During the last few weeks I've had a similar conversation with a few new and more experienced collectors: what should I be collecting? I've found all the conversations that I have had with these collectors to have a similar unifying theme; at least from the standpoint of the collectors. My observation is that everyone takes the "what should I collect?" question a bit too seriously and expects there to be a rigorous set of rules that they have to follow. I personally think they are forgetting the fact that coin collecting is more about having fun than following a set of rules. If you are reading this on my website, you've probably already decided that you want to collect United States gold coins. Taking this a step further, if you are a brand-new collector (or you are at least new to gold coins) how do you decide specifically what to focus on? Or do you need to focus on anything at all?
There are a number of considerations that come into play. The most obvious of these is your budget. If you are currently comfortable spending $2,500 on a single coin than you should probably recognize the fact that you are eventually going to be comfortable at a higher level; let's say $5,000 or so per coin. If this is your comfortable level, then you have to be practical when choosing an area to collect. Early gold, as an example, will not work for you as very few pieces are available in the $5,000 range. Look at auction records, dealer websites and pricing guides to help select an area that you can afford.
Do you have to put together a set? That really depends on an individual collector's perspective. A few decades ago, nearly everyone collected specific sets by date. But coins were a lot cheaper back then so it was not impractical to decide to assemble a full date set of Dahlonega quarter eagles or San Francisco eagles in high grades. Today, rare coins are expensive and for many collectors it isn't practical to assemble a date set. Or, they may have to settle for very low quality examples of the rarities within their selected set.
But where is it written that you absolutely have to complete a set? Let's say you really like Dahlonega quarter eagles and you've been able to purchase six or seven really nice About Uncirculated common dates over the years. As you draw closer to completion you come to the realization that you are never going to be able to afford the key issues such as the 1855-D or the 1856-D. I look at sets of coins on a regular basis and, to be honest, I'd be a lot more impressed with a partial set of ten Dahlonega quarter eagles that contained very nice coins than a complete set of twenty that had a damaged 1856-D, an 1855-D that was harshly cleaned and a few other pieces that stuck out like a sore thumb.
Something that I recommend to certain collectors is what I call the "best available coin" strategy. This requires thinking outside the proverbial box a little bit but it makes sense to me. Let's say that you've decided on some basic parameters on all the coins you'll be buying. You want all the coins to be gold, you want them all to be dated prior to 1880, you want them all to have original mintage figures below 25,000, you want them all to have PCGS populations of less than 150 in all grades and you want them to grade at least AU50. If you've established these parameters, why limit yourself to coins from a specific mint or denomination? If you see a coin that is choice and original and which fits most (or all) of your strategic parameters, buy it; it doesn't matter if its a San Francisco quarter eagles, a Philadelphia half eagle or a Carson City eagle.
Earlier, I mentioned personal preference and I think this is an extremely important factor in deciding what you want to collect. Buy what appeals to you, not because a dealer is touting a coin or because there is a promotion trying to convince you a series is undervalued. Some people don't like small coins. If you are in this camp, that's fine; stay away from gold dollars and quarter eagles. Some people like big, hefty coins; if this describes you than you are going to naturally be attracted to eagles and double eagles.
There are other factors that relate to personal preference. You may or may not be attracted to a coin because of its design. I personally do not find the Liberty Head gold series to be dramatically attractive from an artistic point of view so I do not derive aesthetic satisfaction from specializing in these coins. Gold coins struck between 1795 and 1900 appeal to me more as a result of their historic significance than their beauty.
As someone who buys millions of dollars of coins every year, I find myself more and more value-conscious all the time. Many coins strike me as poor value. Why? Generally because, in my opinion, I feel that they do not meet the supply/demand ratio that makes sense to me. I find it hard to rationalize getting excited about a $10,000 coin that I can find at any coin show (sorry, Mr. 1911-D quarter eagle...). I like coins that I can only find from time to time and I like coins that have two or three or four eager collectors waiting for each one that comes available.
Popularity is an important factor in deciding what to collect. I'm not saying that you should collect generic St. Gaudens double eagles in MS63 because they have a very high level of demand. But I'm saying that you should be careful about focusing on a seemingly undervalued issue that is a good deal mainly because no one cares. Yes, you might be a brilliant contrarian and you might have stumbled on the next Three Dollar gold piece series circa 2003-2004 (an undervalued series on the cusp of dramatically expanding in popularity) But you may have also found an area that is a marginal deal because no one is likely to care any time soon. Ask a trusted dealer or collector friend what he thinks about your decision(s).
The most important message that I'd like you to take from this is that collecting should be fun and that you should collect in order to satisfy yourself and not others. Sure, I'd like every upscale collector in the United States to collect Charlotte and Dahlonega gold. I'd get to be King of the Market for a few years, retire and start work on that great screenplay I've been kicking around for years. But I respect the fact that C+D gold isn't for everyone. Find what you love, learn as much as you can about it and have fun. After that, it's all easy...