Nick Dorado emailed me with a problem: Too much money!

He literally had pounds and pounds of coins collected and saved by his grandfather. He stored them in a safe deposit box for years, always wondering if he had a rare penny or other collector's item that would be worth far more than its face value. Or, perhaps he was paying storage charges on bags of coins that could be better spent on bus fare!

We decided to find out. I arranged an appointment at Harlan J. Berk Ltd., a respected Chicago coin dealer and member of the Professional Numismatists Guild.

If you're in the same situation, you can find a local member of the guild by going to its Web site . Visiting a reputable coin dealer is important, because you never know which coin might be the rare and valuable one, or if you're getting paid an appropriate price for your coins.

Of course, you could use the annual industry book published for collectors. But most people who inherit coins saved by family members don't have any idea about what to look for in matching coins to the book illustrations. They all seem pretty much alike to an amateur. And coin prices may change frequently.

Treasure Trove

Nick arrived at Harlan J. Berk toting a satchel full of coins. They'd been stored for years in purple-velvet Crown Royal drawstring bags, plastic containers and wilted brown paper lunch bags. The collection also included some large-sized bills -- paper money left over from an earlier era.

It was an impressive hoard, but would it be worth anything?

Harlan Berk, Nick and I discussed the possibilities, while Berk's right-hand man started sorting the coins with amazing speed and no apparent rhyme or reason.

It seemed there were a lot of pennies in the collection. Berk whetted our appetites by pointing out that a 1955 penny "double-die" from the Philadelphia mint could be worth as much as $1,500, depending on the condition. In that year, and at that mint, a number of coins were struck by a malformed dye stamp, resulting in what looks like two separate images.

Unfortunately, Berk pointed out that the odds were a billion to one of finding such a penny. But what were piling up were "wheat" pennies, minted in 1958, before a change in 1959 that put the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse side of the penny in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Great Emancipator's birth. Today, those pennies are worth about 1.5 cents each. And you thought a penny couldn't appreciate!

In fact, another penny, a 1943 steel cent, was worth about a nickel. And there were some Morgan silver dollars in the collection, worth about $9 each. The values were literally piling up.

Among the paper money was a $1 silver certificate overprinted "Hawaii" during World War II. Today the bill is worth upward of $10. A 1928 dollar bill was the first series to replace the large-size bills previously issued, and was worth about $10.

As the tallying proceeded, I asked Berk what he'd advise today's collectors to consider. He pointed out that collecting is not the same as investing. Better coins are not as liquid as stocks, so the collector needs to consider an eventual exit strategy. For serious collectors, he suggested ancient Greek silver coins and Roman and Byzantine gold coins.

What about those looking at coin collecting as a hobby? Berk had several suggestions, and pointed out that for kids, the intellectual challenge and history lessons would far outweigh any future financial potential.

What's Collectible

  • Roman Silver Coins : This kind of collection sounds pretty impressive, but not necessarily too expensive for a serious collector. Berk says you can buy a silver Denarius from 200 A.D. for $120 in mint condition.

  • Original Buffalo Nickel: These coins were minted between 1913 and 1938. A rare one -- the 1918/1917 overdate -- could be worth $1,000 or more in fine condition. But circulated Buffalo nickels cost from 50 cents to a few hundred dollars, except for great rarities. Berk says the idea is to collect one nickel from every mint ever year -- a project students can have fun doing.

  • State Quarters : It's hard to miss the fact that the mints in Philadelphia and Denver are churning out millions and millions of new quarters, with a special coin for each state. So far, 38 state quarters have been issued. Harlan Berk actually created the "quarter board" that accommodates collectors of these coins. It's available free from the mint and coin shops like his. The collection boards have a space for each coin and give the historic background of other U.S. coins -- a real learning experience for kids.

Berk says the new quarters are beautiful, but have no metallic value. In addition, the mints are creating so many of them that they're unlikely to have much value over the long term. And he advises that since you pay a premium to get a quarter directly from the mint or a coin shop in "mint" condition, you might as well pick them out of pocket change.

While we were taking the beginner's course on coin collecting, Nick's eyes kept wandering to his coin piles, which was being tallied up by Berk's assistant.

When all was said and done, Nick's collection was worth $754.50, far more than he anticipated. He was ready to sell.

I stopped him. What are you going to do with this "found money?" I asked. Nick said he'd probably just deposit it in the bank. I made a suggestion. We'd been looking at some U.S. gold coins in the nearby case. I pointed to a U.S. $20 gold piece from 1923. At the day's gold price, it would cost $725. I gently suggested that he might consider turning his old coins to gold -- true alchemy. Nick took the suggestion, bought the coin, and pocketed the change to buy lunch after stashing his new gold coin in the now-empty safety deposit box.

Nick Dorado. His last name means gold, which is exactly what he found in those dusty bags of coins.

If you've inherited old coins, or plan to collect them, they could be worth much more than you'd ever expect. That's the Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book, The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need? in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald's and Pennzoil.

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