"Stick With The Keys..."

Strategy For Collecting Rare Gold Coins

When I was a kid just beginning to get serious about coins, an older local dealer made a comment that has stayed with me for years. When discussing his buying philosophy he said, "Stick with the keys, kid, you'll never go wrong." What he meant, of course, was that if you bought the rarest, most desirable coins in a specific series, you would do well over time.

His advice was sound, and key date coins in nearly all series have performed brilliantly during the last decade. This was even further reinforced this morning by a key date that I had just purchased at a show.

I listed an 1854-D quarter eagle in PCGS AU58 CAC on my website this past weekend. Within one day I had no less than six people inquire about it (all the more impressive when you consider I was asking $18,000 for it) and this got me to thinking about a hypothetical situation involving buying key date rare gold coins.

Let's say a collector had around $100,000 to spend over the course of a few years on Dahlonega quarter eagles. Would he be better off trying to assemble a complete (or near-complete) set in the EF grades or trying to spend all the money on as many nice 1854-D, 1855-D, and 1856-D quarter eagles as he could find?

I'm not certain that there is a "right" or a "wrong" answer for this. He could spend his $100,000 on processed, over-graded examples of these three dates and have a group of coins that, while rare, will prove hard to sell when the times comes to do so. In this case, I'd rather see the collector purchase thirty nice $3,000-3,500 coins.

But assuming our collector friend was patient, savvy, and well-connected and was able to acquire a few nice key dates would he have a "better" collection? I'm not certain that a small group of key dates actually constitutes a collection per se but as someone who buys a lot of Dahlonega quarter eagles, I'd personally be more interested in a small group of rarities than an assortment of more common examples.

Let's talk about "key" dates.

There are key dates that aren't especially popular (the 1842-C Small Date half eagle comes to mind) and there are key dates that seem fully priced at current levels (some would say the 1870-CC double eagles fits this category although I wouldn't necessarily agree with this). The three Dahlonega quarter eagles that I mentioned above fall into the category of key dates that are popular and priced at levels that make sense.

What makes one specific key date more desirable than another? In the area of rare date gold, I'd list a few specific factors.

The first is the overall collectibility of the series a coin is a key in. If a series is actively collected by date (say St. Gaudens double eagles) than a key date within that series is likely to be highly prized--and priced. If a key date is part of a series that is not terribly popular (say San Francisco quarter eagles) than a key issue might not be in strong demand.

Certain key issues aren't necessarily rare but they are in strong demand due to the nostalgia factor. When you were a kid, you were probably obsessed with the 1909-S VDB Cent, right? There was that gaping hole in your blue coin folder that you knew you'd never fill and that pesky S-VDB haunted your dreams for years...until you became successful and could afford a nice one. In its own little way, for a coin geek buying a nice 1909-S VDB Cent is like becoming the starting quarterback for your high school team or dating that hot girl from your 10th grade English class who'd never make eye contact with you.

For a more sophisticated coin collector, the concept of the key date has other ramifications. Is the coin rare in all grades? What is the "right" grade to buy the specific key date? Is the issue in question historically recognized as a key or is it an issue whose rarity is recently noted?

But I digress...

Getting back to our original hypothetical question, I think I would choose the key threesome Dahlonega quarter eagles if I were presented the question I asked earlier. I'm basing this decision on the fact that whenever I do list any of these three dates on my website they get multiple orders and seem to attract collectors who don't necessarily specialize in the series.

This last point is important. A key issue is iconic if it has multiple levels of support. A coin like a 1795 half eagle or a 1907 High Relief St. Gaudens double eagle isn't truly a "key" issue from the standpoint of true rarity but both are issues that are sought by collectors or investors who aren't specialists in early half eagles or Saints.

I haven't met many gold coin collectors who focus exclusively on key issues and after thinking about this, I'm sort of confused as to why more collectors don't do exactly this. How cool would it be to see a collection of Liberty Head half eagles that contained Condition census examples of the ten rarest issues or a Liberty Head eagle collection that focused on rarities such as the 1858, 1864-S, and 1875?

What are your thoughts on key dates? Please feel free to share them with me in the comment section below.