What Should I Collect?

Every few days I get asked the question “what should I collect?” I’d like to make some suggestions based on three different budget levels. A quick word on coin budgets before we delve into specifics. As a collector you should not overspend on coins. Buy within the parameters that make you comfortable. Spending $750 on a gold coin doesn’t make you any less of a collector than spending $75,000. I find that many collectors, as they grow more comfortable with their comprehension of the market, find it easier to shift from one budget level up to the next. As always, learn about what interests you as specialized knowledge in numismatics is invaluable. I. Low Budget ($1,000 per coin and below)

Gold coin collecting was not really designed for lower budget collectors. That said, there are plenty of interesting areas to collect in this price range. Here are three suggestions that I find interesting.

a) Common to Slightly Scarcer Date St. Gaudens Double Eagles in MS63 to MS64

This is a perfect area for the individual who is more of an investor than a collector and who would like to put together a nice “position” in the semi-numismatic market. There is something like 25 different dates of St. Gaudens double eagles available in grades up to and including MS64 for less than $1,000. None of these are rare and this is a collection that can be assembled reasonably quickly. This is also a collection that is perfect for the collector or investor who does not want to interact with coin dealers. I would have no problem telling a new collector that he would be perfectly safe buying these coins from a reputable Ebay seller or at auction. The only suggestions I would make is that all of the coins should be PCGS or NGC graded and either the Greysheet or recent auction price records should be consulted when deciding how much to spend on each coin.

b) Philadelphia Type Three Gold Dollars

With the exception of the 1863 and the rare 1875, nearly all of the 34 Type Three gold dollars produced at the Philadelphia mint can be obtained in Uncirculated grades for under $1,000. In the case of the common dates from the 1880’s, the collector can buy coins in grades as high in MS63 well within his allotted budget. The scarcer Civil War dates will probably have to be purchased in the AU55 to MS62 range and the 1873 Closed 3 will either require a stretching of the budget or a lower grade example. Some people will not be attracted to Gold Dollars because of their relatively small size. But I think this is an interesting series for a number of reasons. I like the design, the mintages are comparatively low and the level of production on most of the Philadelphia issues of this type is quite high. In my opinion, these coins seem like great value.

c) No Motto Philadelphia Gold

I recently wrote a blog about how I had “seen the light” regarding No Motto half eagles and eagles struck at the Philadelphia mint. There are numerous dates from the 1840’s and the 1850’s that are available to collectors with a budget of $1,000 or less per coin. In the half eagle series, virtually every date struck between 1843 and 1861 can be found in nice AU for under $1,000. Eagles from this era are rarer but there are still a number of dates that can be purchased in the EF45 to AU55 for less than $1,000. I haven’t mentioned the Philadelphia quarter eagles from this era but they are also extremely affordable.

Something that might make for an interesting challenge would be to select a specific date and to assemble a denomination set. As an example, a collector might decide to put together a set of 1855 Philadelphia coinage. There were a total of six denominations produced in this year and none of these are especially rare in circulated grades—or expensive.

I can, off the top of my head, think of a few other interesting areas in this price range. Examples include lower grade New Orleans quarter eagles, Indian Head quarter eagles (discounting the key 1911-D), lower grade Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles and nearly all of the With Motto half eagles and eagles struck at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints between 1880 and 1907.

II. Medium Budget ($1,000-5,000 per coin)

If you are able to afford coins in the medium budget range, your selection becomes considerable larger and more interesting. Here are some suggestions:

a) Charlotte and Dahlonega Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles with Original Color and Surfaces

This collection is a little more “conceptual” than the others listed in this section. It wouldn’t be a complete set and it might have three examples of, say, an 1846-D quarter eagle and none of another common date such as an 1843-D. It would focus on coins in the EF40 to AU55 grade range with most of the coins costing between $2,000 and $5,000.

As I have mentioned in many other articles, even the most common Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles and half eagles are very scarce to rare with natural deep coloration and no signs of recent cleaning or processing. There may be 200-300 examples known of a certain issue but probably no more than 5-10% would be what I referred to as “original” in appearance. That’s what makes this set challenging and interesting.

To work on a set like this, the collector will need to learn what an original Charlotte or Dahlonega coin looks like; which may not be an easy feat, considering how few examples are available at auctions or coin shows these days.

b) Year Set of Liberty Head Eagles

Despite the fact that it contains many rarities, the long-lived Liberty Head eagle series has many affordable issues as well. It is possible to assemble a virtually complete year set of Liberty Head eagles if you have a budget of $1,000-5,000 per coin.

Here’s the catch: certain years in which this series was produced contain major rarities. As an example, the 1875 Philadelphia eagle is an incredibly rare coin with fewer than ten business strikes known. But the 1875-CC is more affordable and with some patience, a presentable VF can be obtained for $4,000-5,000. There are some years that are going to prove to be very hard for the Liberty Head eagle collector on a medium budget. These include the 1838 and the1863-1865. But if the collector is willing to accept a VF example of a few dates (or to stretch his budget for a few pieces) he should be able to put together a very nice set.

