If you collect a set (or sets) and are competing in the Set Registry, the chances are good that you’ve struggled with the Dilemma of the Placeholder. Let’s examine the Pros and Cons of buying a placeholder coin and try to decide whether this is a smart collecting strategy or not. First off, let’s define what a “placeholder coin” is. I view a placeholder coin as one that you buy as a stop gap. As an example, say that you are assembling a set of Indian Head eagles. One of the few dates that you are missing is a 1911-D. One comes up for sale at auction in a grade lower than what you really want. You decide to buy it anyway because of the fact that it a) fills a gaping hole in your set and b) gives you a sufficient number of Registry Set points that you move up a notch and pass Collector X. Was this is a smart purchase or not?
Let’s look at the pros of buying a placeholder coin. The first is the measure of satisfaction that filling a really nagging hole can give. There is nothing more frustrating for our hypothetical collector than seeing a big ol’ ugly blank every time he looks at his set inventory - especially if he has a nice date run before and after the missing coin. Coin collecting is a very emotional hobby and the Karmic Value of filling a hole is hard to put a value on.
Another pro is the fact that a placeholder coin might grow in appeal on the owner. I’m going to assume that as a collector you are smart enough to not buy something truly hideous and to at least hold out for a moderately attractive placeholder. You might learn that your placeholder is actually so rare that it represents the only coin that you are likely to have a shot to buy.
For some collectors a placeholder coin represents a practical decision. Let’s say for example that you are assembling a gold type set from the 19th and 20th centuries and that you don’t have the ability to spend $100,000+ on a nice 1808 quarter eagle. In this case, a decent looking coin in, say, an NCS holder with EF sharpness but with signs of an old cleaning at $40,000-50,000 might be a savvy purchase; especially given the fact that an uncleaned 1808 quarter eagle in this price range might take years and years to locate.
For every pro there is a con, so now let’s look at the cons of buying placeholder coins. To my way of thinking, the biggest con about a placeholder coin is the fact that you know you are going to have to replace it. Unless the market goes up in your series, you are probably going to lose money on it when you sell it. Let’s say, for example, that Collector Z buys the mythical 1911-D eagle we discussed above. He purchases one for $10,500 that’s decent but not really a great looking coin due to the presence of some marks on the obverse. A year later he finds the right coin and it’s going to cost him $27,500. Unless Collector Z has a buyback or “trade up” agreement with the dealer he bought it from he’s probably going to take a 10-15% hit on the coin. Let’s say he’s sells it at auction and nets $9,250; a loss of $1,250. This brings the actual cost of his new coin to $28,750.
Another con about collectors buying placeholder coins is that it teaches them bad collecting habits. I’m a big believer in buying the right coin the first time. I’ve seen some collectors “self-churn” themselves as they buy a 1911-D eagle first in MS61, then upgrade to an MS62 then upgrade to an MS63 and so on. As I just mentioned above, there are transaction costs that will hit you in the wallet every time you upgrade. It also flies in the face of something that I try to teach new collectors: be patient and wait for the right coin. The Coin Gods like to play games with impatient collectors and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a collector settle on an inferior coin only to have the absolutely perfect coin come along a week, a month or a year later.
So, the bottom line: placeholder coins, yes or no? I’d say in the majority of cases “no”. The exception would be if you are buying something that is so readily liquid and has a tight enough buy/sell spread (a coin like a $50 Pan-Pac Round) that even a short-term hold isn’t likely to have negative impact on its value.