Talking Beginners - Storing Coppers
by Steve Carr
May 2, 2002

It has happened before and it will happen again. You buy some nice looking copper coins, enjoy looking at them for a while, then put them away. When you look at them again (which may be years - heaven forbid - later), you find some have changed in appearance.

The culprits that cause this change are numerous. Copper is a relatively reactive metal. Things like moisture, airborne dirt and dust, and plasticizers, react easily with copper. This reaction changes the color and surfaces of the coin, often for the worse. If not addressed, these reactions will deteriorate the coin, both aesthetically and in value. As a conservator of these coins, for posterity or future value, it is your job to store them so these changes do not occur or, at most, are very minor.

So, what are the best ways to store your coppers? Notice the word "ways" is used, as there are many suitable methods of storage available. Some are better, some worse. Some are better for selling while others are better for long storage. Some are cheaper and some are down right expensive.

When considering a method to store your coins, you need to consider both the micro- and macro- environments where the coins will be stored. The macro-environment is the large area surrounding the coin, such as a room, drawer, or safe. The best macro-environment for storing old coppers is one that is cool, dry and secure. A bank safety deposit box usually provides all three, as do most home safes. For collections of lesser value, a high shelf, desk drawer, or cabinet drawer in a cool dark room is usually best. If your collection has any value, you should also be able to read and monitor the current room temperature and humidity.

The micro-environment is the area right around the coin. It is at this level that scratches and copper reactions occur, so an environment that can remain dry is essential. Here, we are talking about storage means like paper envelopes, 2X2 holders, flips, plastic holders, coin folders, and slabs.

This is the environment where ease and clarity in viewing the coin need to be balanced with protection. Let's look at some different micro-environment storage methods.

  • Paper envelope - Paper envelopes have been used for decades to store copper coins. In fact, they may be the most popular method of storage used by copper collectors. They are inexpensive (under 5 cents each) and come in several different colors. On the down side, the coin can only be viewed by removing it from the envelope. Repeatedly sliding a coin in and out of a paper envelope can create hairline surface scratches. Even worse, some of these envelopes are made using paper that contains small amounts of sulfur. Sulfur "likes" copper and tends to react with it. This happens more frequently when a copper coin with porous surfaces is stored in a paper envelope. Using a cotton liner can neutralize the effects of this sulfur.

  • Cotton liner - Cotton liners are pouches made of cotton. These pouches are less than 2 inches square in size and slide into a paper envelope. The cotton surfaces of the liner greatly reduce the chance of making hairline scratches on the coin when removing and replacing it. They also help create a dryer environment right around the coin. On the down side, they are somewhat expensive (around 25 cents per liner), are thicker, and make taking the coin out of the envelope a little more time consuming. For higher grade coppers, they are an excellent storage method, perhaps the best.

  • 2x2 holder - These holders are another excellent way to store coppers. They consist of a hinged thin cardboard card, holed for the coin, covered on its inside surface with a plastic sheet. They are inert. They are also inexpensive (about 1 cent each). They are a way to look at coppers quickly and are generally favored by non-EAC dealers. On the down side, most are held together using staples. A protruding point from a staple can put a nasty scratch on a copper. Most people who use 2X2s flatten the staples. Another negative about 2X2 holders is that they are not airtight, so moisture can enter around the edges. Finally, most coppers are not held rigidly in the 2X2 and slide back and forth a little. While this usually does not damage the coin, it will scratch the plastic. Before long, all you can see through the holder is a dull gray outline of the coin.

  • Flip - Flips are hinged plastic holders with two coin pouches. One of these is generally used to hold a paper insert describing the coin. There are two general types of flips, flexible and rigid. Flexible flips are easily bent and will not scratch the coin. On the down side, they contain PVC, a plasticizer that reacts with copper. This reaction, which may continue for years before damage is noticed, begins to form a gooey green substance that eats away the surface of the coin. Short term exposure is generally considered harmless.

    Rigid flips are exactly that, rigid. Without PVC, these flips do not flex. While the flip is inert, the plastic may scratch the surface of a copper. If the copper is handled carefully, rigid flips provide an excellent long term storage method.

  • Plastic holder - These come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Since these holders are rigid, they do not contain PVC. Several different companies make these holders, with Capitol being perhaps the best known. They are an excellent way to display a copper, as they give a clear view of the obverse and reverse. On the down side, the edge cannot be seen. Also, while these holders can be specially made, commercially available holders come with standard size holes. Many early coppers vary in diameter, so the coin might not fit properly. They are expensive (about $5 for a single coin holder to $100's for larger holders with more holes).

    A second type of rigid plastic holder has two shell halves, with the coin being sandwiched between them. These are air tight and fairly expensive (about 70 cents each). Perhaps the best known brand is Kointain.

  • Slab - Slabs are produced by the coin grading industry. They are sonically sealed inert holders. The holder also contains an insert telling the year, the grade, and in some cases, the variety and/or mintage of the coin. Remember - slab grade is NOT always the same as EAC grade. Remember - slabs are NOT airtight.

    Slabs are a fairly good way to store coppers. The coins are held rigidly in a non-reactive holder. They are also an excellent way to sell your coins, as there is a fairly large market for slabbed coppers. On the down side, the edge of the coin can not be seen. Also, many coppers have been slabbed with dirt and moisture on the coin surfaces. These materials can cause slabbed coins to deteriorate, right inside the slab.

  • Coin folder - A coin folder is book size and is made of cardboard pages with holes for the coins. There are two types of coin folders available, those with plastic sliding covers and those without. Folders without the slides require you to push the coin into its appropriate spot, while a plastic backing prevents the coin from going through the page. Those with slides have the hole punched completely through the cardboard and use sliding pieces of rigid plastic on either side of the coin to hold it in place.

    In general, storing coppers in a coin folder is a poor choice. The cardboard contains sulfur and the plastic slides can scratch the coin surface.

  • Jeweler's tissue - Jewelers tissue is a thin, fine grained, sulfur free paper that does not scratch the surface of a copper coin. In the early days of early American copper collecting, this was a popular way to store a copper. It is very inexpensive (about 1 cent a sheet). On the downside, a copper wrapped in jewelers' tissue usually requires a second storage medium, like a paper envelope or a small box. Also, to see the coin, you must unwrap it. With frequent use, jeweler's paper begins to disintegrate.

  • Blue ribbon - Blue Ribbon Coin Conditioner is a liquid used to clean and coat the surface of a copper coin. When a coin is treated with Blue Ribbon, a thin layer remains on the coin surface and prevents further reactions.

    Blue Ribbon was out of production for several years, but a new supply has recently entered the market. While fairly inexpensive ($8 or so a bottle, which will treat hundreds of coppers), other means of coating coins can be used. Olive oil, for one, makes a nice coin coating. More permanent types of coatings, like varnish, were used frequently in the past. The major drawback of using a permanent sealer is removing it from the coin without causing more damage.

No matter how you store your coppers, the best bit of advice I can pass on is to look at your coins fairly frequently. Catch any changes in their color as soon as you discover them. Find out why the coin is toning, then take action to correct the situation. You will be rewarded with nice coppers that stay that way!


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