Perhaps one of the biggest influences on how a coin looks today is how it was stored. The appearance of a numismatic item largely depends on how kind of holder, bag or sleeve in which it resided for years. As most vintage coins were made with softer and/or chemically reactive metals, the storage method had a tremendous impact on surface preservation and overall appearance.
Many United States coins were issued in large canvas bags. Silver Dollars, as an example, were distributed in large, heavy $1,000 face value bags. As one can imagine, having 1,000 Silver Dollars in a single bag resulted in the coins acquiring numerous contact marks, abrasions and nicks. In fact, Silver Dollars showing a large quantity of evenly distributed marks is considered to have “bagmarks” or appear “baggy.”
There was one positive benefit to these canvas bags: the coins that came into contact with the cloth often toned in beautiful colors. The sulfur in the canvas would react with the silver and turn the coins wild shades of blue, turquoise, violet, green and gold. Some of these bag-toned Silver Dollars can be worth enormous premiums due to their exquisite color. It’s not unusual for these coins to sell for $1,000, $2,500 or even $5,000 per coin solely based on their extraordinary toning.
If a coin was stored in a roll, it was probably preserved nicely over time. Coins in rolls tend not to jostle around and, except for the coins at the ends of the roll, were less likely to tone. Original rolls of Mercury Dimes, for example, can contain coins that grade anywhere from MS65 through MS68. By comparison, a typical Morgan Silver Dollar from a canvas bag is probably going to grade more like MS62 to MS64.
When the United States Mint issued commemorative coins, they often released these pieces in special holders, boxes and display cases. Without realizing it, these display vehicles created unusual and spectacular toning patterns. For example, some commemorative holders had cardboard tabs which held the coins into place. The tabs, being made of sulfur-rich material, would tone the areas of the coin in direct contact. Therefore, many commemorative coins show what’s known as “tab toning” from these original holders.
A similar phenomenon occurred with vintage proof sets. In the 19th century, proof coins were often issued in plush velvet display cases. This imparted a rich, deep patina to the silver coins in each set. If a proof set was kept open for extended periods of time, sometimes the obverses of the coins would display just minimal toning while the reverses would be engulfed in solid, deep color.