Value Compression in the Rare Date Gold Market

The recent Coin World “Coin Values” (or Trends as we long-time dealers call it) features a number of price reductions in the various Liberty Head gold series. This has caused some interesting pricing anomalies that have major ramifications for collectors of rare date gold coins. The grade range that appears to be severely affected by the Trends revisions is AU50 to AU58. This makes sense as this is the grade range that, in my opinion, has been most severely compromised by the grading services over the years. I think this especially true for the AU55 and AU58 grades; a range that includes many coins that are marginal quality at best.

A number of factors caused these values to be reduced by the Trends editor(s). One is, of course, auction prices. As I have stated a number of times in the past, one of the biggest problems with coin pricing is the fact that one bad apple can literally spoil the whole bunch. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that Trends in AU58 for a specific Charlotte quarter eagle was $9,000 in AU58. Then let’s say that a really, really low end example in an AU58 holder sells at auction for $4,000. Does this mean that the price of this issue should suddenly be cut in half?

I would argue that it shouldn’t. But I would also argue that a compression of values for rare date gold is inevitable.

Value compression is not without precedent. Two of the most famous examples that I can think of are the Iowa half dollar (worth $85 in XF and $100 in MS65) and the Roanoke half dollar (worth $160 in XF and $180 in MS64). The reason why values become compressed for a specific coin is that the market believes that a premium is unmerited. In the case of the Roanoke half dollar, the reason is obvious: because of the cluttered design, an AU58 Roanoke looks essentially no different from an MS64. For better or worse, this is what has happened with certain branch mint gold coins due to erratic grading standards.

Let me give you an example. The more sophisticated segment of the rare date gold market believes that a choice, original coin graded EF45 is preferable to a bright, shiny processed AU53. Because of this, it tends to place a value premium on the nice 45 coin. The same collector who is willing to spend, say $2,500 on a Choice EF would probably pass on a crappy AU53 example of the same date at $3,000; even though the higher graded example is seemingly the “better deal.”

There are now at least three distinct segments of the rare date gold market. There are the serious hard-core collectors with some budget constraints who will spend $1,500-3,500 on a coin without flinching. This segment of the market is as strong as ever; maybe even more so than in the 2004-2006 Boom Years. The next segment is the casual uninformed investor, the deal-seeker or the “world-is-coming-to-an-end-so-I need-to-own-gold” buyer. They are the likely buyers of the not-so-nice coins that might range from slightly overgraded to blatantly overgraded. This segment of the market is extremely weak right now. The third segment of the market is the high budget connoisseur who is searching for coins that are in or near the Condition Census for the issue; maybe even the finest known. This segment of the market is clearly not as strong as it was a few years ago but if the right coin comes along, these buyers will pay strong prices.

With the existence of these three segments what has happened is that the market has become stronger at the lower end, much weaker at the middle end and slightly weaker but still capable of a wallop on the higher end. As a result, a coin that is worth $2,000 in EF45 and $10,000 in MS60 might only be worth $3,000-4,000 in schlocky AU53. And it might be a hard sale for a dealer even at this compressed level.

Now, here’s where the interesting play comes in for the savvy buyer. I think some nice quality AU53 and AU55 coins are going to get dragged down along with the schlock. Let’s say that you are able to buy a nice Charlotte or Dahlonega quarter eagle in properly graded AU53 for $2,750-3,250 (when a nice EF45 is worth $2,250-2,500). In this case, paying the extra 20% or so for a coin that is demonstrably better is an excellent value. If the collector learns which AU53 quarter eagles are nice for the grade, they are getting coins that are more cosmetically appealing than a nice EF45 and a compressed value that makes plenty of sense to me.

U.S. Coin Pricing Guides

When someone really, truly figures out how to properly compile and market an accurate, real-time pricing guide for United States coins, they are going to become very wealthy and very popular. Because, at this point in time, the pricing mechanisms for most rare United States coins are a mess. Let me explain what I mean. Let’s say you want to buy an 1858-C half eagle graded AU55 by PCGS or NGC. You do not have the coin in hand but you have seen an image of it on a dealer’s website or in an on-line auction. What’s your next step?