This is probably the most numismatic and most formidable project discussed in this price range. Given the fact that Liberty Head eagles were produced from 1838 to 1907 you are looking at a set with 70 coins; including a number which, in spite of relatively low catalog values, do not trade with regularity. I would expect that this project would take a number of years to complete and a commitment of at least $150,000-250,000+ to do it properly.

c) Scarce and Undervalued New Orleans Gold Coinage

The gist of this collecting strategy is to obtain a number of different undervalued New Orleans gold coins in the $1,000-5,000 range. It would not mean assembling any sort of complete set. I look at this strategy as something akin to an NFL team deciding to “draft the best available athlete,” even if they are already stocked at that player’s position.

My personal belief is that the best values in New Orleans gold coinage are in the half eagle and eagle denomination. If you have a budget in the $1,000-5,000 area, you are not going to be able to buy Finest Known or Condition Census coins but you will be able to obtain very presentable examples of some truly scarce and undervalued issues.

Some of the issues which fall under these parameters are as follows:

Half Eagles: 1843-O Small Letters, 1846-O, 1851-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, 1857-O and 1892-O.

Eagles: 1846-O, 1848-O, 1849-O, 1850-O, 1852-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, 1857-O, 1880-O, 1881-O, 1882-O, 1897-O and 1899-O.

There are certainly a number of other areas that collectors with a medium budget can explore. I would suggest New Orleans quarter eagles, Three Dollar gold pieces and Philadelphia Type One double eagles for starters and I can think of many more interesting possibilities.

III. High Budget ($5,000 and up per coin)

When a collector is able to afford $5,000 or more per coin, he has an almost unlimited number of potential collections. It is difficult to limit my list to three suggestions.

a) Bust Right Half Eagles, 1798-1807

This type actually dates back to 1795 but the first three (1795, 1796 and 1797) are expensive pieces that many collectors might not feel comfortable including in this set. The remaining nine issues (no half eagles were produced in 1801) are all relatively obtainable in grades ranging from Extremely Fine to MS62.

There are some variations that could make this set more challenging than just running out to a few big auctions and buying as many of these coins as possible. The first would be to use eye appeal and originality as a factor. In my experience, many of the early half eagles from this era have been cleaned or dipped and locating choice, original examples of many of the dates is extremely difficult. Secondly, this set could be expanded to include the different varieties listed in the Redbook. As an example, there is an 1804 half eagle with a Small 8 as well as the unusual Small 8 over Large 8 variety. The only year which this would really pinch the pocketbook would be for the 1798 where there are at least three major varieties known including the Large 8 14 Stars which is rare and fairly expensive.

b) Carson City Half Eagles or Eagles

I have always thought that Carson City half eagles and eagles are excellent sets for the collector with a higher coin budget. Both of these denominations were produced for just 19 years between 1870 and 1893. Neither denomination contains an impossibly rare or expensive issue or significant varieties which add to the complexity or cost of the core set.

Both denominations can be neatly categorized by the three decades in which they were produced. The issues from the 1870’s are generally seen well worn and even the more available dates are rare in properly graded AU and extremely rare in Uncirculated. The 1880’s issues are more readily available in circulated grades but tend to be very rare in Uncirculated. The 1890’s issues are, for the most part, fairly common in lower grades, sometimes available in the lower Uncirculated grades and rare to very rare in MS63 or better.

Nicely matched Carson City half eagle and eagle sets are very popular with collectors and I believe that these are two of the few sets that might actually be worth more as a well-matched unit than as an amalgamation of miscellaneous coins.

c) Bust Left Quarter Eagles, 1821-1834

This third and final suggestion is a personal favorite of mine. After a thirteen year hiatus, the quarter eagle denomination was resurrected in 1821, employing the John Reich Capped Head Left design. These coins were struck in 1821 and 1824-1827. In 1829, the design was modified and the diameter was reduced. The modified early quarter eagles were then struck from 1829-1834. In all, there are a total of eleven coins that form the complete series. Only one (the 1834) is very rare but even that issue is affordable when compared to the major rarities in the half eagle series of this era.

The 1821-1827 issues are generally seen in the AU50 to MS62 grade range while the 1829-1834 tend to be found in the AU55 to MS63 range. These coins did not see as much circulation as the quarter eagles produced prior to 1808 and many were melted.

For someone with a coin budget that can handle $15,000 or more per purchase, this is a great area to specialize in. The coins are rare but they are not so impossible that the set is essentially incompletable. They are also very good value when compared to the larger-sized early gold denominations.

There are innumerable other areas that collectors with a high budget can focus on. If you like large coins, focus on Type Two Liberty Head double eagles. If you prefer smaller coins, the Liberty Head quarter eagle series is very challenging but it contains a host of overlooked and undervalued issues.