When you hold or handle your coins, the number one rule to remember is to never touch the faces (obverse or reverse) of the coin with your bare fingers. Always handle coins by the edge. If the coins are in Mint Set packaging, Proof Set lenses, plastic capsules, slabs, or holders, you should never remove them unless necessary. This is especially true if the coins are in grading service holders. If you need to crack a coin out of a slab, exercise extreme caution.
Sometimes, you may want to remove a coin from its capsule to examine it more closely or photograph it. Follow these tips and tricks when you handle your coins, and you will avoid damaging them. If the coin is loose (not in a capsule or holder) your primary concern is preventing damage to the coin.
Establish a safe working surface.
Lay a soft towel or other reasonably thick but soft cloth on the table, so if you drop the coin, you don't end up with a ding to edge, or worse, a rolling coin that winds up on the (dirty) floor. A soft cloth will cushion the fall and prevent rolling. Therefore, always work over a cloth or specially-made felt-lined coin tray. Avoid using a towel that smells heavy with fabric softener, since those chemicals could damage the surface of your coins.
Make sure your hands are clean.
Although some people advocate wearing cotton gloves when you handle your coins, I don't recommend them. In fact, you won't see most professional coin dealers using them, either. Wearing gloves makes you lose tactile sensitivity in your fingers, and you become more clumsy, thereby risking a dropped coin. If your hands are clean, you don't need to worry about damaging the coin from oil or dirt. Nevertheless, gloves are an unnecessary complication.
The primary way people damage their coins is through handling when your finger touches the surface of the coin and gets skin oils and fingerprints on it. Although in the past, experts recommended that you wash your hands before handling your coins, I think even this step is unnecessary today, since the primary offender is skin oils anyway.
Just use hand sanitizer before handling your coins, paying particular attention to your fingertips. Hand sanitizers are alcohol-based, which efficiently strips the oil out of your skin while cleaning your hands at the same time. Wipe the hand sanitizer off your fingers before it gets a chance to dry. Be sure to use unscented sanitizer, since the scented kinds might leave behind other trace perfume chemicals that could get on the coins.
Handle the coin by the edges only.
There is never any good reason to touch the front or the back of a coin with your fingertips. Even when your fingers are clean, any little bit of dirt, oil, or grit can damage the surface. Pick the coin up with your primary hand (most people are right-handed), using your thumb and forefinger to hold the coin securely. Always keep the coin above your soft cloth or tray, leaning in towards the coin rather than drawing the coin towards your face. Be sure to keep the coin away from your exhaled breath.
If you are looking at a loose coin at a coin show or at a dealer's shop, be aware of any felt-lined coin tray or other soft surfaces the dealer may provide. If you don't see one, asked the dealer if he has one that you can use. Then, be sure to hold the coin over it when you pick it up.
Most dealers put their coins in some kind of holder, coin flip or a cardboard 2x2, but from time-to-time, you may have to hold a loose coin without any drop protection. In this case, use your other hand as a "catch-guard," holding your cupped left hand slightly below the coin so that if you do drop it, your other hand will catch it.
Never under any circumstances touch the surface of someone else's coin, even if the coin is a crappy, well-circulated, low-cost specimen in someone's junk box. Having respect for other people's coins is the number one point of etiquette to observe at coin shows, coin clubs, and in dealer shops.
Do not spit on your coins.
As obvious as this seems to be, people spit on coins all the time at coin shows. When you talk, little tiny flecks of saliva spew forth from your mouth, some of which can land on unprotected coins. This is often the cause of spotting that you see on some copper, silver, and Proof coins. When you hold a loose coin, keep it well away from your breath-stream. Although breathing on it probably won't damage it (it might depend on what you've been drinking), frequently people are chatting while looking at coins. Therefore, make it a habit of holding the coin out of your flow of breath and saliva.
Handling Proof Coins
Unlike regular business strike coins or coins that have already circulated in commerce, Proof coins present a unique challenge for people who decide to remove them from their capsules or protective packaging. Because modern Proof coins have pristine, mirror-like surfaces, any tiny imperfection is a disaster for these coins. You must take special care if you feel you have to handle your Proof coins.
Establish a Sterile Work-Space
I don't mean "sterile" in the medical sense, but you do need a spotless, lint-free, dust-free space. Make sure your hands and fingers are immaculate and have everything ready in advance for whatever you plan to do.
If you're photographing the coin, have the camera set up and ready. If you're examining the coin, have your microscope or loupe or magnifier close at hand with the lighting already established. If you're planning to move the coin from the official United States Mint packaging to a capsule, have the capsule open and ready to receive the coin. You want to minimize the time that the Proof coin is exposed to the open environment.
Additionally, you may want to use soft cotton gloves to handle your proof coins if you would feel more comfortable doing this. Remember, to be extremely careful since your proof coin could slip out of your hands since you are wearing gloves.
Hold your breath.
Okay, literally holding your breath is probably a bad idea, but don't breath on the coin, and particularly do not talk or chew gum at all while the Proof coin removed from its holder. Make the exposure as brief and safe as possible. Proof coins have very fragile surfaces, and you will lose several grade points if the surface gets damaged by something that eats into or scratches it.
Coin Handling Summary
Handling a coin does not need to be a frightening experience. Remember, do not touch the obverse or the reverse of the coin with your bare fingers at any time. Use common sense, clean hands, and a soft working surface, and you will avoid damaging your coins.
Edited by: James Bucki