To prevent future disputes, a knowledgeable expert should appraise coins or paper money early in the divorce case before anything else is done with them. Sometimes collectors seek to protect collections by hiding parts in different locations. A knowledgeable expert may even be able to tell if the collection appears to be incomplete and thus trigger further investigations.
Family Advocate: Outstanding Financial Experts (Buy Issue)Appraisals for equitable distribution are important to prevent future acrimony. However, a divorce appraisal is more likely to be challenged than any other type of appraisal. Often one party has no idea of what a spouse's collections are worth. Even when the collection is a small part of marital assets, spouses routinely are skeptical of values attributed to collections and that there has been full disclosure. The reality is, however, that a spouse is just as likely to overvalue as undervalue such collections.

Maintain collections

Collections of coins and paper money generally are worth more as a group than as individual items. When the best items of a collection are sold separately, a buyer has less incentive to pay top dollar for what is left. This holds true for collections of stamps, paper money, and even picture postcards. Once appraised, collections that are worth a lot of money should be protected and insured, and an expert should determine the likelihood of the collection's future appreciation or loss in value.

Attorneys should interview prospective experts about their appraisal techniques; their specific experience in divorce cases; and their professional qualifications, certifications, and continuing education history. Ask candidates to describe how they go about assessing value, writing a compelling report, and how courts have used their opinions to value coin and paper money collections. Ask too for the names of other lawyers who have retained them as experts in divorce cases.


The attorney and selected expert should discuss the appraisal fee before any work is undertaken, and the fee should be based on time involved, rather than a percentage of the value of the items. A percentage fee is unethical and may lead to a conflict of interest because the arrangement may encourage inflated values. In addition, a qualified appraiser, as defined by IRS regulations, must be independent if the appraisal is for tax purposes. An appraisal fee based on the valuation amount could compromise the expert's ability to meet the "independence" test.

If an appraisal is needed for estate tax purposes, a written appraisal is required no matter how little value is involved. Expect to pay a fee. For tax deduction purposes, a written appraisal is needed if the donation exceeds $5,000.

Use a book only as a very preliminary guide to valuing coins or paper money. Every item in a book is priced, but not everything is desirable or popular. Some coins are desirable in some grades but not in others. The age of a coin has nothing to do with its value. Many ancient Greek and Roman coins (more than 2000 years old) sell for less than $20.00. Condition and supply and demand are what make a coin valuable.

Sorting or inventorying coins generally is not necessary. However, if an inventory is required, handle coins carefully. The most important thing to remember in handling coins is not to let anyone clean them. Coins that have been cleaned generally are less valuable. If you have trouble seeing a coin clearly because it is dark or worn, examine it with a good magnifying glass under a bright light. Tarnish on silver coins can actually add to their value.

Identify counterfeits

An expert can inform you of whether any coin needs to be "expertized." Certain coins are routinely counterfeited, usually by adding or removing a mint mark on a coin. Coins can be sent to nationally recognized companies that, for a fee, will seal the coin in a plastic holder, verify that it is genuine, and state the quality of the coin. At the same time coins are expertized they are graded. The grade of a coin is extremely important in determining its value.

Coins produced prior to 1945 that are all copper or all silver and appear in excellent condition need special care and handling. All gold coins should be stored individually to avoid scratching. Keep all coins in the albums or holders in which they came.

Quarters, halves, and dollars minted to commemorate the Bicentennial in 1976 and all Susan B. Anthony and Eisenhower silver dollars are worth only their face value. Silver dimes and quarters dated 1964 and earlier and all half dollars dated 1970 and earlier should be saved. All silver dollars dated 1935 and earlier are desirable. Lincoln cents dated 1958 and earlier, known as "wheat cents," are worth a little more than their face value. Buffalo nickels must have dates to be worth more than face value.

Between 1999 and 2008, the United States Mint will issue a new state quarter approximately every ten weeks. Each quarter's reverse side celebrates one of 50 states with a design honoring its unique history, traditions, and symbols. This program has been extremely popular and has resulted in millions of new coin collectors. Coins have been issued in quantities of 400 million to 800 million each. Private companies promote these coins as if they will be tomorrow's rarities. Regardless of what you hear or see on television, these coins will probably never appreciate much above face value.

Paper money

When handling paper money, be careful not to bend or soil the bills. All paper money from 1923 and earlier is valuable. That was the last year paper money was printed in a format larger than the one we use today. All $500 and $1,000 bills are worth a premium and should not be deposited into a bank. Most Federal Reserve notes (1950 and later) are not worth a premium, especially notes after 1960. An expert should view any paper money dated prior to 1960, especially if it is in excellent condition. No "Barr bills" or $2.00 bills dating back to 1976 are worth a premium.

All coin sets sold by the United States Mint have value. However, many depreciate after a few years and are not worth keeping. When submitting sets for examination by an expert, be sure to submit the original paperwork along with the coins.

There is no market for most Franklin Mint collections except for their silver and/or gold bullion value. The Franklin Mint has minted coins for many countries, and many of these do have a premium. These are currencies from various countries as opposed to "medals" struck to commemorate people and events.

Stamps and picture postcards

The same general guidelines that apply to coins and paper money apply to old U.S. and worldwide stamps and picture postcards. Store them in a dry place to avoid dampness and mildew. Picture postcards (unused and used) dating to around 1930 are collectible and should not be discarded. Postcards are normally valuable for their pictures and not for their stamps. Old letters dating to 1930 should be saved and appraised. Do not remove their stamps. With few exceptions, mint sheets and plate blocks of United States stamps issued after 1960 are not worth their face value. FA

Jon D. Edelman is president of Edelman's Coins & Stamps in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He has served the legal and accounting communities for more than thirty years as a coin appraiser and expert witness and has been a speaker on local and national radio and television shows, including the PBS "Antiques Roadshow." Mr. Edelman has written many articles on appraisal issues and teaches a CLE course for the Bucks County, Chester County, and Montgomery County bar associations.

Published in Family Advocate, Volume 29, No. 4, Spring 2007. © 2007 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.