The Registry Set Phenomenon

PCGS introduced the concept of the registry set a few years ago but the concept did not seem to catch on until the early part of 2000. In the last two years, it has become an unqualified hit for PCGS with over two thousand collectors currently participating. The concept of the registry set is simple. Collectors seek to assemble complete sets and list them on the PCGS website when they wish to share the information. Some collectors wait until their sets are complete or nearly finished; others list sets that include just a few dates.

Registry sets have had a huge impact on certain market areas. As an example, prices in series such as Jefferson Nickels and Eisenhower Dollars have risen dramatically in the past two years. If an issue in one of these series is (currently) low population, the chances are good that at least one registry set collector will pay a very strong price for it.

Interestingly, the registry set phenomenon has had virtually no affect on the rare date gold market. When I last checked, there were only one three sets listed for Dahlonega gold and none for Carson City or Charlotte. Collectors of such popular series as Type One Liberty Head double eagles or New Orleans gold couldn't list their sets in the PCGS registry if they wanted to as they are not yet granted their own category.

Many experienced collectors look at the registry set phenomenon as a current market fad that is destined to die a quick and painless death. While I strongly believe that prices on many modern coins have become ridiculously inflated as a direct result of registry set demand, I do not think this is a passing fad. In fact, I think it can be a real long-term benefit to the coin business.

In order to benefit from this new system, the collector must understand it and use it to his benefit. Here are some points to consider:

    At this point in time, it is to late to jump on the registry set bandwagon as far as modern (post 1950) coinage goes. But, since virtually no one has properly used this system for 19th century gold coins, it is very easy to have a #1 or #2 set in a popular series such as Charlotte or Dahlonega gold.

    Registry sets are all about marketing. Placing your set on the PCGS registry does not mean you are going to sell it. But it provides you with terrific (free) exposure. It also adds instant creditability to a set. Your set sounds more impressive as "Joe Blow's Carson City Gold Set: The #1 Set on the PCGS Registry" than just "Joe Blow's CC Gold Set." And this could translate to higher prices when you sell your coins.

    The collector needs to make the registry set concept work for him and not vice-versa. Paying outlandish prices for common date coins solely to have a #1 set is not a prudent move. Being on the cutting edge and assembling the #1 set of Charlotte gold when everyone else (or so it seems...) is chasing MS-67 Eisenhower dollars may prove to be extremely intelligent in the long run.

    There are a few hardcore registry collectors who have already assembled a number of high ranked 20th century sets. It is likely that at least a few of these will turn their attention to 19th century sets and when they do, the demand for certain coins could rise quickly.

    If PCGS begins to promote the concept of "classic coin" registry sets, it is likely that the concept will catch on more quickly. Knowing the marketing savvy that PCGS has, it seems likely that they will create more classic coin sets and promote them in the future.

I have a few basic complaints about the registry set concept and how it hurts the coin market. I'd like to point these out:

    Many registry set buyers make foolish purchases. In most modern series, the price differential between an MS-67 and an MS-68 can be astronomical. This doesn't apply to the rare date gold market yet...but if it does, collectors should think carefully about buying "supergrade" coins if the only reason for doing this is to score extra registry points.

    The concept of the registry set does not reward the coin itself; only its "plastic grade." As the savvy collector knows, there can be an AU-58 Charlotte half eagle that has infinitely better eye appeal than an MS-62; yet in the registry the ugly MS-62 is more highly rated than the high end AU-58. Don't make poor buying decisions just because your "competition" has a high grade example of a specific issue. Your lower grade piece could well be a better coin!

    The rarity factor of certain coins are not (yet) properly weighted. In the modern coin series, PCGS has addressed this problem. But as the system currently works, a high grade example of a very rare issue such as an 1856-D quarter eagle is given the exact same value as a more common issue. Until this is properly addressed, the ranking of rare date gold sets is irrelevant.

    Collecting is about more than having a highly ranked registry set. If the sets are used to promote numismatics and the fun inherent in this hobby, great. If they become a tool for dealer hype and collector ruthlessness, as they are in the modern coin arena, than they are causing more harm than good.

    Registry-related fads can be harmful to the neophyte's pocketbook. As an example, it is likely that at some time in the near future, deep cameo and ultra cameo proof gold and silver coins from the 19th century will be given more weight in the set registry than their non-cameo counterparts. Don't pay a large premium for one of these cameo pieces; especially in a series that most coins already tend to come with cameo contrast.

Like it or not, the registry set phenomenon is here to stay. For the collector of rare date gold coins, it is an interesting opportunity to get in on the ground floor and, quite possibly, add some "free value" to an already collectible set.