How Consistent Does Your Set Need to Be?

I had an interesting email exchange with collector M.N. who asked me, in a nutshell, if his technique was “wrong” because the set which he was building had a broad range of grades. After I gave him my answer (which was basically “there is no wrong way to build your specific set since the coins you are searching for are all rare to very rare”) it got me thinking about the consistency of a set of coins when it comes to grade and appearance.

There are many answers to this question because there are so many types of set which can be built. I’m going to focus on a few salient points and hopefully this will get you—the reader—thinking about how the theory of appearance consistency applies to your set. And, yes, I just made up that theory…

Let’s say you are working on a Registry Set of Walking Liberty Half Dollars. If you want to rank fairly high in the Registry, you are going to need consistently high grades on your coins; mostly MS65’s and MS66’s; even MS67’s if you are hardcore.

But let’s say you are a Walker collector on a more limited budget and you don’t care to compete in the Registry. How consistent do the grades of the coins in your set need to be?

If you are like most collectors, you will underbuy the key coins and overbuy the common coins. By this, I mean that because an issue like the 1921-D or the 1921-S is expensive in higher grades, you will save money by making these two issues the lowest grades in your set. And with the common dates in the 1940’s, since they are so inexpensive in higher grades, you will likely buy Gems. I understand the logic behind this but the end result is that you are likely to have a set with grades ranging from Good/Very Good (for the 1921-D and 1921-S) to MS64 or MS65 (for the very common issues from the 1940’s). When you go to sell your set, a potential buyer is going to immediately think “Wow, there is a lot of variation in the quality of this set.”

If I were a Walker collector on a limited budget, I would save as much money as I felt comfortable spending on buying the nicest middle grade 1921-D and 1921-S I could find; maybe a nice VF or even an EF. I would reduce my outlay on the common dates and stick to MS63’s and MS64’s, but would make these mundane issues more desirable by looking for, say, nicely toned coins or coins which were uncommonly well struck.

I really like original Proof sets from the 1860-1908 era and have handled a decent number of them. When buying these sets I look for two things: consistency of appearance (in other words, do the silver coins have similar toning) and consistency of quality (in other words, are the coins all in the same basic grade range). Just as an example, I recently passed on a set from the 1890’s which was probably original but which had two “lemons” in it. It made no sense to me to own a relatively common set where the silver dollar graded PR63, but the dime graded PR67.

One of the neatest sets I have ever had the pleasure of viewing is the run of 1794-1836 half dollars owned by Dale Friend. It’s not the consistency of the grades which I find appealing (there are AU coins in the set and there are Gems), it’s the “look” of the coins which appeal to me. Dale likes coins with “old school” concentric album toning which display multiple hues and which are not too dark to hide the underlying surfaces and luster. This just happens to be the look I like as well (take a look at your Pittman I and Pittman II auction catalogs if you don’t know exactly what I am referring to).

Once Dale found the look he liked, he stuck to it and he was able to create a set which looks like it has been together for 50 years, in the same album, subject to the same environmental conditions. This is exactly what made some of the date runs of silver coins in the Newman sale so appealing.

How can you maintain consistency in a set where the coins are rare to very rare and extremely hard to locate with original color and surfaces? I would say that in this circumstance, you have to be creative and think outside of the box.

As a specific example, let’s look at No Motto eagles (struck 1854 through 1866) from the San Francisco mint. This is a set which contains many condition rarities (coins which are rare in higher grades; in this case EF45 and higher) and many absolute rarities (coins of which only a limited number exist in all grades).

This set consists of just 14 coins, but only three (1854-S, 1856-S, and 1857-S) are issues with more than 100 known and even those three coins are very hard to locate in properly graded AU55 to AU58, especially with natural color and choice surfaces.

Let’s further complicate this set by saying that only CAC quality coins are allowed (although we might have to make an exception to the rule with the key 1864-S given how rare this coin is and how virtually impossible it is with CAC approval). A quick peek at CAC’s website ( shows the following data for these fourteen issues:

  • 1854-S: 31
  • 1855-S: 4
  • 1856-S: 14
  • 1857-S: 6
  • 1858-S: 3
  • 1859-S: 1
  • 1860-S: 2
  • 1861-S: 10
  • 1862-S: 2
  • 1863-S: 1
  • 1864-S:2
  • 1865-S Normal Date: 2
  • 1865-S Inverted Date: 5
  • 1866-S No Motto: 3

What immediately stands out here is that:

a) only 85 coins have thus far been approved by CAC, and

b) of those 85, 45 coins (or 52.94%) are dated either 1854-S or 1857-S, and

c) six of the 14 dates in this set have current CAC populations of two or less.

Now let’s take a look at one specific tough date, the 1858-S. Only three coins have earned a CAC sticker and they grade VG10, EF40, and AU50. We can assume the top graded coin is in a tightly-held collection, leaving a collector with just two options: a very low grade example and a middle grade.

If the VG10 became available, would it make sense to buy it for the collection? Maybe yes, maybe no. I would personally suggest buying it (if it is reasonably priced and appealing). If the only other options for this date—for the time being anyway—are processed, unappealing VF and EF coins, then I’d say the CAC stickered VG10 makes a lot of sense.

What this boils down to is learning your series. You want to put together a cosmetically appealing set and in many series, an original coin graded VF30 is a much better decision than an overly bright AU50 with questionable color.

Another important factor about choosing a series is understanding what you are getting yourself into. If you just worked on a set of MS65 Peace Dollars, the segue to Type One Liberty Head double eagles (a series known for bagmarked surfaces and with many issues all but unavailable above AU55) is going to be difficult if not impossible. Before you make expensive purchases in a new series, find a trusted knowledgeable dealer, explain your likes and dislikes with coins, and see if this potential new series and you are compatible.

If you are thinking about beginning a new set of gold coins, feel free to run it by me either by phone or through emails, I’d be happy to assist you in any way that I can. My email address is