You’ll probably do one of two things. If you are a specialized collector you’ll look up its valuation in Coin World Trends or in the CDN Quarterly Summary. The former shows its value to be $5,000. The latter, unfortunately, does not list values for AU55 coins—only AU50 and AU58, so in this particular case it is essentially useless.

What, you ask yourself, does this value of $5,000 actually mean? If you read the fine print in a copy of “Coin Values” you will see that Coin World considers its publication to be a retail price guide. It also states “values are listed for coins that are strictly graded in each grade category according to current market standards.” So does this mean that the collector should expect to pay $5,000 for an 1858-C half eagle in AU55? Unfortunately, Trends is not really clear in explaining this.

The next step for most collectors is to search an on-line database of prices realized at auction. The Heritage Auction Prices Archives, as I have pointed out many times before, is an incredible resource with over 1,125,000 auction lots listed.

In looking up the 1858-C half eagle in AU55, a few things become apparent. The first is the frequency with which this date appears at auction. There were a total of nine different auction appearances in 2006 plus another five in 2005. Even if we assume that some were the same coin(s) sold more than once, fourteen appearances in two years is a high degree of frequency. Thus, we can make the assumption that this coin isn’t really that rare from the standpoint of total number known and it should, therefore, sell at a discount relative to Trends. The fact that it is not a terribly popular or “important” issue (like the 1838-C or 1839-C half eagles) probably would increase this discount relative to Trends.

The next thing I would look at is the most recent auction records for AU55’s. They are as follows: $3,220, $2,990, $5,750 and $5,175. Clearly, this is a huge range and this is where I think using auction price data without proper interpretation can be very misleading for the collector.

Looking back at my catalogs for each of these four AU55 coins, my notes stated the following. For the coin that brought $3,220 I felt it was decent for the grade and I think the buyer got a pretty good deal on this. The coin that sold for $2,990 was “very ugly” in my opinion and even though this was very cheap, it is a case of getting what you pay for. The coin that sold for $5,750 was in an old green label PCGS holder and I graded it “58+,” meaning I thought it had a good shot to grade Uncirculated if resubmitted. And the coin that realized $5,175 was, I felt, “very choice and original” and would upgrade to AU58.

Four coins, same date, same grade...but prices that range from a low of $2,990 to a high of $5,750.

What pricing sheets do not help the collector with is the diversity of quality within a specific grade. These prices tell me that a really lousy 1858-C half eagle in AU55 is probably worth around $3,000; or 60% of Trends. A coin that is decent for the grade (not spectacular but not something that you look at and go “yuck”) is worth around $3,250. A coin that is very nice for the grade (not an upgrade candidate but a piece that has attractive natural color and surfaces) is worth $3,750 or so. And a really high end coin (one that is a seeming candidate to upgrade to AU58) is worth anywhere from $4,500 to $5,500.

Confused yet?

No commercial pricing sheet is going to be able to give you four different quality levels for each grade. We’d be talking about a massive undertaking and a project that few people are qualified to undertake. But it can be done. Collectors of Large Cents rely on a pricing guide called CQR which gives three price ranges for a host of grades for every die variety from 1793 to 1814. This is clearly a labor of love (I can’t imagine that the publishers are getting rich publishing CQR!) but it provides advanced collectors with a set of pricing applications that, within a highly specialized series, makes sense.

What if this specialized pricing were to be applied to various other series? What if some clever entrepreneur got together a group of leading experts and had them be in charge of detailed pricing for a highly specialized market segment? As an example, you could have Stewart Blay, David Schweitz and Andy Skrabalak collectively create and maintain a database for Mint State and Proof Lincoln Cents. If I were a collector of these coins, I think I would pay $100 per year to have access to this pricing that might not be available anywhere else. By charging this amount, the owner of the pricing service could at least defray some of his expenses.

I would expect that as the coin market evolves in the future, we will start seeing some experiments with specialized pricing. I could see this idea working very well for popular series like Bust half dollars and Indian Head cents and I don’t think it would be hard to create categories of quality for popular series such as Morgan dollars (by this I mean an “A” level for extremely nice coins, a “B” level for average to above average coins and a “C” level for below average coins). