Coins with Character

In 2010, you will see a new slogan on the homepage of my website ( Besides being catchy, “Coins with Character” represents a philosophy that guides me as a buyer and which I try to impart to collectors. Let me explain what, in my opinion, this expression means. Before the recent November Baltimore coin show, I sat down and made a list of the sort of coins I wanted to make an extra effort to purchase. These were coins that I didn’t already have in stock and given their popularity and ability to sell it made sense to me to reload.

High on this list were nice, affordable Dahlonega coins in the EF40 to AU55 grade range. My parameters were that the coins were choice, original and, in some way, “special.” In other words, I was looking for coins that spoke to me; coins with character.

After a lengthy search through the various auctions, dealer inventories and private collections that I encountered in my three days in Baltimore, I was able to acquire a whopping total of four Dahlonega coins that I felt had character: one gold dollar, one quarter eagle and two half eagles. Was I surprised that my quest would prove so fruitless? Not really. I was, of course, disappointed. But given my parameters for “coins with character” I wasn’t surprised.

I generally try to purchase coins that I believe are in the top 5% known for a particular issue. This doesn’t means that they are necessarily in the top 5% as far as grade goes. What I am looking for are coins that because of one or more reasons would rank among the most desirable survivors of a specific issue.

There are a number of things that give a coin “character.” These include the following:

-Attractive natural coloration. Coloration is a major factor in valuing copper and silver coins but it has been undervalued when it comes to gold coins. This has never been the case for me. I personally love gold coins with attractive natural hues; especially rich rose, green or orange shadings. Now this does not mean that I like every toned gold coin. I see dark, dirty double eagles from time to time that are unattractive and which, quite frankly, I’d probably dip or bathe them in soap and water if I purchased them.

I readily dislike bright, shiny, “processed” coins. To me, a coin that is bright and shiny lacks soul. I like attractively toned coins because of their individuality.

One of the reasons that I don’t buy as much Proof gold as I used to is the fact that most pieces have been conserved and they all look the same. Here’s what I mean. Take a coin like an 1880 quarter eagle in Proof. Only 36 were minted and this issue’s rarity and relative affordability makes it very intriguing to me. But I’ve passed on the last three that I have been offered because they were all bright, monochromatic and character-free. They were the Stepford Wives of Proof gold. Conversely, if I were offered a Proof 1880 quarter eagle with nice original hazy golden-orange color, I’d almost certainly buy it; even if it were “only” a PR63 with signs of a light old cleaning.

-Uncommonly Sharp Strikes and/or High Quality of Manufacture: As someone who buys and sells quite a bit of early gold (i.e., U.S. gold produced prior to 1834) I am pretty knowledgeable about how certain issues are supposed to look. As an example, most 1796 eagles have surfaces that appear pockmarked. This is mint-made but it means that the majority of 1796 eagles are not very attractive. So when I see a 1796 that has smooth, non-pocked surfaces I get excited. On an issue that is typically seen poorly made, a well-made example has “character” in my book.

I feel the same way about strike although I readily admit that strike is not extremely important when it comes to pre-1900 gold coins. But when I see an issue that is notorious for a poor strike with above-average detail, this imparts character as well.

-Important Provenance: The history and romance of collecting is, in many ways, just as interesting as the history and romance of coins. It means a lot to me that an 1838 eagle or a 1797 quarter eagle that I buy has an illustrious pedigree. I have owned coins that have traceable pedigrees dating back to the middle of the 19th century and I find it very exciting that I am able to add my name to the list of illustrious and not-so-illustrious individuals that might have been in a coin’s pedigree chain.

One of the reasons that I really respect collectors of early copper and Colonials is that they value pedigree more than nearly any other segment of the market. It certainly helps that there have been active collectors in these market areas dating back to the 1850’s whereas in an area like branch mint gold, specialized collection began far later.

Would I pay extra for a coin with a great pedigree? For the most part I would. Of course, a lot depends on the coin. I doubt I’d pay any extra for, say an Eliasberg quarter eagle that was an overgraded common date or even a scarcer date that had been dipped or processed after it had appeared in the Eliasberg sale and which now lacked character.

-Coins That Break the Mold: Every dealer has a list of “pet dates” that he or she just can’t resist buying. For some dealers it might be an issue that triggers a sense of nostalgia. For others it might be a date that they have traditionally bought and sold with ease in the past. A pet date for a collector is more likely to involve his perception that an issue is undervalued or it has important historical associations.

I won’t bore you with the full list of dates that I’m a sucker for (there are lots of them, I’m afraid...) but these are coins that I tend to be a little more lax about when it comes to the Test of Character. As an example, I actually bought a damaged 1864-S half eagle earlier this year. It was the first “problem coin” that I have ever listed on my website and if it wasn’t for the fact that it was so rare, I would be never bought it and listed it for sale.

-Coins with Original Surfaces: I thought I would save the best for last. I like original coins (or at least what I perceive to be original coins). When I say “original” I am referring to coins that appear to have not been dipped, processed or harshly clean in recent years. A coin that I describe as “original” could very well have been cleaned fifty or a hundred years ago but it has subsequently acquired natural second generation that might mask underlying hairlines.

Why do I like coins with this sort of look? It all goes back to the original thread of this blog: they have character. It is hard for me to get excited about a 150+ year old gold coin that is bright and shiny. It is hard for me to pinpoint the exact reason why I prefer the original look but suffice to say I do and I will continue to buy coins with character for my inventory.