2007 Crystal Ball Survey

I was recently asked to participate in the annual Crystal Ball survey published by Maurice Rosen. Although some of these questions are not totally pertinent to the area of rare gold coinage, I think there is quite a bit of interesting reading here. 1. We had a great market till May, then a slump. What's your outlook for 2007/2008? Please explain in detail.

I think the coin market is going to be very two-tiered in the next year. I think that really good/really interesting coins will continue to show strong demand while average quality/uninteresting coins will be very soft. We’ve had a great run the past few years but it seems inevitable to me that certain areas will slow down. I think the market weakness that we saw in 2006 reflected the fact that many areas which had performed well the past few years were strong because of dealer promotions. When the promotions stopped or the dealers decided to take profits, the demand for these series dropped quickly.

I think the price of gold will fluctuate between $500 and $600 throughout the year and we will see occasional run-ups in generic prices but nothing spectacular.

I’ve noticed that coin buyers are becoming more sophisticated and I think that choice, original coins will be strong in 2007. As an example, if you have two MS65 Bust Halves for sale at an auction and one is a true Gem with nice color while the other is dark and shows obvious rub on the high spots, the nicer of the two might bring 50%+ more. This schism between true quality and junk will be more graphically illustrated in 2007 (and beyond).

2. What areas of the market look to be the best performers for 2007/2008? Please explain why.

I think better date Seated Liberty coinage in Mint State will do well in 2007. There are still some really good values in this area, especially in the quarter and half dollar series. I love just about any No Motto Seated coin in MS64 or better. Attractive, properly graded examples of many of the so-called common dates are much, much harder to locate than people realize.

Early gold will continue to be strong but buyers are becoming more selective in this area. I really like pre-1834 quarter eagles. They are many, many times rarer than comparable half eagles and eagles yet are often priced at considerably lower levels.

Proof gold will continue to be a strong performer, especially larger denominations. My favorite coins are the pre-1890 issues with mintages of 50 coins or less in PR64 to PR66. These coins are really rare and they are very appealing to wealthy investors.

I really like the potential of New Orleans gold coinage, especially No Motto half eagles and eagles. People have finally realized how rare these issues are in higher grades and they like the fact that Condition Census coins can often be acquired for less than $10,000.

It seems that Commemorative Gold is about due for a promotion and this looks like a good area right now for speculators. I like most of the issues in MS65 and MS66.

Variety collecting has really become popular and I think that very rare varieties in popular series will do quite well in 2007. It always impresses me to see what serious collectors will pay for very rare Sheldon or Overton varieties in specialist auctions.

3. What areas of the market look to be the worst performers for 2007/2008? Please explain why.

Small sized type coins like Three Cent Nickels, Shield Nickels and Liberty Nickels are cheap right now but for a good reason. These coins are boring. No one really collects these series any more (except as type coins) and I can’t see any real reason for these series gaining in popularity.

With certain exceptions, I think that Barber coinage will remain soft as well. There are not many collectors working on complete sets of Barber coins and unless a very rare, very low population piece is offered (or a nice mid-grade circulated example of a rare date) most issues show little demand.

I think many key date 20th century (and late 19th century) coins are overvalued. Issues like 1901-S quarters and 1916 Standing Liberty quarters have dramatically increased in value and I think they are now very overpriced.

Common date Bust Dollars in Fine-Extremely Fine have gotten pretty pricey in the last few years and I would not be surprised if this market shows some correction. Lots of the pieces I see in this grade range are very overgraded. That said, I still like nice AU and better Bust Dollars as long as they are original and attractive.

It seems like you just can’t give slightly off-quality Silver Commemoratives away and I think this market will stay soft unless some large marketing firm decides to promote Commemoratives. If a Commemorative isn’t gorgeous, it is very hard to sell.

In nearly all series, I think low-end, marginal coins will be harder to sell in 2007. Even in really popular areas like early Type, coins that are clearly ugly for the grade just aren’t going to be as liquid s they were back in 2005 or early 2006.

4. Since the lows of 2001, gold almost tripled, but rare coin performance severely lagged gold. Some indices show gains of 20%-40% from 2001 to the highs of 2006! (A) What accounts for the disparity? (B) What does this portend for the future?

I think the weakness in generic gold has to do with the fact that many of the older telemarketing firms who used to promote these coins are no longer actively supporting the market. They’ve moved on to other areas with larger profit margins and that’s why the demand for bread and butter generics like MS65 Saints is nowhere what it used to be. If there is no real level of demand for generic gold, then I expect levels to continue to lag the performance of gold.

5. (A) Do you think that "Ohiogate" had a detrimental impact on the market? If yes, how so and why. If not, why not? (B) What lasting effects can we expect from "Ohiogate?"

