I have been working on a few coin-related projects lately and one component which has made me stop and collect my thoughts on many occasions involves pricing. And then it hits me: if issues about coin pricing confuse me, how confusing must they seem to new collectors? Here are a few random thoughts about coin pricing.
Try to see if you can answer this question without cheating: what do you think an 1893-S double eagle in PCGS MS65 is worth? Without knowing much about the series, I'm going to predict that your guess is in the mid-to-high four figures; maybe as high as $12,500-15,000. What if I told you this was a $44,063 coin and could prove it?
Which brings us to Thought #1 of this blog: can a market be made by one coin trade? Quick answer: "yes but..."
The 1893-S double eagle, it turns out, is the Poster Child for Numismatic Condition Rarity. It is common as dirt in the lower Uncirculated grades and only marginally scarce in MS63. It is very scarce in MS64 with an estimated value of $9,000-10,000 (which in and of itself might prove surprising to you for a coin with a population of 40 pieces, just at PCGS...). But it turns out that in MS65, this date is a beast with a current population of just two at PCGS and none finer.
Which is all well and good but how do you price a coin like this when one has never sold? Well, you wait until one does sell which is exactly what happened in Heritage's 10/12 auction, when a PCGS MS65 example brought an impressive $44,063.
I'm not going to make a value judgement about this coin as it isn't my intention to state whether it was a "good deal" or a "bad deal." But if another piece were to come up for sale, I would have to use the $44,063 figure as a baseline comparison. As long as the population figure (i.e. the supply) stays low for this issue, we can assume that the demand will remain fairly consistent. For better or worse, this $44,063 is what we are left to work with, even if the underbidder at the Heritage 10/12 suddenly thinks the coin is now worth $20,000.
Here's the thing about coin pricing: in very thinly traded markets (like coins with populations of two and none better) the market price becomes whatever the last trade is. In the case of very rare coins, this makes sense. In the case of a condition rarity in a series which is not typically collected by date, especially in Gem (like our aforementioned 1893-S double eagle) it makes sense but it is harder to embrace.
What about what I call "outlier prices?" Can a pricing structure be based on pricing anomalies?
This is a harder question to answer. Let's use another 1893-S double eagle as an example; this time in MS64. While scarce, enough have appeared at auction over the last few years that we can make some good assumptions.
The last MS64 to sell at auction was a PCGS MS64 with CAC approval which brought $12,925 in Heritage's 1/13 auction. It was a nice coin and one of the few examples of this date in MS64 with CAC approval; even so, the price realized has to be considered an outlier given other comparable coins.
The two previous APR's for the 1893-S in MS64 are $9,975 for a PCGS/CAC coin in Heritage's 2/10 sale and $9,890 for a non-CAC PCGS example in Heritage's 2/09 sale. The non-CAC coin, interestingly, was nicer than the CAC (in my opinion).
Why did the one coin bring nearly $13,000 while the other two brought a shade under $10,000? It could be a number of factors. It is possible that two "crackout" dealers felt that it had a shot to upgrade to MS65 (not likely given its scratch on the face) and they bid the coin up. Or, Type Three double eagles may be a bit stronger now than they were a few years ago (possible but are they nearly 30% higher, in the case of this date?). We'll never know the answer for certain but I don't feel strongly enough about this price to make the bold statement that all other 1894-S double eagles in PCGS MS64 with CAC approval are now worth $13,000. To me, they are still $10,000 coins and this one "outlier" price realized doesn't necessarily mean a new price level has been established.
There are many other scenarios in which an outlier price can be attained.
Let's take a random example: an 1855-S eagle in AU55. This is a coin which could have a potentially huge range in valuation. And there are many factors why this range could be so dramatic. If it was a "real" AU55 with original surfaces and good eye appeal it could be worth double the amount of a crappy processed example. If it was a nice AU55 with an SS Central America pedigree (in the original holder) it could be worth even more. My point is that we could see dramatic variations in prices if enough examples of this date were sold at auction.
I mentioned that the range on this date could be vast. While a junky, low end "buying it for the plastic" AU55 could be worth $7,000-9,000 in the current market, a choice PCGS AU55 with a CAC sticker could bring as much as $12,500-15,000. And a coin with all the bells and whistles (PCGS/CAC/pedigree/old holder) could bring close to $20,000.
Which brings me to another thought.
Some coins are easy to price. An Iowa half dollar in an MS65 holder is worth around $150. An 1882-S Morgan dollar is a $350 coin (unless it has spectacular multi-colored toning but that's another issue). Other coins are hard to price and they require value ranges. As I pointed out above, the value range for an 1855-S eagle in AU55 could run from a low of $7,000 to a high of close to $20,000. Same date, same grade, same value, right? In the case of very rare, esoteric coins this is far from the case. There are a ton of factors which influence value and, unfortunately, this is often not reflected in pricing guides.
Would it be possible to create a pricing guide which reflected the fact that there are variations in value for many coins? In the case of 1793-1814 Large Cents such pricing already exists. This pricing assumes that there are at least three variations within each grade; let's call them "A" for nice coins, "B" for average coins and "C" for below average coins. These variations may not matter much for MS65 Iowa half dollars but they matter alot for coins like Chain Cents or 1855-S eagles or even common date Dahlonega half eagles in EF45. I would love to sell multi-tiered pricing for various series and believe that this could be done, albeit with a great deal of effort.
I've written this before but I believe that one thing that holds coins back from literally exploding as an asset class among sophisticated investors is a lack of high quality pricing. Someday, someone is going to realize this and they are going to create a proprietary pricing system (its not hard to do but it is extremely labor intensive and requires input from extremely knowledgable market players and specialists) which will revolutionize numismatics. Until then, many new collectors will have to gamble that the 1855-S eagle which they just paid $15,000 for is a $15,000 1855-S and not a $7,500 1855-S. CAC approval is a start, but dissemination of information is a necessary next step.