As someone who is pretty attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of the rare gold coin market, I can accurately rate how well (or poorly) a specific series is performing. 2010 was an interesting year for gold coins. We saw tremendous price increases in gold bullion but many areas of the coin market were flat. In the first annual DWN Rare Gold Coin Market Heat Index (cue sizzling sound effect...), I am going to discuss the relative position(s) of the most commonly traded areas of the market. This totally non-scientific study is keyed to the following ratings, which go from 1 to 10:
1. This series is so cold you couldn't give the coins away 2-5: This series ranges from ice cold to moderate strength 6-9: This series ranges from strong to very strong 10: This series is en fuego
And without further ado, let's talk hot or cold gold...
I. Gold Dollars There is pretty solid overall collector support for gold dollars. While there do not appear to be many specialists working on complete sets, there are a number of collectors working on focused subsets; i.e., Dahlonega dollars, Civil War issues, etc. I would say that Type One branch mint dollars are probably the strongest overall segement of this market and the weakest is, clearly, high grade non-branch mint Type Two coins.
In the Type Three series, I am noticing some strength in very high quality Philadelphia issues from the 1870's and 1880's. In most cases, the coins that are the strongest are PCGS graded MS67 and better pieces with great eye appeal. The Charlotte and Dahlonega market is very bifurcated. Top quality original pieces in all grades are very strong while overgraded, non-original pieces are hard to sell even at a serious discount.
OVERALL RATING: 5. This denomination is collector-driven and reasonably strong as of the end of 2010. The coins showing the greatest demand include the very rare Dahlonega issues (1855-D, 1856-D and 1861-D), mintmarked Type Two coins in "collector grades" and Finest Known or high Condition Census Type Three issues graded by PCGS and approved by CAC.
II. Quarter Eagles This is perhaps the most mixed denomination in the entire U.S. gold oeuvre as the heat index ranges from borderline frigid to pretty toasty. Early quarter eagles are showing mixed collector support. These coins are still undervalued when compared to other early gold denominations but they are no longer "cheap." Some weak auction results for overgraded 1796 No Stars and 1808 quarter eagles have lowered Trends but nice examples of these two significant dates are still in demand. Collectors of early quarter eagles are looking for value. They want either very rare issues that are underpriced (such as the 1826/5 or the 1834) or coins that are choice and original.
The Classic Head series seems fairly weak right now with the exception of nice EF-AU grade branch mint pieces which are still popular.
The Liberty Head series is beginning to attract more collectors as people come to realize that there are many legitimately scarce coins from the 1840's, 1860's and 1870's available for $5,000 and less. Branch mint coins from this series have a good following. Dahlonega quarter eagles are very popular and easy to sell as long as they are decent quality (or better) for the grade. Charlotte and New Orleans issues are less popular. Unless these coins are very choice and original, they sell for discounts relative to Trends.
The Indian Head series remains cold although it shows more heat than at this time last year. Prices are inching up for certain issues. The key 1911-D still seems overvalued, even at the new lower level(s) that it has adjusted to.
OVERALL RATING: 4 1/2. Without the Indian Head series I would actually have ranked the quarter eagle denomination a 6 but the weakness of these coins (along with softness in the generic MS65/MS66 common date Liberty Head issues from 1898-1907) drag down the overall score by one to one-and-a-half points. The coins showing the greatest demand include the rarities (1841, 1854-S, 1863 and 1875 in higher grades) and the key issues from Dahlonega (especially the 1856-D). Also in demand are nice pre-1834 quarter eagles in AU55 and above that are choice, original and well-made. I'm noticing some subtle demand (demand-in-the making?) for affordable higher quality Philadelphia and San Francisco coins from the 1860's and 1870's. These have gone from ice cold to moderately strong in 2010.
III. Three Dollars
The Three Dollar gold denomination remained one of the least in-demand areas of the rare coin market in 2010. Despite a strong price increase in gold bullion, values for Uncirculated generic Threes dropped and, in the case of MS65 coins, they dropped fairly precipitously. There is some demand for the popular Civil War issues and exotic later date low-mintage issues occassionally breakout of the sell-for-a-discount box that they have resided in for the last few years.
There is a good supply of nice Threes on the market right now (and this is one of the few denominations that this is so) and a contrarian collector with alot of self-confidence could put together an outstanding collection in the next few years. I'm not certain what it will take to jumpstart this series but, at this time, the patient is on life support.
OVERALL RATING: 2. Three Dollar gold pieces are in the doldrums and they don't appear to have more than marginalized support. There are occasional bright spots in this market. Very rare, low mintage Proofs have brought strong prices at their infrequent auction apperances and any PCGS graded, CAC approved finest known branch mint issue has enough collecor support that it would bring a record price if available. Two iconic branch mint issues are showing mixed results. The 1854-O is weak now due to an oversupply of overgraded examples. The 1854-D is actually showing much more strength than a year or two ago and prices have risen for this popular coin in 2010. A Gem 1875, if available, would be in demand as well.
