After 25+ years of encapsulating coins and 50+ million submissions, it is clear that PCGS and NGC have had a huge impact on the way we view coin rarity. I have personally learned many things: which coins are rare and which are not; which coins are true condition rarities and how issues within a specific series can be viewed on a comparative basis. This got me to thinking: how many coins within a series need to be graded (on a percentage basis) to make definitive rarity statements? And once this has been determined, what percentage of coins within certain series have already been graded by PCGS and NGC? To start making trenchant observations about absolute and conditional rarity, I think we have to feel confident that over 50-60% of all known coins in a specific series have been graded. When it comes to expensive (let's say $5,000 and up) gold coins, I think the percentage of all coins graded by PCGS and/or NGC ranges from a low of around 65-70% to a high of close to 90%.
Let's take a look at a few specific areas and try to guess what percentage of coins have been graded.
1. Charlotte and Dahlonega Gold
The Charlotte and Dahlonega market was reasonably hesitant to embrace third-party grading and this initially made sense, given how erratically these coins were graded by PCGS and NGC during their formative years. But by the end of the 1980's, submitters were more confident and large quantities of these pieces were being encapsulated. And given the high average value of C+D gold, it makes sense that even the low end coins would eventually be sent in for slabbing.
My guess is that a great majority of Charlotte and Dahlonega gold in all denominations resides in PCGS or NGC holders as of 2013. There are certainly still a few old school collectors who have held out and won't have " those confounded newfangled slabs" in their collections but these are seen less and less as the years pass. And given the fact that there were never many C+D coins in overseas sources, such as European banks, the thought of bags of Dahlonega half eagles lurking in Dortmund seems remote.
When you look at PCGS and NGC populations figures for C+D mint gold, you have to remember a few things. The first is that these figures are inflated by resubmissions. The second is that they, of course, do not include damaged or cleaned coins which do not qualify for slabbing. Taking these two factors into consideration, I'd still say that the percentage of C+D gold which has been graded by PCGS and NGC is comparatively high; ranging from 75 to 85% of the known examples. In the case of choice, high end pieces (MS60 and above) this might be as high as 90% with the few renegade raw coins being those held by museums such as the ANS and the Smithsonian.
2. Proof Gold
I always felt that one aspect of slabbing which was undervalued was its ability to protect fragile coins. Back in the old days, coins were typically transported to shows loose in 2x2 plastic flips and it would always make me cringe to see a coin like a Gem Proof Liberty Head double eagle in a soft flip. You knew that these coins were collecting hairlines with every trip to Long Beach or New York. Slabs were far safer environments for such coins. Because of this, Proof gold was an early adherent and by the late 1980's/early 1990's many Proof gold coins were already in slabs.
Then came the Great Proof Gold Era of 1995-2000 when collections such as Childs, Bass and Pittman were sold at auction. In some cases you had very rare issues with ten or so known coins having three different survivors sold in a short period of time. Virtually all of these coins wound up being encapsulated or, in the case of the Bass collection, were sold in PCGS slabs.
There are still two rich sources of unslabbed Proof gold: the ANS collection and the US Mint collection in the Smithsonian. But other than these two, I doubt if there are more than a handful of gradable Proof gold coins that still lurk in the raw. I'm going to guess that the percentage of pre-1916 proof US gold coins that have been graded by PCGS and NGC are at least 85% and may actually be as high as 90%.
3. Early Gold
I can remember auctions full of interesting unslabbed early gold coins as recently as the mid-1990's but these days are long, long gone. Today, virtually all early gold that is capable of being encapsulated is now encased in slabs. There were holdouts in this area of the market who lasted longer than in the two categories mentioned above and for good (and bad) reasons. I can remember dealing with some old time collections as recently as the 1990's who felt that they knew more about early gold than PCGS and NGC did and, in a few cases, they were right. Also, lower grade early gold wasn't as expensive then as it is now and a raw problem-free 1810 half eagle wasn't looked at like a man with two heads might be today.
The grading services have vastly improved their ability to grade early gold and most of the old time collectors who scoffed at slabs have passed away or are no longer active. Today's generation of early gold collectors and investors would just as soon eat dirt as they would buy any early gold coin unslabbed and they have come to rely on PCGS and NGC to help them grade these complicated issues. As a result, I'd have to estimate that at least 75-85% of all early gold is now encapsulated and I wouldn't be surprised if the actual number is as high as 90%.
4. Generic Gold
When I speak of Generic Gold, I aam refering about coins such as common date With Motto Liberty Head half eagles and common St. Gaudens double eagles. Staggering numbers of these coins exist in the higher circulated grades and the lower Uncirculated grades and many of these have been graded by PCGS and NGC. If you look at population figures for coins like 1901-S eagles in MS62 to MS64 or 1927 Saints in MS62 to MS64, the numbers are pretty impressive.
But I think there are still very large quantities of these coins that have not been sent in to PCGS and NGC. I know for a fact that there are at least six or seven American firms who import large amounts of United States gold coins from European and other overseas sources every month. While supplies from Europe ebb and flow, the quantities coming over every year are still immense; in the tens of thousands at the very least.
So while there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of generics in slabs, I think that the quantity of raw coins remains very large. I'm sort of guessing here but I wouldn't be surprised if the number of slabbed generic coins in slabs is only 50% of the total that have survived.
As I mentioned above, one of the parameters of slabbing coins is the economics involved. If a coin is worth $400, it is less likely to be slabbed than if it is worth $3,000. But a reasonably interesting $400 coin, like an AU50 1851-O dollar is more likely to be slabbed than an uninteresting $400 gold coin like a common date $2.50 Indian in AU50. Becuase of this fact, I think there are still tens of thousands of cheap American gold coins which have yet to be slabbed although this number is diminishing over time due to the rise in gold prices and the demand for slabbed coins versus raw coins.
There are still some non-gold series where lots of nice collector-grade coins have not been slabbed due mostly to collector preference. Examples of this include Large Cents, Seated Liberty coinage and Barber coinage in all denominations. This includes significant numbers of problem-free coins in the $100-2,500 price range in grades ranging from AG to AU. You can still go to coin shows and find interesting raw coins like 1862-S half dollars in nice EF45 or 1874-CC trade dollars in VF30. While I don't see the end of the line--yet--for such coins, I can tell you that more and more are being "made" at PCGS and NGC.
So what can we conclude from my percentage guesstimates regarding numbers of coins graded at the services?
The most important conclusions is that, yes, sizable percentages of many United States gold coins have been encapsulated and due to this fact we can make statements about rarity--fundamental, absolute and condition--which really couldn't be made as recently as a decade ago.
That said, there are still important and impressive individual coins "in the wild" and in collections that are not widely known which always make me hesitate to make definitive statements along the line of "this is the finest known" or "this is the rarest Liberty Head half eagle in Uncirculated" (and believe me, I make more of these statements than the average coin dealer...) With the recent sale announcement of the Eric Newman collection, this reminded that important new discoveries (or re-discoveries) await us with each passing year.
I want to know your thoughts on this subject. If you'd like, share them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.