If you talk to nearly any dealer or read nearly any numismatic newsletter you’ve no doubt heard a similar complaint for many years: it has become incredibly hard to buy “nice coins.” Clearly, this is true. But the reason(s) why nice coins have become so hard to buy are somewhat less obvious. I have a few theories as to where all the nice coins have gone and why it is so hard in today’s market to find others. The first reason has to do with the increased size and scope of the rare coin market. There are far more deep-pocketed collectors than ever before and certainly far more than most people realize. There are many reasons for this: the increased appeal of numismatics as a result of the Internet, the explosion of wealth in this country and around the world and the lack of good investment alternatives as in years past. Simply put, tens of thousands of very high quality coins have left the market as a result of new collectors.
The second reason is a little less obvious. It is my opinion that more formerly-nice coins have been ruined by cleaning and processing than we realize. Let’s take a typical common date Dahlonega half eagle as an example. Let’s say that there are 200-300 examples known of this date in all grades. Even before the mania for cleaning coins began, at least 75% of these coins had either been harshly cleaned, damaged or very heavily worn. This leaves us a pool of approximately 25-50 original or semi-original “nice coins.” Now let’s say that this number has been reduced another 50% in the last decade as dealers have given into the temptation of taking a crusty EF coin and turning it into an ugly AU coin. Now we are talking about maybe as many as 15-25 nice original examples of this supposedly common date. This number is further diluted by the fact that most of the choice examples of scarce, popular collector coins are off the market in tightly-held collections. At the end of the day, we are talking about a tiny pool of nice, original coins available for the new collector.
Here’s another theory of mine which we’ll call reason #3. Veteran observers of the rare coin market (like me) became jaded by the proliferation of great collections which came to the market in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Eliasberg, Bass, Pittman, Norweb...the list goes on and on. We were spoiled by these great old collections and now that hardly any other great old collections await us, our reaction is that “there are no more nice coins left.” I find it interesting that the coin market of the 2000’s has become more democratized than the market(s) of the past. Instead of one person owning huge numbers of great coins (i.e., Harry Bass), there are now many collectors who own smaller numbers of the good stuff. Old School dealers like me are just going to have to get used to the fact that the auctions we will be attending in the future are not likely to be Eliasberg-esque.
One final reason comes to mind. The rare coin market has become watered-down by modern coins. As recently as a decade ago, no one collected coins made during their lifetime; let alone paid huge premiums for coins struck a year or two ago. A number of dealers (and collectors) who used to be active in the market for “nice coins” jumped ship and are now focusing on modern issues. Moderns also get a lot of publicity these days while the day-to-day trading of attractive classic issues is done with less fanfare. Ironically, there’s a whole new generation of collectors who are a lot more excited by a PR70 American Silver Eagle from 1999 than by a superbly toned PR67 Barber Quarter from 1899. As always, what is “nice” is a matter of perspective...
I think the bottom line is this: in 2007 we are seeing a lot more collectors competing for a lot fewer nice coins. It was never easy to buy nice coins. In some ways, I’d love to turn back the clock to 1987 but when I really stop and think about the market twenty years ago, nice coins weren’t growing on trees back then and when you did have them, they were a lot harder to sell.