The 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.
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 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 )