I originally thought it would have a very detrimental short-term effect, given the fact that a huge amount of coins were being dumped on the market under the direction of a liquidator who had no clue how to properly market them. I was surprised that the market was, for the most part, able to absorb the Fund’s coins. However, I do not think the full ramifications from the scandal have been clearly felt yet. The Fund was a huge entity in the market with their fingers in a lot of pies. It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next year or two.

I think the biggest lasting effect we might see from Ohiogate is that larger intuitional investors who might have previously toyed with the idea of getting into coins might not be as anxious after they hear the gory details from this story.

6. (A) What will it take for a large financial institution to make a commitment to the coin market? (B) What specific sectors of the market would be most likely emphasized in the portfolio of a large coin fund?

I’ve spoken with clients of mine who are involved in hedge funds or private equity groups and most of them won’t do a coin deal because the numbers are just too small. These guys are looking at doing $250 million+ deals (in many cases more than this) and a little $25 million to $50 million coin deal is just too small for them. That said, there is always the chance that a hedge fund guy who loves coins might do a fund as sort of a lark. But every time we’ve seen large funds in the coin market, the results have not been good.

If a fund were to be established, it needs to be run by someone like John Albanese who is very smart and very ethical. I assume that a fund run by someone like John would focus on really rare coins like Proof gold, early type (silver and gold), classic rarities and popular individual issues like High Reliefs, Pan-Pac Octagonal and Round $50’s, etc. This is essentially what the Ohio Fund was focusing on and I think they did a very good job in terms of buying coins and focusing on specific market areas.

7. As we close 2006, how do you assess the state of coin grading? This is a broad question. I leave it to you to comment any way you want.

My complaints about the services today are the same as they were ten years ago. I do not think that either of the majors rewards originality and I see lots of coins in holders that I think are very, very marginal at best. In my area of specialization (rare date gold), I think both services have really diminished the market’s expectation of what an AU58 should look like. Coins with little or no original mint luster are graded AU55 or AU58 and this has lessened the price premium for certain dates in these grades.

On a related note, kudos to NGC for having the best customer service I’ve ever seen in a company that I do business with on a regular basis.

8.(A) How important are Modern Coins becoming to the market? Despite many people deriding them, many coins bring high prices in super-grades. (B) What are your overall views and recommendations for investors?

I’m sure every answer you’ll get about modern coins is that they are horrible, the market is totally one-way, the coins are ugly, etc. Although I basically agree with these points, I can’t completely denounce the modern coin market. I don’t like the coins and I can’t see why anyone would want to collect them but, by the same token, I can see how someone might not be as turned-on by 18th or 19th century classics as I am. I take a “live and let live” attitude with moderns. I do not plan to ever deal in them but if someone chooses to collect these coins, more power to them. They are affordable, easy to buy and, hopefully, are a good stepping-stone to more sophisticated market areas.

That said, I would NEVER recommend any modern coin as an investment. As far as collecting these coins, I think at $50 or $100 per coin, moderns are just fine. But I would caution the investor to avoid expensive PR70 and MS70 moderns as they have lots of downside risk, in my opinion.

9. Two sophisticated investors come to you to invest for the long-term. One has $25,000, the other $250,000. Each investor wants only a few coins. What do you recommend to each and why? Please state the upside potential for your picks.

For a $25,000 package, I would suggest the following. I would choose an interesting No Motto Seated quarter or half dollar in MS64 or MS65 in the $7500-10,000 range. I’d try to find a coin with a population of fewer than ten coins with relatively few higher and a piece that was original and very attractive. Then, I’d find a New Orleans half eagle or eagle in the AU58 to MS62 range that was Condition Census quality in the $7,500 to 10,000 range. With the remaining money, I would find a piece of Proof gold that was relatively affordable (around $10,000) but which had a lower mintage figure than a “common” date. I think this would be a small but neat group of coins.

For a larger budget collection, I would start with two pieces of early gold. I’d try and find a rare Fat Head half eagle struck in the 1820’s or 1830’s in Uncirculated in the $25,000-35,000 range and a quarter eagle from this era in MS62 or above in the same price range. I would then look for a really neat piece of Proof gold; something like a PR65 quarter eagle from the 1870’s or a high end PR64 half eagle from this decade. I’d figure to spend another $25,000-30,000 on this piece. Then, I would look for a Gem Large Size Bust quarter in the $15,000-20,000 range or a killer MS66 Bust half dollar. After this, I would try and buy one great early copper coin; something like a 1794 cent in Uncirculated with a great 100+ year pedigree. I’d budget around $20,000 for this coin. Next, I’d buy a sexy $10,000 Colonial coin with a Ford pedigree. The Ford sales have been a little under the radar to those who don’t specialize in Colonials but this is easily the greatest offering of early Americana in our lifetime. I’d look for a high grade example of a popular issue like a Pine Tree shilling or maybe a New Jersey or Massachusetts or Connecticut copper. I would finish off this collection with a few great 19th century gold coins; maybe a couple of very high grade Carson City or Dahlonega pieces or some killer New Orleans coins. I would be highly selective here and focus on really nice, really high end coins. If I had another $5000-10,000 left I would buy a few great plated Chapman auction catalogs. These are rare, undervalued and incredibly neat.