IV. Half Eagles
If I had to predict which U.S. gold coin is poised for the biggest potential gains in the next few years it would be the half eagle. There is alot of value to be had in this denomination (especially in the Liberty Head series) and I wouldn't be surpised to see a few ambitious collectors attempt to make a splash in this area.
Early half eagles are showing good demand, especially in the EF45 to MS62 range. Any pre-1813 half eagle that is graded by PCGS and NGC and is priced below $7,500 has eager buyers, as long as it is reasonably attractive. The 1795 half eagle has renewed demand after having dropped in price since its peak in late 2007/early 2008. Higher grade (MS63 and above) half eagles struck from 1800-1812 are steady to slightly up in value but the coins must be nice for the grade to sell for published levels. There have been almost no Fat Head half eagles (other than the usual array of 1813's) on the market in the last two or three years. These coins are generally off the market in tightly-held collections and I believe that if any fresh, mega-rare pieces were to become available in the next few months, they would sell for all-time highs.
The Classic Head market is fairly soft with the exception of the 1838-C and 1838-D which are extremely popular in all grades. It's been quite some time since I've seen a nice 1838-D for sale and a choice, original Uncirculated coin could bring alot of money in this market.
As I mentioned above, collectors are beginning to recognize the value inherent in the Liberty Head half eagle series. Nice Uncirculated coins from the 1840's and 1850's are very rare and in the case of the Philadelphia coins, they are affordable in grades up to and including MS63. Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles are strong as long as the coin(s) are nice for the grade with good surfaces and color. New Orleans half eagles of this era remain popular with collectors and the supply of higher grade examples (AU55 and above) seems to have suddenly dried-up. The rare date No Motto issues from San Francisco remain difficult to sell with a few exceptions; notably the very rare 1864-S. I would rate the No Motto market as strong and getting stronger.
The With Motto market is not as strong. Carson City half eagles seem to be less popular with advanced specialists than in the past and are selling for discounts unless they are exceptional. Better date Philadelphia and San Francisco issues are weak with the exception of the excessively rare 1875 (an AU55 example just sold for $143,750 in the November 2010 Bowers and Merena auction). Generic With Motto Liberty Head half eagles are weak with MS65 and MS66 coins having dropped in price during 2010.
The Indian Head half eagle series is showing a bit of strength in the better-date mintmarked issues from the 1910's. Common dates are weak and prices for MS65's have dropped significantly in the last year; enough to the point that I actually think they are a good value right now.
OVERALL RATING: 5. The half eagle market is solid but not spectacular. The "right" coin can sell for a record price (as witnesed by the AU55 1875 that I mentioned above) but there are enough overgraded, low-demand pieces selling for discounts at auction to keep the overall heat index factor at just a "5." I have had very good success selling early half eagles and No Motto Liberty Head half eagles in the $2,000-25,000 range this year. My gut instinct tells me that some of the overlooked rare dates from the 1855-1875 era could be seeing more demand in the coming years.
For years, I've written that eagles were "the next big thing" and, for once, I was right. This denomination saw a number of record prices in 2010 and Liberty Head eagles led they way due to competition among a small but dedicated number of collectors at the top end of the market.
But not all was rosy in the World of Eagles. Early eagles saw weakness that continued from 2009. This is clearly the result of some truly gross coins in holders. I often see coins graded AU55, AU58, MS61 and even MS62 that are 100% unoriginal and lack any semblance of eye appeal. While pieces of this (low) quality still brought decent prices at auction in 2006-2008, the market has become more selective and now these coins sell for discounts. This has reduced values across the board but, suddenly, I like choice, original examples at 20-25% discounts off of previous market highs. I can't remember any properly graded MS64 or better early eagles selling in the last year and I think a CAC-approved example would still bring a very strong price.
The Liberty Head eagle series did really well in 2010 and this trend should continue for the foreseeable future. Any Finest Known or high Condition Census coins, regardless of date or mint, should do quite well. New Orleans eagles are popular and in demand and interesting high grade pieces (like the record-breaking 1842-O that brought over $70,000 this year at auction) will continue to bring high prices. I think a real value play in this area are common date Philadelphia No Motto coins from the 1840's and 1850's in choice AU to MS63 grades.
With Motto coins of this denomination saw sporadic levels of demand. Carson City eagles sputtered a bit but really high end, choice pieces were actively sought. If a very nice 1870-CC came on the market it would be a potential record-setter. New Orleans eagles were led by the 1883-O which, in a short period of time, has gone from hugely undervalued to hugely priced. Even the formerly undervalued 1880-O saw some love in higher grades. The semi-scarce Philadelphia and San Francisco issues from the 1880's and 1890's remained overlooked and these are undervalued. If the concept of the "short set" were ever applied to With Motto eagles, these dates could appreciate quite a bit.
