The Concept of the "Stretch Date"

Unless you are a very savvy collector, it is likely that many of the preconceptions you have about building your set(s) of choice are wrong. One of the most egregious mistakes that I see set collectors make has to do with the decision of what grade to purchase a specific date.

If you are collecting a long-involved series such as Liberty Head quarter eagles or Liberty Head eagles, you are aware of how daunting the road ahead seems. You have well over 100 date/mint combinations to purchase and many of these are issues which are truly rare (and expensive) in higher grades.

The single biggest mistake I see collectors make is that they overbuy the common dates in their series, and they underbuy the keys. Let’s use the Liberty Head eagle series to illustrate this.

Liberty Head eagles were made from 1838 through 1907 and nearly every date struck prior to 1880 is rare in higher grades. But many of these dates are condition rarities (they are rare only in high grades) while others are absolute rarities (they are rare in all grades).

Unless you have an extremely deep budget, you aren’t going to be able to buy all 175+ in finest available grades. You have to make smart buying decisions and one of these is figuring which dates are worth “stretching” on to buy.

My point in this blog is that many coins simply aren’t worth stretching for, unless you are assembling an all-time best collection.

Let me give you some specific examples, related to the Liberty Head eagle series.

In this series, the Carson City dates are some of the rarest, most popular and most expensive issues. Many of the pre-1880 dates are worth stretching for, especially ones like the 1870-CC, 1873-CC, 1878-CC, and the 1879-CC. The savvy collector has to approach the CC eagles from the 1880’s and the 1890’s differently.

Let’s look at the 1891-CC as this is the closest thing to a “generic” in the area of Carson City eagles.

1891-CC $10.00

1891-CC $10.00

The 1891-CC is scarce in MS63, very rare in properly graded MS64 and exceedingly rare in MS65. The following price chart is an interesting study:

  • PCGS MS63:  $5,500-6,500
  • PCGS MS64:  $14,000-16,000
  • PCGS MS65:  $75,000-100,000 (hypothetical prices; none yet graded)

To me, it seems obvious that the best value grade for the 1891-CC eagle is MS63. An MS64 is probably the right grade for the type collector seeking a single high grade CC eagle. The MS65—if it ever comes available—seems like an incredibly bad value to me. As a serious date collector, it makes sense to me to limit your spending on this reasonably ho-hum date to $5,500-6,500. This will buy you a nice coin and one which shouldn’t pale in appearance when compared to the typical MS64 of this date.

I think every series has a certain percentage of issues which are “stretch dates.” I would estimate that this is in the 15-25% range, meaning that the long, long Liberty Head eagle series (which consists of over 175 issues) has maybe 30-40 dates which the smart collector will stretch on.

What factors constitute a stretch date? These differ from series to series but in the various 18th and 19th century gold series, I’d list these factors as being significant:

  • The coin is an absolute rarity. Ideally, it has a total surviving population of fewer than 100 coins.
  • The coin fits into one or more of the following categories: very low mintage, one-year type or first-year-of-issue, has multiple levels of demand.
  • The coin isn’t an esoteric variety or a little-known issue. Its rarity is easily evident to even the casual collector.

What are the stretch dates for each series? If you want to know the answers, you’ll have to wait for my series of articles about stretch dates which will be published on this site in the coming months. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your opinion about stretch dates in your series of choice.