The Condition Census Defined

I make frequent reference to the term “Condition Census” in many of my articles, blogs and individual coin descriptions but it has been brought to my attention that some beginning collectors do not know what this term means. The concept of the Condition Census is credited to Dr. William Sheldon who employed it in the late 1940’s with the publication of his seminal work “Early American Cents.” The census was a “scientific” way of arriving at a coin’s value by listing, in serial order, the finest known example of a specific die variety and then a list of the next five finest. For each specific variety of early cent, a “basal value” was listed and a coin’s worth on the open market would be that value times the grade. As an example, if a specific variety had a basal value of $5 and it was graded EF40 by Sheldon’s standards, the value of the coin would be approximately $200.

This system seems somewhat quaint in the coin market of the 21st century, but the concept of the Condition Census has been co-opted to apply to a host of other series besides Large Cents. In some cases, the system is practical; in others it clearly is not.

When specifically applied to United States gold coins, the concept of a Condition Census sometimes makes sense. As an example, it is possible for an expert to create a list of the five or six finest examples of a rare issue such as an 1841-D quarter eagle. It is not practical to create a list of the five or six finest 1924 double eagles as there are numerous examples that could qualify in the Condition Census and it is virtually impossible to substantiate a claim that one is better than the other.

Sheldon’s concept of basal value certainly no longer applies to coins (when they became $10,000+ items, how could you establish an accurate basal value?) but the validity of listing the finest known examples of a specific date or major variety remains interesting to collectors. And the value of such a listing has become more and more important as collectors enter their sets into the PCGS and NGC Registries.

Most of my books have included listings of finest known and Condition Census branch mint gold coins. But beginning with my new book on New Orleans gold, I have stopped listing a Condition Census. I did this for a number of reasons. The first is that grading standards for most gold coins have clearly changed. So it made little sense to list a coin that last appeared at auction in 1997 versus another similarly graded coin that appeared for sale in 2005; in nearly all cases the 1997 coin was clearly better. The second factor was that owners of these coins (mainly dealers) were continually breaking them out of one holder and putting them into another in attempt to increase the value of the coin. It looked ridiculous, in my opinion, to have the same Condition Census coin appear in my listings as a PCGS MS61, then as an NGC MS62 and still later as a PCGS MS62.

What I have tried to do to replace this system is to list “significant examples” of a certain date. As an example, if there are five Uncirculated examples of a specific New Orleans half eagle known to exist, I’ve tried to list them all. They may not necessarily be listed in order from “best” to “worst” but I have included their prices realized when they appeared at auction and let the numbers speak for themselves.

One problem with a Condition Census listing is that there is a somewhat arbitrary nature in creating any such list. Grading will always have a degree of subjectivity attached to it and a coin that is graded MS61 may, in my opinion, not be as nice as one graded MS62 or even MS63. Let me give you a great example. A few years ago I was asked to look through what was probably the single greatest collection of Dahlonega gold ever assembled. For nearly every date, the collector had multiple coins and, in some cases, he had what were probably the first, second and even third finest known. He made the decision to reduce his holdings and wanted me to select the single coin for each date that I thought was the finest. I remember choosing an 1855-D half eagle in AU58 as a nicer coin than one in MS63 and eventually listed the AU58 coin ahead of the MS63 (both coins were graded by PCGS, in case you were wondering...) in my Dahlonega Condition Census listings.

A Condition Census listing is only valid if the person making the list is very knowledgeable and has no ulterior motive for making one coin “better” than another. I’ve always been impressed by the Large Cent collectors who, for the love of the game, keep meticulous Census listings not only for each variety but, in some instances, for die states. Now that’s what Numismatics is all about!