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Grading the Color of Copper Coins

How to Tell What Color Your Copper Coins Are

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In order to properly grade copper coins you must be able to describe the color of the copper. Over time the brilliant orange/red color of a freshly minted copper coin, such as a Lincoln cent, will diminish and fade to a deep chocolate brown color. As this degradation of color occurs, there are varying degrees in which both red and brown colors will exist simultaneously on the surface of the coin. This color designation only applies to uncirculated copper coins. All circulated copper coins are assumed to be "brown." This guide will help you accurately describe the color of your uncirculated copper coins.

The Chemistry of Copper

Copper is an element with a chemical symbol of "Cu". Compared to other metals, copper is soft, malleable and ideal for the minting of coins since it exists in great abundance. Pure copper has a bright reddish orange color. Unfortunately, copper is also highly reactive to chemicals naturally found in our atmosphere. Oxygen, water vapor and various acids react with the copper and cause it to tarnish. This oxidation, combined with other chemical reactions, results in its natural bright reddish orange color to gradually turn into a deep chocolate brown color known as patina.

Click on the images below to see a larger photo of each of the example coins.

Copper Coin Color: Red (RD)

Copper Cent With Red Color
Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, Ha.com
A copper coin when first struck exhibits a lustrous reddish orange color. These specimens are prized by coin collectors and carry a value premium over identical coins that are starting to turn brown. Most coin collectors will agree that if a copper coin has retained about 90% of its original orange red color it will be designated as "Red" and abbreviated in its grade as "RD".

Copper Coin Color: Red & Brown (RB)

Copper Cent With Red Brown Color
Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, Ha.com
Once oxidation and chemical reactions start to occur on the surface of the copper coin, its color will start to change from reddish orange to brown. This may include some areas of the coin that are approaching a chocolate brown color while other areas still have some of the original reddish orange color. A common measurement is that between 10% and 90% of the original orange red color remains. This is termed as a "red brown" coin and is abbreviated as "RB" on coin grading descriptions.

Copper Coin Color: Brown (BN)

Copper Cent With Brown Color
Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, Ha.com
Finally, when almost the entire surface of the coin has reacted with the atmosphere such that the surface of the coin is almost entirely a chocolate brown color, this is considered a "brown" coin and is designated as "BN" on grading descriptions.

Shades of Copper

Twenty Copper Lincoln pennies arranged by darkening shades of red to brown.
Individual Photos courtesy of Teletrade Coin Auctions, www.teletrade.com; Arranged by James Bucki
Grading the color of copper coins is very subjective, especially when the color is on the boundary between shades. The chart at the left shows twenty coins representing the various shades of red, red and brown, and brown. Click on the photo to see a larger image so you can compare your coin to it. Remember that computer photos do not capture the exact color of the coins, so you may notice some inconsistency from one computer to another.

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