Reader F.N. of New York City recently asked me an interesting question: "Do you collect coins and if so what do you collect?" I'd like to take the chance to give you a brief history of what I have collected in the past and supplement this with some thoughts on collecting coins in general. I started early in numismatics. I was pretty much hooked by age seven, and was obsessed with coins by the time I was nine or ten. I was always attracted to cool, older coins and the first things I can remember buying included a few bust half dollars, a holed small size quarter (that I tried to plug with candle wax; an early foray into doctoring?) and a few odds and ends.
When I was ten or so, I started a set of Indian Cents. I got bored quickly with this and could never really "get" why I'd have to pay $100 for a decent 1877 when they seemed to be so easy to find.
I always had an interest in Colonial and Revolutionary War history and this was fueled by trips with my maternal grandfather to places like Boston, Lake George/Fort Ticonderoga, Valley Forge, etc. It was around this time that I got hooked on colonial coins; Connecticut coppers specifically.
For a kid in the 1970's with a small budget, collecting Connecticuts was ideal. They were cheap, reasonably easy to find, and very few people knew or cared about rare varieties. After some searching, I discovered the standard reference by Henry Miller and started to learn how to attribute the coins by variety. I was good at this, and within a year I was able to attribute many of the better varieties by memory.
Growing up in New York in the 1970's was a great environment for a kid who loved coins. There were shops everywhere and a major show seemed to take place at least once every two months (sadly, these shows are long gone. RIP to the GENA, AINA, Greater New York, etc.) There were also shows every Sunday at the long-gone Roger Smith and Hotel Manhattan where I would, from time to time, stumble on a really good colonial coin.
I stayed loyal to colonials until the time I was a mid-teenager and discovered Seated Liberty coinage; specifically seated quarters. I can still remember the epiphany I had about this series: one day I was skimming the Redbook and realized that there were really rare coins with mintages of 20,000 or so that had guidebook values of less than $200. These coins were so cheap that, if I could find them, I'd actually be able to buy nice looking, rare issues for $100-200 per coin; my budget at the time.
My Seated Liberty mentor when I was a kid was the late Kam Ahwash. Kam treated me really fairly and I fondly recall combing through boxes of his seated coins at his tables when he would come to a New York show. I'd generally select more than I could afford, but I'd sell a rare colonial or two that I had cherrypicked.
Grading back then was far less exact than it is today and I would carefully check the surfaces of all the seated quarters that Kam had to avoid those that had been cleaned and retoned.
Given my budget and my sense of aesthetics, I developed a strict set of parameters for my quarter set that has stayed with me even today. I preferred coins in the VF-EF range as they showed good detail but were affordable. I loved coins that were original with warm gunmetal grey color. To me, the things that killed a coin were deep, unsightly scratches, rough surfaces, and rim problems.
I learned what dates were the most undervalued and wasn't worried about owning "too many" 1859-S or 1872-S quarters; I could always trade them for something else when the rest of the world learned how rare these coins were (they did; just 20 years later than I thought they would!)
Once I went to college and started my own coin business, the extra money I had went other places than coins. And when I finally did have some extra money, I either reinvested it into my business or bought real estate.
During the last two decades as a dealer specializing in rare U.S. gold coinage, I haven't really "collected" much in the way of what I sell; primarily because I don't want to have a conflict of interest with my clients.
About a decade ago, I worked on a set of MS66 Three Cent Nickels. I got to within two coins of being complete, but got bored and sold the set for a nice profit.
The most serious collecting I did was a year set of 18th century coinage (I specialized in a specific year that I won't mention here) that was complete from half cent to eagle, and which included a number of important varieties and sub-varieties. When prices for early type soared in 2006-2008, I decided that it was time to sell and broke the set up.
Today, I'm kind of a dabbler. I buy the occasional pretty, interesting coin and put it away. But I know I'll always be a seller of these coins, especially if I have a client who I like and who is looking for a coin of the sort that I have put away.
If I ever became a more serious collector again, there are a few parameters that I'd work within.
I love gem slider AU58 coins for the appearance and value that these coins provide. I'm talking about a choice, original coin that is a technical AU58, but which has the look and appeal of an MS64. These coins are far harder to find than you might imagine, but I do handle them from time to time. I could see having a random collection of 19th century gold coins with these attributes.
I love pedigreed coins. I find the coins that are hardest for me to part with as a dealer are ones that were owned by great past collectors like Harry Bass, Louis Eliasberg, James Stack, or the Norweb family. As a dealer, I tend to be more interested in the history of the coin business than the history of the coins themselves and there is something that excites me about being only the third owner of a specific gold coin since, say, the early 1900's.
I love gold coins with great eye appeal. If I buy a Dahlonega quarter eagle with really rich natural coloration, I sometimes think "I want to put this coin away." (I almost never do, though, because coins like this are so easy for me to sell.) Bright coins from the 1840's aren't appealing to me unless they are Choice or Gem quality and are naturally vibrant.
If I had to pick a specific era of numismatics from which the coins are most appealing to me, I'd have to say it would be from the late 1820's through the late 1840's/early 1850's. I think this is a great period of American history, but what I find most interesting are the designs of these coins, the richness of the naked-eye varieties, and the fact that there are coins from this period that can be found for less than $10,000 with superb eye appeal.
As someone who has been involved with coins for just about his whole life, I know I'll never totally stop collecting. I wouldn't be surprised if, within a few years, I find a series that I want to start a small collection in. I just worry that, given the amount of passion that I approach the other collectibles that I specialize in, I would get too consumed by this new area. Given how selective a buyer I am that probably won't happen, but you never know....