Hunting For Value In Today's Rare Coin Market

As we roll towards the mid-way point of the numismatic year, this is a good time to step back for a second and reflect on value. The Numismatic Prognostications of late 2008/early 2009 have not proven as dire as first thought (at least not yet...) but there has still been quite a bit of shake-out in the coin market. For the collector who is a stickler for good value, does this represent a good time to jump into the market and pursue some of the bellwether items that are standards in any collection? Let’s take a look at a few of these and see if they are good values at current levels or if the collector should ride the market out and take a “wait and see” approach.

The first coin I’d like to look at is a 1795 half eagle graded AU55. The 1795 half eagle is a very popular issue due to its status as one of the two first gold coins struck by the United States mint. It is scarce but not unobtainable and it is priced at a level that many collectors can (still) afford. The current value of an average quality 1795 half eagle in AU55 is around $40,000. Last year, examples consistently traded in the $45,000-50,000 and at the peak of the market in 2007 they hit the $50,000-55,000 mark.

Now, let’s look back a few years. What were 1795 half eagles in AU55 worth five or six years ago? As I recall, it was possible to buy a nice, solidly graded example for around $25,000-30,000. My gut feeling tells me that it’s not likely that we’ll see these levels again for this coin but that a dip down to around $35,000 might be possible this year, especially for examples that are low-end and unoriginal.

In my opinion, at current levels (give or take 5-10% on the downside or upside), the 1795 half eagle is a pretty good value in AU55. But I’d be very picky right now. The last three or four examples that I have seen in AU55 holders have been fairly unattractive. A choice, lustrous piece with good eye appeal and nice color is hard to find at the new levels and I think it’s a solid value.

How about the Big Brother of the 1795 half eagle: the eagle from this year? I personally love 1795 eagles. It’s a beautifully designed coin, it’s historic, it’s scarce but not to the point of being esoteric (as are some of the rare date early eagles of this design) and it’s an issue that has been in demand since the early days of coin collecting.

Prices levels for this issue in AU55 have held up a little better than they have for the similarly dated half eagles. I haven’t handled an AU55 in a few months but I’m guessing that they are worth around $50,000-55,000 right now. Last year, examples traded in the $55,000-60,000 range and at the peak of the market in 2007, I traded at least three of them in the $65,000-70,000 range.

Looking back a few years, 1795 eagles in AU55 were trading for around $35,000-40,000. If I had to guess what the current “basal value” for this issue is, I’d say around $45,000. At this level, I have to think there are a lot of dealers who would jump in, even for coins that weren’t especially high end.

In my opinion, a nice, choice 1795 eagle at around $50,000 is very good value. Again, I’d be picky if I were buying one. I’d spend a few extra thousand dollars and wait for an example that was as original as possible.

What about High Reliefs? As you might know, I’m not a huge fan of High Relief double eagles from the standpoint of value. But I do love the design and if I were a collector I can’t imagine not owning a nice MS64 example at least once during my collecting career.

If you shop around, I think you should be able to buy a decent non-CAC quality MS64 for around $26,000-28,000. These were worth around $32,000-34,000 a year ago and at the peak of the market in 2007 I can recall seeing examples trade in the $36,000-38,000 range. Around five or six years ago, as the Great Bull Market in coins was beginning, MS64 High Reliefs were available in the $22,000-24,000 range.

These numbers are sort of surprising to me. Given the near-ubiquity of this coin in this grade (PCGS alone has graded over 1,200 in MS64) I would have personally expected it to have dropped more than it has so far. Many collectors are not aware of the fact that some of the dealers who were the biggest two-way market-makers in High Reliefs have cut back their buying due to cash-flow constraints. Given these factors, I’m impressed that MS64 High Reliefs have only dropped 15-20% since last year. My gut feeling is that they could drop another 10-20% but I don’t see them getting much cheaper than the low 20’s in MS64. At this level, I would have to think that they are a “safe” purchase.

Let’s look at one last item. How about something that straddles the line between “generic” and “rare coin?” I’m thinking Three Dollar Gold and, more specifically, I’m thinking an 1878 $3.00 in MS64.

If you follow the generic market, you probably are aware that Three Dollar Gold is not in demand right now. I would term this series as “cold” and it might even be approaching “glacial.” With a little price shopping and comparing various dealers’ inventories, you should be able to buy an MS64 in the $6,500-7,500 range. These were worth $8,500-9,500 a year ago. The peak of the market for common date MS64 Three Dollar gold was in late 2005/early 2006 when these were being promoted and they got as high as $12,000-14,000 in MS64. Going back to the beginning of the bull market, MS64 Threes were selling for $5,500-6,000.

I’d like to tell you that I thought MS64 Threes were a great value right now because I do think that they are cheap. But the problem with this series is ample supply and almost no current demand. Unless someone starts promoting Threes again, I could see MS64’s drop down to the $5,000-$5,500 range. So unless you really need one for a type set, I’d suggest waiting a while and letting them get cheaper.