What To Collect: Suggestions For The New Collector

For the new collector, one of the most difficult--and important--decisions he faces is what to collect. There are a number of factors that shape any eventual decision. These include price, practicality, availability of coins and aesthetics or personal taste. Nearly every collector, whether he is a seasoned veteran or brand new, has budget considerations. A collector's budget will quickly help shape the focus of his eventual collection. If you have a budget of approximately $10,000 per year to spend on coins, I would suggest dividing this amount into five or six purchases; or one every other month. This means that you can purchase interesting coins in the $1,500-$2,000 range and buy them often enough to maintain a high level of interest.

If your collecting budget is relatively small, you should establish your collecting goals accordingly. A budget of $500-$1,000 per coin is too low to collect early gold (i.e., issues struck prior to 1834) or Proof gold. But, as we will see below, there are other areas that $500-$1,000 will go quite far and this is where a collector with this budget should be focused.

Even if you have an unlimited budget, your collecting goals must be realistic. Let's say you have decided to put together a set of Liberty Head double eagles but only wish to purchase gem quality coins. This is not a realistic set, based on the fact that many pre-1880 issues do not exist in these grades and some don't even exist in the lower Mint State range. Being inflexible towards this goal would mean that this collector would soon hit a roadblock and he would be unable to add to his set.

Coin collecting budgets can basically be divided into three sizes: modest, average and above-average. For the sake of convenience, let's say that a modest budget is $500-$1,000 per coin, an average budget is $1,500-$3,000 per coin and an above-average budget is $5000-$10,000+ per coin. What are some of the best choices for interesting sets within these budgets?

I. $500-$1,000 per coin. Best Choice: A Set of Type Three San Francisco Double Eagles

The San Francisco mint struck double eagles from 1877 to 1885 and from 1887 through 1907. In all, there are thirty issues in this set.

The beauty of the San Francisco Type Three double eagle set is that nearly every coin can be obtained in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 grades for under $1,000. The key issues of the set are the 1878-S, 1879-S, 1880-S and 1881-S and they can be obtained in MS-60 to MS-61 for below $1,000.

If the collector budgets an average of $750 per coin (figuring that he will spend $500-$600 on the common coins and $800-$900 on the scarcer pieces), he can count on spending approximately $22,500. With an approximately yearly budget of $7,500-$10,000, this set can be completed in two to three years.

I like this set for a number of reasons. The coins all have very limited downside risk as they have an intrinsic value of close to $250. San Francisco double eagles from this era tend to have very nice color and show good detail. And, at current price levels, many of these coins seem to be very good value.

OTHER CHOICES: Philadelphia gold dollars, 1849-1889, in Mint State-60 to Mint State-63. Philadelphia quarter eagles, 1880-1907, in Mint State-60 to Mint State-63. Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles, 1834-1838, in Extremely Fine-45 to About Uncirculated-55.

II. $1,500-$3,000 per coin. Best Choice: A Set of New Orleans Quarter Eagles

The New Orleans mint struck quarter eagles from 1840 to 1843, 1845 to 1847, 1850 to 1852, 1854 and again in 1856-57. There are a total of thirteen issues, including the Large Date and Small Date 1843-O.

This is a set that I have liked for years and have recommended it to many new collectors. The coins are, for the most part, very undervalued in comparison to Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles of this era. Unlike the other branch mint quarter eagles, the New Orleans set is short and completable.

The most expensive coin in this set is the 1845-O. This is a rare and very undervalued issue with an original mintage figure of only 4,000. Despite this coin's obvious rarity, a nice Extremely Fine-45 coin can be purchased in the $2,000-$3,000 range; still within the financial parameters of this set.

Using a $1,500-$3,000 budget per coin for this set, the most practical grade for each of the thirteen issues is still surprisingly high. This means that, when complete, this will be a good looking group with most of the coins in a grade range that is far above average for the date.

I would recommend building this set using the following grades. Along with these grades are approximate price range for nice quality pieces in PCGS or NGC holders.

