I’ve recently had a few collectors ask me a similar question; one that has given me some pause to think. Basically, these are people whose main collecting focus is an expensive, very challenging series. Due to lack of availability (of funds), their purchases may be very infrequent. But they still love coins and the thrill of the hunt. What, they’ve asked me, can they play with as their “back-up” set? The parameters that they’ve given me for this back-up set have been pretty consistent. They want a group of coins that are fun to collect, reasonably affordable, interesting but not wildly esoteric and different enough that they won’t compete against their primary set(s). Most importantly, they don’t want their back-up set to grow so expensive that it depletes funds from their primary set.
My answer(s) has typically been based on the needs and wants of the collector. I’d like to share a few suggestions that I have given focusing on the ideas that appear to have been popular as opposed to ideas of mine that have gone over like the proverbial lead balloon.
1. Dahlonega half eagles in EF and lower AU grades. With the exception of two dates (the 1842-D Large Date and the 1861-D), the Dahlonega half eagle set does not include any major rarities or extremely expensive coins. Every issue can be purchased in the EF-AU range for $5,000 or less and there are no “stoppers” that will prove frustrating for the collector. The series is reasonably short (just 26 coins) and the coins themselves are highly collectible. One of the best things about this series is that if a collector gets tired of these coins after buying just a few, he will have little downside risk. I’d say the key to collecting a set of Dahlonega half eagles is to be patient and to wait for choice, original coins.
2. No Motto Philadelphia Eagles. This is a set that the collector might not want to actually form a date set but it is a great area to dabble in. There are lots of very interesting coins that are priced in the $1,000-3,000 and what’s important to remember is that, generically, just about any still-round ten dollar gold piece from this era is worth in the area of $700. If you become seriously interested in this series, you can pursue the rarities which include the 1844, 1858, 1863 and 1865. If you’d rather just dabble, buy coins like the nice AU50 1857 eagle I just sold off my website for less than $2,000 (it was a great value, in my opinion).
3. A date set of gold dollars. I might be stretching on this one but I think a set that one example of every year in which the gold dollar denomination was produced (1849 to 1889) would be pretty interesting. I suggest this as a date set given the relatively high cost of issues such as the 1855-D, 1856-D and 1861-D. In a date set, these can be replaced by inexpensive issues from Philadelphia. A date set of gold dollar could be assembled in Uncirculated grades for a pretty reasonable sum and they only two challenging years would be the 1863 and the 1875. And, yes, I know these coins are small and not necessarily for everyone.
4. Coins with Low Mintage Figures. If you scan through a copy of the Redbook, you’ll be stunned to see how many United States gold coins from the 19th century have original mintage figures of 5,000 or less. You’ll be even more stunned to learn how many of these rare, low mintage issues can be purchased in very presentable grades for less than $5,000. No, you won’t be able to be ultra-low mintage issues in very popular series like Type One or Type Three double eagles. But there are literally dozens of gold dollars, quarter eagles, threes, half eagles and even a few eagles with stupidly low mintages that are highly affordable. And you don’t have to worry about forming a “set”; just buy what you like and look for the issues that seem most undervalued.
5. Related Numismatic Literature. Assembling a collection of books and catalogs related to your primary collection might be a fun adjunct project. Let’s say you collect early gold. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a library that featured all books about early gold going back to the 19th century (admittedly there are not many...) and all important catalogs that featured early gold collections? Work closely with one of the major numismatic book dealers and have him help you come up with a list of, say, the 100 Greatest Sales of US gold coins.
Instead of waiting months or even years between your “big” purchases, think small(er) and create a secondary set that will keep you busy during the dry spells that all collectors face. It will make you a better collector and it will make you appreciate numismatics as a hobby even more than you already do!