Buying the Jump Grade

A few recent  coin sales that were made by my firm have given me an idea for a blog that I think is interesting. I've written about this before so I'll try to approach what I think is an important concept from a new perspective. The concept of value is extremely important to me when I buy a coin for my inventory and I try and share this with clients of DWN. In a nutshell, my core belief in coin buying is that, with most coins, there is a point at which you can "overbuy" . There are obvious examples of this and not so obvious ones.

The basis of my concept is what I refer to as the "jump" grade for a coin. The jump grade is the point at which the value spread for a coin becomes out of whack and the higher grade(s) for a coin no longer make sense.

 Let's look at a hypothetical pricing structure for a coin in higher grades:

     MS63:  $2500

     MS64:  $5000

     MS65:  $90000

This seems far-fetched, right? In truth, this is the exact value spread chart for a 1920 St. Gaudens double eagle, an issue that I consider to be the poster child for buying the jump grade which is MS64.

In this case, an MS64 example at $5,000 seems to make alot more sense than an MS65 at $90,000, especially given the fact that the single PCGS MS65 1920 Saint that has ever been graded isn't all that much nicer than a number of the 64's that I've seen or sold. So why would anyone buy a $90,000 version of a coin that can be represented in a set by a nice $5,000 version?

The answer is more complicated than you think. Obviously, part of it is vanity. Very high end collectors demand the finest coins and if a finest known coin jumps nearly 20x in value over the next grade down, that's just the reality of the market. If you are putting together a set of Saints that is competing for the finest in the set registry, the opportunity to add a finest known population one/none better coin (and the huge number of "points" that come with such a coin) is far and few between.

But what about the rest of us; we coin buyers without unlimited funds?

I'd like to share a few of my personal philosophies about value in numismatics.

     1.  Most collectors overbuy common coins and underbuy key coins. This is especially true for gold collectors who focus on 20th century issues. Let me give you an example. If you are collecting high grade Indian Head half eagles by date, why spend $25,000-30,000 on a common date in MS66 when you can buy a perfectly acceptable MS65 for half that amount? I think I'd rather pocket the $12,500-15,000 difference and apply it to a truly rare coin like a 1911-D. Conversely, the same collector who is working on the killer set of Indian half eagles would be foolish to scrimp on a classic issue like a 1929 and buy a "details grade" cleaned example so he could save money.

     2.  Issues with large underlying populations are dangerous purchases. Let me give you an example, along with a chart:

     1879-S Double Eagle

     Grade          PCGS Population          Value Range

     MS61                        225                        4000-5000+

     MS62                         59                          11000-13000+

     MS63                           3                           40000++

This issue actually has not one but two jump grades. For many collectors, the choice will be clear: buy an MS61 because in MS62 the price of this issue jumps almost threefold. An important point to consider is how many of the 225 coins graded MS61 (the actual number factoring in resubmissions is probably still 125-150) could become MS62 someday? Even if the number is just 10-20% percent of the total, that's still potentially as many as 15-30 new MS62 coins. Is the market deep enough to handle that high an influx and still maintain current value levels?

But for collectors with deeper pockets, MS62 is the jump grade for this issue, especially given the fact that they are unlkely to have the chance to buy an MS63 ( considering that the PCGS population is just three  and none have traded at auction since 2006). My personal choice would be a nice MS61 but I would buy a high end MS62 at, say, $15,000 if it were an obvious "just miss" coin.

3.  "Boring" coins deserve "boring" grades in most sets.  To me, a coin like a Dahlonega quarter eagle is interesting. That's why I don't think you can really "overbuy" in this series. There are very, very few D mint quarter eagles graded MS65 (or even MS64) and just about any coin graded as such, unless its horribly overgraded, is worthy of consideration for an advanced Dahlonega specialist.

But a coin like an 1898-S half eagle is boring. There were nearly 1.4 million struck, thousands and thousands exist and most range from nice to very nice. I have a hard time getting excited about a nice 1898-S half eagle; even the direct-from-the-mint to-John Clapp piece, now graded MS68 by PCGS. This coin last sold for $81,600 and I can think of alot of U.S. gold coins at this price point that I'd rather own. The only real "function" that this MS68 example might properly serve is as a type representative in a knock-your-socks off set.

4.  Type collecting looks at jump grades differently than date collecting.  Type collectors just buy one example of a specific design unlike date collectors who buy numerous. So a type collector will look at a jump grade differently. Going back to our earlier example of the Indian Head half eagle, for type purposes an MS66 might make sense and this becomes the jump grade; given that the next grade up (MS67) is likely to cost $70,000 or more.

5. You can throw the book away when it comes to dual rarities.  There are coins that are rare because of their grade and there are coins that are rare because few are known. Then there is the "rarest of the rare." These are coins that I refer to as "dual rarities" because they check boxes on both sides. An example of a dual rarity is a coin like the Byron Reed 1864 quarter eagle, which is graded MS67 by NGC. This is a coin that is not only very rare in any grade, it is an amazing piece from a condition and appearance standpoint.

I'm going to write an article on dual rarities and it should appear in the next few days on my website

Whether you have a coin budget of $1,000 or $1,000,000, you want to get the best value you can every time you make a purchase. Understanding the concept of the jump grade can help you as you mull decisions for your collection.