well as the value of the coin? When you hold that unpolished coin, you’re touching the same surfaces as the last person who held that object, 40, 50 or even 200 years ago. If the coin has mint luster, you’re seeing the remains of the same mint luster that was there when it was new. What a powerful connection to the past!

burned quarter 3

This burned, melted and broken quarter was found by Doug Snyder in North Carolina. Many people speculated as to how it was damaged in an online forum. Imagine the story this coin could tell!

Appearance is important to me. Antiques, which many old coins are, should look old. If you want shiny old coins, buy them from a dealer, please don’t try to make them yourself. Polishing antique coins makes them look unnatural and odd, much like an 70 year old man with jet black dyed hair, or his wife in hot pants and excessive amounts of makeup or plastic surgery. Those attempts to make the old look new again sadden me, they never do look right or convincing. I’m saddened the same way when I see a nice coin someone has found, with great surfaces, color and patination, proudly showing its age and history and then in the next photo I see that same coin ruined because someone thought shiny was better than history.

I hope you’ll consider the value in really preserving the old coins you find, and appreciating their appearance and history rather than aggressively cleaning and polishing them. An otherwise fantastic shined Seated Liberty dime or a Barber quarter cleaned by rubbing with water and baking soda is a shame. The majority of the history and value of yet another historic antique coin is gone forever. Just as detectorists should do their best to do no harm when visiting a site, I recommend exercising the same care with the finds that are made.

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There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Chris at 4:52 pm

    Great article! Powerful points, extremely well written and quite an eye opener. I’ll be the to admit that I’m guilty of cleaning coins. Not so much now as I used to be, but guilty nonetheless. You are absolutely right, and I hang my head in shame lol. Thank you for shedding light on a common practice, one that destroys what we work so diligently to find. Dirty coins for me from now on! Can’t believe I actually cleaned a small hoard of 1790-1808 8Reales! A bit of dish soap and water, but even still! Yikes!!

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