Should bank tellers reveal the value of old coins?
I had a jar of old coins that I wasn’t interested in, so I gave them to my teenage son to cash in at the bank. Some of them had a sheen, which I didn’t realize was likely pure silver. Unfortunately, he had already gotten his $25 cash from the bank for these coins, probably worth much more. Abanker friend told me that the cashier could have recognized them as valuable, then replaced them with her own cash and become the new owner. Does the cashier have an ethical obligation to disclose the real value of these coins? Simply stated, no. The coins you gave your son had, potentially, three kinds of worth. Their only “guaranteed” value is the amount printed on the face, i.e. the 50 cents or a dollar guaranteed by the Bank of Canada. But if they were old enough to have significant silver content, they would have had a value proportionate to the amount of precious metal that could be refined out of them. And finally, they had, potentially at least, a collector value; if they were rare or in especially good shape, they could have been worth whatever a collector or dealer was prepared to pay. Sometimes this collector value can exceed, by many times, both the face value and the worth of the metals.
It’s worth noting, too, that coins don’t have to be ancient to be worth more than face value. The Royal Canadian Mint continues to issue collector coins; this year’s 3D snow angels were absolutely beautiful. But a 50-cent piece cost $31.95.
Unfortunately, when you gave the coins to your son, you gave bad advice, as well. You sent him directly to the bank and by their nature, banks deal with cash at its face value at the exact moment you hand it across the counter. And it can’t work any other way; imagine your son’s reaction (or that of any other client) if a teller said, “No, I don’t want your money; take it to the coin exchange guy down on Yonge St.”
Yes, the teller likely noticed that the coins (especially the silver ones) had extra value and if she did, it would have been nice to suggest your son have them appraised. But there’s no way to determine whether the teller either recognized the coins’ extra value or cared. It is not a teller’s responsibility, or training, to distinguish collector coins and issue warnings to customers. Expecting this would be akin to expecting a teller to advise on the best time to buy U.S. dollars for your trip south. Such expectations are beyond the pay grade of front-counter staff.
At one point in my life, I sold a bunch of old silver dollars for their precious metal value, thus converting silver into cross-country skis. Within a year, silver skyrocketed, and if we’d held on longer, we could have bought Ski-Doos. Or I could have bought Apple stock and been living, now, on the French Riviera. Such is life.
Unfortunately, not having the coins appraised likely cost your son a significant amount of money. That was a mistake, but it was your mistake, not the teller’s. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.