The Numismatic Versus: Comparing Coin Collecting Methods

Cats versus dogs. Coke versus Pepsi. Good versus evil. You get my point: two camps competing for your heart, your affection or your soul. Its not that far-fetched to stretch this analogy out to some of the basic issues in coin collecting. No, its not the Satanic Verses; its the Numismatic Versus. OK, to be a bit more serious: there are basic issues in numismatics that split collectors down the middle. There is no real right or wrong when it comes to collecting and I am a big advocate of doing what "feels right" for the collector. That said, I think my 30+ years of experience as a dealer qualify me to render an opinion on some of these issues and that's what I'd like to do here.

1. Specialist Collecting versus Type Collecting

I have many customers who are specialists and many who are focused more in a "generalist" fashion. I respect both camps.

A specialist picks a small area of collecting and focuses on this. Dahlonega quarter eagles. New Orleans half eagles. First year and last year of issue coins. All of these are great choices for the specialist.

What I like about specialist collecting is that by having a more narrow focus, the collector can become knowledgeable more easily. As I have written before, if your collecting focus revolves around 25 half eagles from one mint, you are far more likely to learn this series as well as the typical dealer than if you are trying to learn about all the half eagles produced during the 19th century.

But there is something to be said for a more general approach. I love the concept of collecting by type. I love the fact that a type collector buys something different every time he pulls the trigger.

2. Condition Rarity versus Absolute Rarity

A coin that is a "condition rarity" is one whose primary value is based around its grade. An example of this would be an 1887-S eagle in MS65. Such a coin is extremely rare and it would sell for five-figures if available. But the same date in MS60 is extremely common and it sells for essentially no date premium.

A coin that is an "absolute rarity" is one that is rare in all grades and is desirable whether it is quite worn or superb. An example of this would be an 1862-S eagle. This is a low mintage issue with a very low survival rate to its Civil War date of issuance. This coin is desirable if it grades Very Fine or if it grades Uncirculated.

What a collector should always ask himself is "would the coin that I am buying have value if third party grading were to suddenly end?" A coin like an 1887-S eagle in MS65 might not carry a great premium if third-party grading ceased to exist. A coin like an 1862-S eagle in EF45 would still be considered desirable no matter what dictates the future of grading.

The best coins are the ones that combine absolute and grade rarity. If a coin like an 1862-S eagle in Mint State were to be discovered in Europe (I have never seen one close to Uncirculated) it would be very desirable as it combined both types of rarity in one neat package.

3. Business Strikes versus Proofs

Business strikes are coins that were made for circulation. Proofs are coins that were specially made for collectors and VIP's. The coin weenie in me likes business strikes more than Proofs because of the fact that these were coins that were used as coins are supposed to be used.

But the coin snob in me likes Proofs as well. There is no getting around the fact that a Gem Proof Liberty Head double eagle is incredibly impressive. And you have to like the Proof issues that were struck in such tiny quantities during the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's.

I tend to be a more selective buyer when it comes to proofs than business strikes. I vastly favor very rare Proofs (example: an 1878 gold dollar) than a not-so-rare Proof in a mega-grade (example: a 1904 quarter eagle in PR67 Cameo).

Can a collector buy business strikes and Proofs simultaneously? I don't see why not. In certain series, like Type Three Liberty Head double eagles, there are Proof-only issues that are collected side-by-side with business strikes. Like owning a dog and a cat at the same time, I say "yes!" to the collector who buys interesting Proofs and business strikes together.

4. Gold versus Silver versus Copper

You are reading this article on a website whose URL is so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure which of these three coinage metals I favor.

But let me at least explain why I do.

Gold is a precious metal with strong demand around the world. Egyptian Pharaohs were buried with spectacular gold ornaments. The last time I checked, there were no silver or copper trinkets in the pyramids.

Try to explain to a wealthy Chinese collector why he should spend $100,000 on an Indian Cent. Not easy, right? But don't you think this same individual would more likely "get" the concept of an Uncirculated 1871-CC double eagle at $75,000?

Copper coins are great and I personally collect Liberty Seated silver coins and love them. However, as far as being a dealer goes, I'm pro-gold and more so now than ever.

5. 19th Century versus 20th Century

When I began specializing in United States gold coinage back in the early 1980's, I decided to focus on 19th century coins because they were more affordable and because they seemed like better value. Three decades later I still believe this.

Now don't get me wrong. I think 20th century coins are great. I think St. Gaudens double eagles and Indian Head eagles are the most beautiful regular issue coins that the U.S. Mint ever produced. And the incuse designs of the Indian quarter eagle and half eagle series really appeal to me. But 20th century gold tends to be the ultimate in condition rarity and, as I discussed in #2 above, I have always been more of an absolute rarity kinda guy.

I look at 20th century gold as the Contemporary Art of the numismatic world. Its fairly regularly available, its pretty macho to collect, the market is fluid due to collectors coming and going rapidly and the value levels don't always make sense.

I personally like 19th century gold better as I view it as a more cerebral area to collect. It's clearly not as pretty (there is no doubt that Gobrecht and Longacre couldn't hold a candle to St. Gaudens as far as artistic talent is concerned) and it more monotonous as it goes on and on (and on). But if you have a budget of, say, $5,000 to $10,000 per coin, you can be a big player in 19th century gold while still being pretty much a nobody in the 20th century arena.

What are your takes on the Numismatic Versus that I compared and contrasted above? Email me at and let me know what you think.