If I had a chance to buy an 1838-O half dollar or an 1876-CC twenty cent piece I’d choose one of these two classic rarities as my $250k portfolio and punt the group of coins listed in the paragraph(s) above. I’ve always felt that these were the two “Great American Rarities” that were truly undervalued, even though they have appreciated significantly in the past few years.

10. Increasing government regulations, further losses of privacy, more taxes, these are all likely to impact our lives in the years ahead. (A) How might they impact the coin market? (B) What specific advice do you have for today's investors?

I don’t really feel qualified to answer this question so I am not going to delve into it…except for one quick comment. I’m going to assume that a big issue in the coming years for the coin business will be an Internet sales tax. My business has grown exponentially over the years due to the Web and I think that an Internet VAT-type tax could really hurt the growth of the coin market.

11. Your Best Buys for Type Coins in MS and Proof.

As I mentioned above, I love No Motto Seated quarters and halves in properly graded MS64 and above. These coins are really rare and really good deals. New Orleans half dollars from the 1840’s in MS63 and above seem to be one of the best values in the market right now. It’s hard to find these coins but when they are available you can purchase some legitimately great coins for under $7,500. I’ve always had a soft spot for Flying Eagle cents in Gem Uncirculated. If you can find coins that are well struck, free of mint-made defects and which are not dark, they are great values at current levels. For many years, I’ve thought that Proof Braided Hair half cents in 64RB and better are really cheap at current levels. I’m not saying that they are great “investments” but they seem like a lot of coin for the money.

I think that very pretty type coins in MS65/PR65 and better are, in general, good value right now. By this, I mean coins that have very pretty (but not too deep) multi-colored toning. I would avoid ultra-high grade coins that have a high premium over the next grade down and I would avoid coins that have a huge premium for Cameo/Ultra Cameo designation. I think a lot of low population Ultra Cameo coins run the risk of growing populations when coins graded a number of years ago are resubmitted.

12. Your Best Buys in the Gold Coin sector.

In early gold coins, I love the quarter eagles struck from 1821 through 1834. They are extremely well priced in comparison to early half eagles and eagles. I have a few clients right now who are assembling date sets and I am amazed at how hard it is to find a number of these early quarter eagles.

In the Liberty Head series, I think New Orleans coins offer unbeatable value. My new book has created a number of new collectors and I’d say that high grade New Orleans gold from the 1840’s and 1850’s tends to be, in most cases, many times rarer than Charlotte and Dahlonega issues from this era—at lower price levels!

An esoteric but much undervalued series of coins is the Philadelphia eagles from the 1840’s. There are a few dates (such as the 1844, 1845 and 1846) that are almost impossible to find in any grade above AU50 but which are still relatively affordable. And unlike most mintmarked coins, not all of the Philadelphia pieces have been dipped-n-stripped.

If I were a rich guy who liked 20th century gold, I think I’d focus on Indian Head half eagles. These are by far the rarest 20th century gold pieces in Gem Uncirculated and a number of dates in this series (1909-O, 1911-D, 1912-S, 1913-S, 1914-S and 1915-S) are excessively rare in Gem. If you started a high grade set, you’d have less competition than in the Indian eagle and St. Gaudens double eagle series, so you might actually have a shot at the really great coins if and when they become available.

13. Your Best Buys in Silver Dollars.

I’ve always thought that Gem Trade Dollars were one of the rarest and most undervalued mid-19th century types.

I personally hate Morgan Dollars so I’m probably not that the best person to ask about “best buys” in this series.

I’m amazed that more people don’t try and assemble Peace Dollar sets. These coins are such great deals compared to Morgans. The series is short, completable and not terribly expensive in Gem. If someone was to write a really good guide to collecting Peace Dollars and a few of the larger retailers actively promoted this series, I think prices could rise dramatically. That said, I doubt this will happen anytime soon.

14. Your Best Buys in the U.S. Commemorative series.

Every time I’ve been asked this question, I always give the same answer: I like Gem examples of the pre-1928 silver half dollars. I don’t look at that many commemoratives but when I do, I find most of the issues like the Maine, Missouri, Alabama, Grant, Vancouver, Pilgrim, etc. to be washed out and “yucky.” I think undipped, lightly toned MS65 and MS66 examples of these early issues are cheap at current levels.

