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Finding Melt Value of Junk Silver Coins, or, How I Found $5 In A Field

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CoinsThe other day, I was walking our beagle Tobey when I spotted something shiny a few feet away. We wandered over and discovered it was a quarter. As I typically do with any free money on the ground, I picked it up and saw it was your typical twenty-five cent piece minted in 1957. As I looked a little closer, it looked whiter than your regular quarter so I made a mental note to check it out when I got home. When I checked online I discovered that the Mint changed the composition of quarters in 1964, removing most of its silver. From 1932 to 1964, quarters were 90% silver and 10% copper. The metal value of the quarter is around $4.80 – I picked up a five dollar bill (it was over $5 when I physically picked it up).

Numismatics, or the study and collection of currency, always seemed fun but I never got into it. In the past, I’d read about people collecting other coins for their melt value but the prospect of collecting per-1982 pennies because they’re currently worth two cents didn’t interest me. While I don’t really have much interest in searching through a pile of quarters, I do think that it’s fun reading about it.

Junk Silver

There’s a little corner of the investing world focused on investing in “junk silver.” Junk silver just refers to coins that have silver (usually 90%, also known as coin silver, because most of the suitable US coins have 90% silver) but are in circulated condition and thus have limited collective value above the value of the silver in the coins. They’re appealing because it often sells at the spot price of silver, the coins are still legal tender so the value has an established base, and it’s easy to break up the value. You would typically buy a bag of junk silver valued at $1,000 with 715 ounces of silver.

Which Coins are Valuable?

I found that the most useful site for finding about coin prices was coinflation.com and Wikipedia has a list of common US coins used for junk silver purposes. So I did a little research and collected some information on which “regular” coins might be worth a little extra. By regular, I just mean coins that you probably wouldn’t have known are valuable if someone didn’t tell you they were jam packed with silver.

  • Half Dollars – Anything before 1964 is worth more than fifty cents. 1964 Kennedy is 90% silver, 10% copper as are 1948-1963 Franklins. I almost never see these out in the wild though, but worth mentioning.
  • Quarter – Pre-1964 coins are the ones you want, with 90% silver and 10% copper. After 1965, coppers were made of 91.67% copper and 8.33% nickel which puts the metal value at under five cents. Before 1932, the quarter was a Standing Liberty Silver Quarter and it’s 6.25% grams of 90% silver and 10% copper. You’d know you had something special if you had a Standing Liberty quarter.
  • Nickel – Composition hasn’t changed since World War 2 (75% copper, 25% nickel) and the metal value is a fraction less than the face.
  • Penny – 1909-1982 pennies are 95% copper and 5% zinc, putting the metal value at a bit over 2 cents. After 1982, pennies are 97.5% zinc with a thin copper coating. 1982 pennies can be either and the only way to tell is to weigh them (copper pennies are 3.11 grams, zinc pennies are 2.5 grams).

Remember those wheat pennies? Those are always worth at least three cents but that’s based on collective/numismatic value and not metal value. I just wanted to throw that one in there. I think a pretty good rule of thumb is that if you have a coin before 1964, keep it because it’ll be worth more than face value.

Calculating Value

Calculating a coin’s value is very simple and you need just a few pieces of information:

  • Value of the constituent metals
  • Metal composition of the coin
  • Total weight of the coin

Let’s take the quarter I found, the 1957 Washington Quarter. It’s weight is 6.25 ounces and it’s 90% silver, 10% copper. We have 0.625 ounces of copper and 5.625 of silver. You can either get the price of the metal in ounces or, if you go with the prevailing way it is quoted, make the conversion yourself. One thing to remember is that a troy ounce, which is used to weight precious metals, is more than a “regular” ounce, called an avoirdupois ounce, you are used to. Doing the proper conversions, we find the silver value to be about $4.8033 and the copper value to be less than half a cent. That puts the total value at around $4.81.

How about a quarter today? It’s 5.67 grams and 91.67% copper and 8.33% nickel. The copper in the quarter is worth almost 4 cents and the nickel is worth almost one. In total, it has a metal value of less than five cents.

Good luck and may you find a few valuable coins in your pocket!

(Photo: kevinl8888)

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14 Responses to “Finding Melt Value of Junk Silver Coins, or, How I Found $5 In A Field”

  1. Wow. I definitely never knew this about coins. I have a whole jar of half dollars, that i intend to investigate when I get home tonight!

  2. echidnina says:

    How interesting. How does one go about selling these coins, though? Is it worth the effort rifling through one’s pocket change / coin jar to see if there’s any $5 quarters in there, or are the buyers only interested in big quantities?

    • Jim says:

      Most investors will want large quantities but you see them on eBay in much smaller quantities. Also, local stores that buy gold and silver will typically buy them too.

  3. BrianC says:

    It’s pretty rare these days to find pre-1964 silver in pocket change. I’ve never searched rolls, but who knows, there might be some finds there.

  4. daenyll says:

    always check my quarters for anything before 75 or a bicentennial and pull them out of the laundry stash, but will definitely have to remember specifically for pre 64

  5. JimL says:

    6.25 oz.–?? You mentioned that your quarter had weight of more than 6 oz. Much larger than all the quarters I have ever seen.

  6. JimL says:

    Assuming the pre 64 coins weigh approx 10% more than today’s quarters, I come in at 4 quarters/oz.

    with newer coins. Converting troy/std weight at 10/16 assuming silver @ $30.00 tr.oz. Comes to $19.00/std. oz.

    4 quarters at one std. oz @ 90% silver is 0.9 oz. x $19.00 = $17.00 divide by 4 quarters is $4.25.

    I come up with approx $4.68 adding in the 10% weight differential from old/new coins. Both our calculations are

    estimates, and come very close. I think you meant to say grams, not ounces when describing you quarter.

    Great article, keep up the good work. Very interesting. JimL

  7. Very interesting information. We have saved a bunch of these but never have ‘cashed’ them out because we always feel like where ever we take them will ‘take’ us. Now that there is a spot to go to figure out what they might be worth we might decide to cash them out!

  8. Strebkr says:

    This makes me want to dig out my piggy bank and see what could be hiding in there.

  9. cvargo says:

    I love numismatics and if you are going to search you piggy banks make sure you watch for these as well
    http://www.collectorscorner.org/pocket.html

    a 1932 D Quarter no matter the condition is quite the find and will bring you a good amount of money.

    also a good forum if you find something real old and want to know if it has any numismatic value check coinpeople.com

    remember numismatic value will usually out weigh melt value.

  10. tom says:

    But you should remember, it is illegal to melt down a coin for its valuable metal content. So, the only way to cash in a silver quarter for its silver value is to break the law. Thus, you’re can only get extra value from the collector market, if you want to remain legal.

  11. Scott says:

    So instead of “Cash For Gold”, this is “Cash for Cash”? :-)

    • Strebkr says:

      Those Cash for Gold commercials scare me. I feel bad for people who mail their stuff in only to find out they are paying next to nothing for it and there is no way to get their stuff back.

      • echidnina says:

        I know, seeing all these gold-buying commercials and shop fronts popping up EVERYWHERE nowadays breaks my heart a little. I’m sure that there must be some of them that provide a decent deal but most of them are going to buy for the least they can so they can profit off it from people who don’t know any better.


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