1840-O: AU-55, $2000-$2500 1850-O: AU-55, $1750-$2000 1842-O: AU-53, $2000-$2250 1851-O: AU-55, $1900-$2250 1843-O Sm. Date: MS-61, $1750-$2000 1852-O: AU-58, $2100-$2400 1843-O Lg. Date: AU-53, $1750-$2250 1854-O: MS-61, $1500-$1750 1845-O: EF-45, $2000-$3000 1856-O: AU-55, $2400-$2700 1846-O: AU-55, $1250-$1500 1857-O: AU-58, $2000-$2250

To upgrade the 1845-O quarter eagle to AU-50 (which I think is a good idea, as it is the rarest coin in the set), the collector would be looking at spending $4,000-$4,500.

The price range for a complete set of New Orleans quarter eagles, as described above, is $22,500-$27,500. Assuming that a collector with a budget of $1,500-$3,000 per coin had an annual budget in the $15,000-$25,000 range, it would take between one and two years to complete the set.

OTHER CHOICES: New Orleans gold dollars, in About Uncirculated-58 to Mint State-63. Three dollar gold piece date set, in About Uncirculated-55 to Mint State-62. Philadelphia no motto eagles, 1840-1860 (no 1858), in About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-58.

III. $5,000-$10,000 per coin. Best Choice: A Set of Dahlonega Half Eagles

For this last category, I wavered between a set of Charlotte or Dahlonega half eagles. I decided to select the latter since there are no overly expensive or "impossible" coins.

Dahlonega Half eagles are a challenging set but they have some major advantages over their gold dollar and quarter eagles series. The gold dollars, while relatively short-lived, contain at least two dates that are too expensive for this price range (1855-D and 1861-D). The quarter eagle set not only has a number of rare and expensive dates but it has others that, in our required $5,000-$10,000 price range will have to be compromised in terms of quality. The half eagle set makes the most sense. The coins are large and attractive, scarce but available and well within the proper price parameter.

I would recommend building this set using the following grades. Along with these grades are approximate price range for nice quality pieces in PCGS or NGC holders.

1838-D, AU-53: $6000-$8000 1850-D, AU-55: $6000-$7000 1839-D, AU-55: $6000-$8000 1851-D, AU-55: $6000-$7000 1840-D, AU-55: $5500-$7500 1852-D, AU-55: $3500-$4500 1841-D, AU-58: $6500-$8500 1853-D, MS-61: $5000-$7000 1842-D Sm. Date, AU-58: $5500-$7500 1854-D, AU-55: $3000-$4000 1842-D Lg. Date, EF-45: $6000-$8000 1855-D, AU-55: $4000-$5000 1843-D, AU-58: $4000-$6000 1856-D, AU-55: $4000-$5000 1844-D, AU-58: $5500-$7500 1857-D, AU-55: $5500-$6500 1845-D, AU-58: $5000-$7000 1858-D, AU-58: $4500-$5500 1846-D, AU-58: $4500-$5500 1859-D, AU-55: $4000-$5000 1847-D, MS-61: $6500-$7500 1860-D, AU-55: $4000-$5000 1848-D, AU-55: $4000-$5000 1861-D, EF-45: $7000-$9000 1849-D, AU-55: $4250-$5250

To upgrade the key 1861-D to an AU-50, the collector would be looking at an additional $5,000 to $7,500. This would be a sensible outlay, given that this is the single most important coin in the set. The 1842-D Large Date could either be eliminated (using the assumption that the date 1842 is already represented by the more common Small Date variety) or it could be upgraded to an AU-50 for an additional $5,000 or so.

The total cost for the Dahlonega half eagle set in the grades listed above would be approximately $125,000-$165,000. Assuming that a collector with a budget of $5,000-$10,000 per coin had an annual budget of approximately $40,000-$50,000, this set could be assembled in two to three years.

OTHER CHOICES: Charlotte half eagles, in About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-58. New Orleans half eagles, in About Uncirculated-50 to Mint State-62. San Francisco Type One and Type Two double eagles, About Uncirculated-50 to Mint State-61.

With a bit of study and some realistic evaluation of financial considerations, there are numerous interesting gold coin sets that can be put together.