U.S. Coin Pricing Guides

When someone really, truly figures out how to properly compile and market an accurate, real-time pricing guide for United States coins, they are going to become very wealthy and very popular. Because, at this point in time, the pricing mechanisms for most rare United States coins are a mess. Let me explain what I mean. Let’s say you want to buy an 1858-C half eagle graded AU55 by PCGS or NGC. You do not have the coin in hand but you have seen an image of it on a dealer’s website or in an on-line auction. What’s your next step?

You’ll probably do one of two things. If you are a specialized collector you’ll look up its valuation in Coin World Trends or in the CDN Quarterly Summary. The former shows its value to be $5,000. The latter, unfortunately, does not list values for AU55 coins—only AU50 and AU58, so in this particular case it is essentially useless.

What, you ask yourself, does this value of $5,000 actually mean? If you read the fine print in a copy of “Coin Values” you will see that Coin World considers its publication to be a retail price guide. It also states “values are listed for coins that are strictly graded in each grade category according to current market standards.” So does this mean that the collector should expect to pay $5,000 for an 1858-C half eagle in AU55? Unfortunately, Trends is not really clear in explaining this.

The next step for most collectors is to search an on-line database of prices realized at auction. The Heritage Auction Prices Archives, as I have pointed out many times before, is an incredible resource with over 1,125,000 auction lots listed.

In looking up the 1858-C half eagle in AU55, a few things become apparent. The first is the frequency with which this date appears at auction. There were a total of nine different auction appearances in 2006 plus another five in 2005. Even if we assume that some were the same coin(s) sold more than once, fourteen appearances in two years is a high degree of frequency. Thus, we can make the assumption that this coin isn’t really that rare from the standpoint of total number known and it should, therefore, sell at a discount relative to Trends. The fact that it is not a terribly popular or “important” issue (like the 1838-C or 1839-C half eagles) probably would increase this discount relative to Trends.

The next thing I would look at is the most recent auction records for AU55’s. They are as follows: $3,220, $2,990, $5,750 and $5,175. Clearly, this is a huge range and this is where I think using auction price data without proper interpretation can be very misleading for the collector.

Looking back at my catalogs for each of these four AU55 coins, my notes stated the following. For the coin that brought $3,220 I felt it was decent for the grade and I think the buyer got a pretty good deal on this. The coin that sold for $2,990 was “very ugly” in my opinion and even though this was very cheap, it is a case of getting what you pay for. The coin that sold for $5,750 was in an old green label PCGS holder and I graded it “58+,” meaning I thought it had a good shot to grade Uncirculated if resubmitted. And the coin that realized $5,175 was, I felt, “very choice and original” and would upgrade to AU58.

Four coins, same date, same grade...but prices that range from a low of $2,990 to a high of $5,750.

What pricing sheets do not help the collector with is the diversity of quality within a specific grade. These prices tell me that a really lousy 1858-C half eagle in AU55 is probably worth around $3,000; or 60% of Trends. A coin that is decent for the grade (not spectacular but not something that you look at and go “yuck”) is worth around $3,250. A coin that is very nice for the grade (not an upgrade candidate but a piece that has attractive natural color and surfaces) is worth $3,750 or so. And a really high end coin (one that is a seeming candidate to upgrade to AU58) is worth anywhere from $4,500 to $5,500.

Confused yet?

No commercial pricing sheet is going to be able to give you four different quality levels for each grade. We’d be talking about a massive undertaking and a project that few people are qualified to undertake. But it can be done. Collectors of Large Cents rely on a pricing guide called CQR which gives three price ranges for a host of grades for every die variety from 1793 to 1814. This is clearly a labor of love (I can’t imagine that the publishers are getting rich publishing CQR!) but it provides advanced collectors with a set of pricing applications that, within a highly specialized series, makes sense.

What if this specialized pricing were to be applied to various other series? What if some clever entrepreneur got together a group of leading experts and had them be in charge of detailed pricing for a highly specialized market segment? As an example, you could have Stewart Blay, David Schweitz and Andy Skrabalak collectively create and maintain a database for Mint State and Proof Lincoln Cents. If I were a collector of these coins, I think I would pay $100 per year to have access to this pricing that might not be available anywhere else. By charging this amount, the owner of the pricing service could at least defray some of his expenses.

I would expect that as the coin market evolves in the future, we will start seeing some experiments with specialized pricing. I could see this idea working very well for popular series like Bust half dollars and Indian Head cents and I don’t think it would be hard to create categories of quality for popular series such as Morgan dollars (by this I mean an “A” level for extremely nice coins, a “B” level for average to above average coins and a “C” level for below average coins). Most experts, myself included, already grade coins by category and quantifying this information would be relatively simple.