Key Date Price Performance

At the end of my last blog, I mentioned that the price gains in the coin market that many collectors and investors have been seeing are somewhat misleading. My guess is that if you took a random sample of 100 miscellaneous coins and calculated their price appreciation since 2003, fewer than 20% would show plusses. Some would even show minuses. If you had asked me in 2003 which coins would have shown the greatest gains, I would have split my answer(s) in two: traditional “trophy” coins and popular key dates in the most avidly collected series. My answers have turned out to be partially right as key dates have performed exceptionally well. What has really surprised me, though, is that the traditional trophy coins that have inevitably led the way in past bull markets have not necessarily been the best performers this time around.

I consider traditional trophy coins to be things like Stellas, High Reliefs, Pan-Pac Round and Octagonal $50’s, Proof gold (especially high denominations), etc. In the past, rich guys who didn’t know much about coins tended to gravitate towards these categories because they were big and sexy.

But things have been different this time around and I attribute this mainly to a coin market that is far, far more information-driven than in the past. In 1998, the rich guy who wanted to buy a few neat coins for his portfolio had no easy way to figure out how rare something was. Additionally, he was likely to be dealing with a salesman (as opposed to a numismatist) at a large marketing-oriented firm who had little knowledge about coins. Since both parties tended to be dealing from ignorance, it made sense that the unsophisticated seller would focus on a big, shiny High Relief or a Stella as the unsophisticated buyer was most likely to relate to such a coin.

Fast forward to 2008 and the market has changed. Information about coins has spread virally on the Internet and now, with an investment of a few hours, people can read a lot of good information about a wide variety of topics. In addition, the person selling coins to the big money buyers is likely to be more sophisticated as well. He needs a more interesting product to set himself apart from his competitors and the Old School Trophy Coins of the 1990’s suddenly seem passé. Just as importantly, the new breed of buyers can go on-line and see the population figures for coins like Stellas and High Reliefs. Due to significant resubmissions, these former rarities now seem common. The new buyers want exceedingly rare coins that no one else can have.

And this is where the New Right Coins come into play. If you follow auctions, you’ll note that in the last year or so, the types of coins that have been bringing jaw-dropping money are things like 1804 Dimes in AU55 and 1850 Quarters in PR68 and 1920-S Eagles in MS67. All three of these are truly great coins but they are not coins that, five years ago, I would have expected collectors or investors to have paid record-shattering prices for. In the old coin market these coins were “really neat but really exotic.” Today, they are the Right Coins.

Not everyone, of course, can afford to spend $632,500 on an 1804 Dime or $480,000 on a Proof 1850 Quarter. And, interestingly enough, lower grade examples of these same issues are not necessarily going to drive big money new collectors into a feeding frenzy (my guess is that the collector who paid $480,000 for his PR68 1850 quarter would have been A LOT less interested in a PR64 example of this date).

So what are the right coins for those of us who don’t have an extra $480,000 lying around to buy a Proof 1850 quarter? (and, by the way, I don’t mean to “pick” on Mr. 1850 Quarter as I think this is a great coin...just not one I expected to see sell for nearly half a million bucks...)

In this market, I would look to be a value-oriented collector or investor and would stick with coins that are very scarce to very rare, “interesting” from the standpoint of history, aesthetically appealing and old.

In the realm of rare date gold, some of the coins that I think will continue to perform well in spite of the vicissitudes of the market include the following:

-Virtually any 18th century issue

-Virtually any Liberty Head coin that is either the finest known or solidly in the Condition Census

-Any very low mintage coin (for business strikes, this is generally 2,500 or lower; for Proofs this is generally 50 or lower)

-Any coin pedigreed to a great collection (Bass, Garrett, Norweb, Eliasberg and a few others are great collections. The Rainy Day collection of CC Double Eagles IS NOT a great collection...)

-Virtually any coin that is historically significant (1861-D gold dollar, 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles, 1854-D three dollar gold, 1879-O double eagle, etc.)

-Coins that have original skin and a great, original appearance

-Any coin in a popular series that is rare and in demand. This is a huge range; from Rarity-7 Bust Half Dollar die varieties to key date Morgans in perfect, original AU55 to important one-year type coins like the 1808 quarter eagle to rare date Saints in MS63 and better with CAC stickers.