Is Collecting by Date a Thing of the Past?

Is the age of collecting by date or variety over? Have coins become so expensive and collecting so complex that it is inevitable that new collectors will focus solely on type coins? As a dealer who sells rare gold coins to both highly specialized date collectors and to sophisticated type collectors I think numismatics is definitely going through a change but that collecting by date remains (and will continue to be) very popular with a certain type of individual. To collect a series or a mint by date requires a type of mindset. I think of date collectors as being more patient than type collectors and probably a bit more research-oriented. To a generalized, type-oriented collector, there is no difference between an 1848-D and an 1858-D half eagle. To the date collector, there is a significant amount of difference between these two coins; be it strike, appearance, coloration, etc.

I don’t think there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to collect. I admire the highly specialized date collector who takes years to assemble a set of Charlotte half eagles or Liberty Head eagles. During the process, he is probably learning more about the specific series that he is collecting than most dealers. He “gets” the difference between the 1848-D half eagle and the 1858-D half eagle and does not have to have it explained to him.

But I can absolutely see the reason to collect by type as well. Not everyone has the patience to assemble a long set of coins and most series have one or two (or more) stoppers that make completing a set impossible. And there is clearly something cool about the fact that a type collector buys something different every time he makes a purchase. Anyone can tell the difference between an 1838 Classic Head half eagle and a 1910 Indian Head half eagle; most people see an 1848-D and 1858-D half eagle and they see essentially the same coin(s).

To the coin market gurus who emphatically state that collecting by date or variety is a dying endeavor, I would answer that this is not the case. To refute this, one need only look at the fact that in this golden era of numismatic publishing, there continues to be a run of titles that deal with specific series but virtually none that deal with type collecting. In the area of gold coins, in the last few years we’ve seen titles about gold dollars, 20th century issues, three dollar pieces, Charlotte and New Orleans issues, etc.

Not only is collecting by series alive and well, specialization seems to be doing just fine, thanks. In the recent Bowers and Merena Baltimore auction, the seventh known example of the 1795 Liberty Cap with Reeded Edge Cent brought an astonishing $402,500. What’s even more incredible about this figure is the fact that the coin is only graded Good-4 by PCGS and it clearly isn’t going to win any beauty contests. However, it is an extremely rare variety in an extremely popular series (early Large Cents by Sheldon variety). As we all know, it just takes two to tango and if two well-heeled collectors decide to butt heads on a coin that they know they might not get another chance to own, the final price realized is often jaw-dropping. Weak economy or not, many highly specialized collector series remain as strong as ever.

What does the future hold for date collecting? I see a few possible scenarios.

There are some series that are so long and so challenging that they will never attract more than a handful of date collectors. As an example, Liberty Head eagles are so tough that it is hard to imagine more than three to five people at one time competing against each other to form a set. But, on the flip side, when you have as many rare dates as the Liberty Head eagle series does, a sudden onslaught of demand would be untenable.

Other series that were once popular to collect by date are likely to become less popular due to the vicissitudes of taste. A century ago, virtually no one knew what a branch mint gold coin was, let alone collected them; today these are more popular than issues from Philadelphia. What is popular today could become forgotten a generation or two from now.

If well-written reference books on a formerly-overlooked series are released, date collecting can gain appeal. I’d like to think that the publication of my New Orleans gold coin book in 2006 spurred a number of people to collect by date. Newly released books on Colonials/Early American coins and Peace Dollars could have a huge impact in these two markets as well.

Something that we are likely to see in the future is a hybridization of collecting tastes. I wouldn’t be surprised if date and type collecting become more finely synthesized. As an example, someone might decide he doesn’t want to collect a full date set of Charlotte half eagles. But he likes the series enough that he wants to do more than collect the three types. He might become an “advanced dabbler” who doesn’t feel compelled to complete the series but who decides to own five or six or even seven different dates because he feels that Charlotte half eagles are really interesting.

One thing we are destined to see in many series if prices go down is the shrinking of the Market Premium Factor. In series that are not terribly popular, coins that formerly sold for a 10-30% premium over a common date are likely to lose this premium and retract down to a common type coin level. We are already seeing this in some of the 20th century series and I wouldn’t be totally shocked to see this in the early gold and Liberty Head gold markets.

Another point to address: how will key dates fair in series that become less popular with date collectors? The answer depends on whether or not there are multiple levels of demand for this coin. As an example, the 1873 three dollar gold piece is a key date but if the three dollar series becomes less popular, its level of demand will shrink. The 1854-D three dollar is likely to lose less value in a declining market because there are a broader range of collectors who want this coin: not only specialists in the series, but Dahlonega collectors and one-year type collectors as well.