Jan. 4, 2002 -- If you've ever traveled around Europe, chances are you've accumulated a collection of loose coins and bills left over from each country you visited.
But if you're thinking that the advent of the euro and the demise of the old European currencies will turn that chunk of change into a veritable treasure trove in a few years, think again, say experts. It's highly unlikely that the defunct currencies of the euro zone will ever be worth more than their face value.
That's because one of the key factors that goes into making old coins and bills valuable — rarity — will probably not be a factor with the individual European currencies, says Harlan Berk, president of the Professional Numismatists Guild, an association of professional coin collectors and dealers based in Fallbrook, Calif.
"A lot of people mistakenly set coins aside because they go out of circulation," says Berk. "If everyone does that, guess what? They're not worth anything."
Hanging On to History
The European Central Bank estimates the 12 countries that have adopted the euro have roughly 9 billion bank notes of their respective currencies in circulation. Although half of that amount has already been exchanged, many people are expected to hang on to some of the old bills for sentimental value.
One such person, Andrew Urbaczewski, an assistant professor at Washington State University's School of Accounting, Information Systems and Business Law, says he has been saving one bank note from every European country that he's visited since 1997.
"I don't know if they will ever be worth anything, but I will make a nice history lesson for my two small children," he says.
Coins will be even more plentiful. Hard figures on the number of European coins in circulation are difficult to estimate, but a European Central Bank spokesman says the number is probably roughly equivalent to the almost 52 billion Euro coins the central bank is minting.
And since most banks don't exchange coins, a steady supply of them is pretty much assured for some time to come.
"The coins that you just bring back loose in your pocket; the odds are they will never have any substantial value," says Arthur Friedberg, president of the Coin and Currency Institute in Clifton, N.J.
The good news is, there are alternatives to letting all of that change collect dust in a drawer while you hope in vain that the coins will be worth something someday.
Some coin dealers will buy the old European coins, but probably not for face value. Berk says his Chicago-based firm, Harlan J. Berk Ltd., will purchase them for half of what they're worth. But he expects to eventually stop buying them as they're phased out.
And if you're traveling to Europe in the next few months, bring the old currencies along. Most European banks will exchange national currencies for the Euro up until the end of February, and certain designated locations will continue to do so until the end of March. After that, you'll have to go to the European central banks, which will exchange notes free of charge at least until the end of 2012 and coins until at least the end of this year.
You also can donate the them to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which will accept European national coins into its "Change for Good" program for at least the next several months.
As part of the program, flight attendants on 13 different airlines will collect spare coins and bills from passengers and send the proceeds to UNICEF. Those airlines are Aer Lingus, Air Mauritius, Alitalia, Nippon Airways, American Airlines, Asiana Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Crossair, Finnair, JAL, Qantas and TWA.
For those who aren't planning to fly anytime soon, there are now 119 locations nationwide to drop off old change for UNICEF listed on the organization's Web site: http://www.unicefusa.org/donation/change.html.
You can also mail your foreign currency to: Travelex America, Attn: Jessica Lynch, Change for Good for UNICEF, JFK Airport, Terminal 4 IAT, Jamaica, NY 11430.