Why don't more people collect 20th century gold coins by date? The four major designs (Indian Head quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles and St. Gaudens double eagles) are clearly among the most beautiful United States issues ever released. They are relatively short-lived and none of them are impossible to complete due to fabulously expensive or incredibly rare individual dates. So why, then, do these series lag such non-gold 20th century designs as the Lincoln Cent, Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar when it comes to numbers of active set collectors? I can think of a number of reasons. Some are pretty obvious while some are pretty far-fetched and I'm throwing them out there only to encourage debate. Here are some of the reasons I came up with:
1. 20th century U.S. gold is typically marketed as type coins and not by date. Traditionally, people have viewed coins like Indian Head half eagles as something you just need one of, not dozens. Simultaneously, higher grade 20th century gold coins are frequently sold more as "investments" than collectible coins. Over the last two decades, I have seen many collectors burst on the scene in a specific 20th century series only to flame out and sell their coins back a year or two later. The Steve Duckors and Austin Fursts of the 20th century gold world are alot rarer than their quick-in quick-out counterparts.
2. "They all look the same." A new collector once told me this when he decided not to continue with the Indian Head eagle set that I was helping him build. Now, I don't agree with this. If you become a student of, say, the Indian Head half eagle series it becomes clear that a 1911-D looks a lot different than a 1916-S. Its struck differently, has a different texture and has different coloration as well. But these subtleties are often lost on novice collectors.
3. There's too much difference in value for barely distinguishable quality. For many key date 20th century U.S. gold coins, the difference in price between an MS64 and an MS65 can be huge. As an example, an MS64 1913 Saint Gaudens double eagle is worth $7,500 or so while a no-question asked MS65 is worth over $50,000. It takes a real leap of faith for a new collector to pay a 7x premium for a difference in quality that he not only doesn't see but probably doesn't understand. The creation of CAC has made it a little less scary for a new collector to pay huge premiums for MS65's but from personal experience I know that the value for Gem coins just isn't always there.
4. There is no up-to-date reference work. David Akers wrote a terrific book on 20th century United States gold but it was published in 1988 and the information is out-of-date (not to mention that the book is out-of-print and fairly scarce). If Akers or a new expert were to take this book and update it with information that was relevant to the current coin market, this would be a huge shot in the arm for 20th century gold.
5. There is no sense of nostalgia inherent with these coins. People buy coins like 1909-S VDB Cents or 1916-D Dimes because they couldn't afford one when they were ten years old and filling holes in their blue Whitman folders. No one is haunted by the 1927-D Saint that they couldn't save enough money from their paper route to afford when they were a kid.
6. High grade 20th century gold coins are very expensive. It is a pretty serious financial commitment to collect Saints in Gem or Indian half eagles in MS64 and up. This obviously limits the number of people who can collect these coins.
7. Affordable grade 20th century gold is ugly. OK, maybe not "ugly." But you'll have a hard time convincing me that an Indian Head gold coin in EF and AU grades is remotely attractive. This is not the case with Liberty Head gold coins which is really attractive with limited wear.
8. Pricing information for many 20th century gold coins is hard to come by. Yes, its easy to figure out what a common date Saint is worth in a PCGS MS64 holder. But its not so easy to determine what a 1913 is worth in an NGC MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder with CAC approval. If someone published accurate pricing information on the 20th century series, I believe it would jump-start collector interest.
9. There are few "go to" retail dealers for better date 20th century gold. If you collect 19th century Liberty Head gold, there are some obvious candidates who to buy from (and I'd like to think that DWN is one of them). The person who, in my opinion, is the sharpest dealer for rare date 20th century gold is Kevin Lipton and Kevin is a wholesale dealer who probably is going to be hard for many collectors to deal with as he has no website.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, 20th century gold coins deserve to have more date collectors than they currently do. These are attractive, interesting coins. They are within reasonably short-lived series and unless you attempt a Gem set, they are within the price range of many collectors. I'd be curious to know what your take is on why they are not as popular as Lincoln Cents or Mercury Dimes and invite you to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your input.