Indian Head eagles were similar in performance to their half eagle counterparts. There was some interest in AU58 to MS63 better dates from the teens and the rare 1920-S and 1930-S saw slightly increased demand. Common dates in MS65 and above were weak. Proofs were weak unless the coins were PCGS graded and CAC approved. The few original Gem Indian Head eagles that sold in the last year brought very strong prices as collectors have come to realize how few of these coins remain with natural color and surfaces.
OVERALL RATING: 7 Based on the results of the Stack's Johnson-Blue auction this Fall, I might have rated this denomination a "9" but one extremely strong auction doesn't make for a blazing hot market. But that said, the demand for nice eagles has picked up quite a bit. Early eagles will continue to be soft unless the coins are "all there." I think Liberty Head eagles are a great example of what happens when a few collectors begin to compete for nice coins. As I have always said, it doesn't take dozens of new players in a market to drive prices up if the coins are genuinely scarce. I'd look for the middle end of the Liberty Head eagle market to show some appreciation this year as collectors who are priced out of the higher end coins look at pieces in the EF45 to AU55+ range. Quality and originality will remain a key factor in this area of the market.
VI. Double Eagles
If you follow the rare gold coin market just a little, itsy-bitsy bit you probably are aware that double eagles were the unquestioned darling of the market in 2010. I see no reason why this won't continue into 2011--and beyond.
Why are double eagles so popular right now? A combination of factors. Obviously, their size and intrinsic worth helps them. They have a great back story and the presence of shipwreck coins has brought hundreds of serious new buyers into the double eagle market. I also think that it helps that these coins are rare but no so much so that they are unpromotable. You can promote an 1870 quarter eagle in Mint State; there just aren't enough to go around. But most of the popular dates in the double eagle series exist in a large enough quantity that nearly everyone who wants one can have one. maybe not in the ultimate grade(s) but in close to optimal condition. And that's the beauty of this denomination, in a nutshell.
There wasn't a more popular series of coin in all of the numismatic market in 2010 than Type One Liberty Head double eagles. These coins were in demand in all grade and price levels. Even though values rose considerably, there are still at least fifteen to twenty different dates in the series that can be bought in Extremely Fine grades for $3,000 or less. This series did well in both the low end and high end although a few dates like the 1861-S Paquet and 1866-S No Motto are off their 2007/08 historic highs. New Orleans issues did nicely this year as did San Francisco coins. I think the best value play in this market are the Philadelphia coins struck from 1854 to 1860 in AU50 or better.
After a few years of softness, the Type Two market picked up quite a bit. The Philadelphia issues from 1866 to 1872 were popular and the Carson City coins were in strong demand. Speaking of Type Two CC double eagles, the 1870-CC remains a bit of an enigma. Clearly, its price level is off its high of a few years ago but no really nice examples came to the market in 2010. I'd be very curious to see what a high end PCGS AU50 or AU53 brought if available.
The Type Three market was a bit more spotty. The unquestioned leaders from a demand standpoint were the CC issues which are suddenly in very strong demand in all grades. The extremely rare low mintage Philadelphia dates (1881, 1882, 1885, 1886 and 1891) continued to sell for record prices when available. The weakest area were the condition rarity common and semi-scarce Philadelphia and San Francisco issues. But even these coins could occasionally hit a huge home run at auction if they were really choice for the grade, free of serious marks and had population of ten or less with fewer (or none) better.
The Saint Gaudens market did not fare as well. It seems like there are not enough new buyers to keep up with the supply of scarce and rare dates that were available in the last year and prices dropped accordingly. There were exceptions. PCGS graded, CAC examples of genuinely rare dates from the 1920's and early 1930's brought strong prices if the coins were graded spot-on. If they were marginal quality, they often sold at a strong discount. It was possible for a coin like a 1927-S in MS64 to have a value range of $50,000-60,000 for a low end coin and $75,000-85,000 for a high end one. The generic Saint market was, as always, like a numismatic yo-yo with lots of ups and downs. Premiums for MS63 to MS65 coins were high around the middle of the year but shrunk as the price of gold soared. MS66 and MS67 coins with CAC stickers were in strong demand and did well. It seems likely that they will continue to be in demand in the coming year.
OVERALL RATING: 8 1/2. If dated Saints had performed better in 2010, this number would clearly be a "9." Liberty Head double eagles were the top performer in the rare gold market in 2010. The areas that were in the greatest demand included rare Type One issues in all grades, "exotic" shipwreck coins (i.e., non-S mint Central America coins, PL and DMPL pieces, etc.), high end rare date Type Two coins, rare low mintage date Type Threes and virtually all Carson City pieces.
I'd like your comments and feedback about the 2010 Heat Index. Please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know which areas of the dated gold market were the most sizzlin' in 2010 and which you think will be the hotties of 2011.