Toned Coinage

Toned Coinage

As the Editor of Coin Collecting, I will be inviting a few of my friends and colleagues to contribute articles in areas of numismatics in which they have a specialty.  I have invited Diana Taunton to write an article for you on Toned Coins.  Diana has a great love for coin collecting and quite an eye and understanding for the beauty of Morgan Dollars with exceptional coloration from toning.  I am sure you will enjoy the article, and I hope it will be a learning experience for you.


Toning refers to the coloring or “mellowed appearance” that is sometimes evident on the surface of a coin. It is caused by the chemical combination of the metal of the coin with another element, such as sulfur, over a long period of time, which produces a patina (some would call it discoloration) on the coin. It is the perception of this patina that is referred to when describing a coin as being ‘toned‘.

Virtually any coin can display some type of natural toning, which usually comes about due to the way the coin was stored or handled over many decades of time. (The exception to this is gold. Most gold coins do not exhibit toning because of the inert nature of the metal.) We have all seen the effects of toning on pennies ~ going from the bright shiny red of brand new cents to the almost black appearance of old circulated ones. Old Buffalo and Jefferson nickels often take on different hues. One of the most spectacular coins I have ever seen was an early Buffalo nickel, toned to a brilliant metallic indigo with russet, rose and burgundy highlights. It was not an extremely rare date, nor a finest-known grade, but it commanded a healthy price because of its magnificent coloration.

Silver coins, given the right circumstances, can tone over the years to display an amazing array of colors: ambers, rainbows, deep blues and violets, pale pastels, pearlescent hues, golden rims, ‘crescent-moon’ rainbows… each one as unique as a fingerprint. This iridescent toning reflects the palette of nature’s artwork ~ they are literally Mother Nature’s masterpieces.

Certainly the most celebrated of silver toned coins are the Morgan silver dollars. Why? Because of the wide variety of colors and the availability of coins saved and treasured by collectors. Why did Morgans tone, in particular? Because of the treatment of the coins after the minting process, and two basic factors:

First of all, most silver dollars were sealed into cloth sacks holding 1,000 coins, soon after being struck. Many of these bags were then stored away for long periods of time. Certain coins in each bag would be in contact with the cloth and the sulfur of the canvas would interact with the coin surface creating the toned effect over a period of many years of storage. This explains why many coins are toned on one side only. It also explains why some may show a “crescent” of color when one coin overlapped another, because only a portion of the surface was in contact with the cloth.

The second factor causing the toning of Morgans occurred through contact with the paper wrappers for used for storing rolls of Morgan dollars. Again, the sulfur in the heavy paper used for what are called “original rolls” would interact with the coin surfaces, sometimes resulting in white coins with golden or rainbow edges. Sometimes the coins on the ends of the rolls would show truly unique coloration depending on how the paper ends were folded-over. The most amazing example of this type of toning that I have ever seen was quite recently: a certified gem 1887-P Morgan. The coin must have been at the end of a roll, and the paper was crimped in such a way that the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions on the obverse are pristine white and meet in the center to form what resembles a Celtic cross. Imagine a Celtic cross, perfectly centered over the obverse of a bright silver Morgan dollar… and then imagine four rainbows highlighting the cross, and each of the rainbows change to a deep indigo all the way to the edge of the coin. Difficult to describe, magnificent to behold, impossible to forget, and absolutely unique!

A beautifully toned coin will command a huge premium in price over an un-toned coin of the same date, mintmark and grade. For this reason, it is recommended that coin enthusiasts purchase only toned coins that have been encapsulated and certified by reputable grading services. It not only assures you of the legitimacy of the coin and the natural toning of the coin… but also protects it for generations to come.

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This content was written by Diana Taunton. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Gary Eggleston for details.