15. Your Best Buys among 20th Century Series coinage.

Superbly toned Proof 1936-1942 coinage seems to have disappeared as most of these coins have been dipped. I’ve always liked coins with lightly toned centers that become deeper in hue towards the edges. In PR66 and PR67, the silver issues from this era are very favorably priced right now.

16. Your Best Buys in any other sector of your choice.

In my primary area of the market (branch mint gold) I’d have to say that nice quality Charlotte gold is a good contrarian play right now. $20,000+ Charlotte coinage is a hard sale but it is inevitable that one or two new deep-pocketed collectors will want to create great sets of these coins in the coming years.

Three Dollar gold pieces were certainly due a correction after the great run they had in 2005 and 2006 but I think the market overcorrected. I like the low mintage dates from the 1880’s (like the 1881, 1883, 1884, 1885 and 1886) in Mint State and nice AU and better examples of the San Francisco issues. A great time to buy coins like this is when all of the “geniuses” who became Instant Experts on Threes last year have now moved on to greener pastures.

Nice New Orleans gold is a terrific value right now. In most cases, you can buy a scarce No Motto half eagle or eagle from this mint at a significant discount in comparison to a more available piece from Charlotte or New Orleans.

As I’ve mentioned about ten times, I really like No Motto Seated coinage in MS64 and better, especially New Orleans pieces.

I think, in general, that in nearly any series, “best buys” are always nice, original coins. It’s become so hard to find pieces that haven’t been messed with. I think down the road that really fresh coins will begin to bring huge premiums over the typical run-of-the-mill junk that you see most of the time.

17. What changes or innovations are needed to make the pricing of coins a better deal for investors? Just as reduced commissions (even the elimination of commissions!), plus much narrower spreads between bids and asks, have dramatically lowered trading costs for stock traders, what can be done to make our market more efficient and a better deal for investors?

The Heritage auction archive is an amazing tool. It enables a collector to see the price performance of nearly any coin over the past few years. If Heritage (or someone else) were to take this idea and include all of the major numismatic auction companies, this would be an incredible resource for collectors and investors. The ability to quickly and accurately track pricing is something that increases a new investor’s confidence level; especially in thinly traded market areas.

The advent of the Internet has increased the amount of transparency in the coin market in the past few years. I think the coin market is far, far more transparent than most any other collectible and, again, that is a good boost for investor confidence.

Something that has long hurt the coin market is that a decent number of neophyte investors are still making their first trades with brokers who are either taking advantage of them or are not providing them with the tools to turn them into long-term market participants. As an industry we still need to shed the last vestiges of the Wild West mentality of the 1970’s and the 1980’s and treat potential new investors with the attitude that the coin market is a great place to place some discretionary income in for the long term.

18. Since PCGS and NGC began, we've seen a general loosening of grading standards. (A) Could standards in the future become stricter, thus reversing the trend of the last 20 years? (B) If yes, what event or events would cause this to take place. If you disagree, please explain why. I doubt very much that either PCGS or NGC is going to admit that standards have changed, let alone reverse them back to where they were in 1986/87. I think it’s more important, at this point, for collectors to keep up on current standards so that they can grade by the standards of 2007 and not by the standards of 1987. Wishing for grading standards to revert to where they were 20 years ago is sort of like someone wishing that you could buy an apartment in Manhattan tomorrow at 1987 prices.

19. What 1, 2, or 3 coins are your favorite "sleepers," coins you know to be much scarcer than generally perceived and, as a result, undervalued. Anything from the 1700's to date, your picks. Please explain why you picked them and tell us their potential.

Here are three coins that I regard as true “sleepers:”

1. 1845-O Quarter Eagle: With only 4,000 struck, this is a very scarce coin in all grades. Any original piece grading EF45 or better is really rare, yet you can still buy a very presentable example for under $10,000. This is the key issue in the New Orleans quarter eagle series, which is short, completable and getting popular.

2. 1847-O Half Eagle: Few non-specialists realize just how rare this date is in nearly any grade. It is the hardest New Orleans half eagle to find and it is nearly impossible to obtain in properly graded AU50 or better. I recently sold a very nice AU55 example of this date for $15,000. If this were a Dahlonega coin of comparable rarity, it would have been worth $25,000++.

3. 1841-O Eagle: I love this issue. It has a low mintage figure (2,500), it is the first No Motto eagle struck at the New Orleans mint and it is nearly impossible to find above EF45. Despite this fact, it is priced at a fraction of the second-tier double eagle rarities from the New Orleans mint (i.e., the 1855-O, 1859-O, 1860-O and 1879-O).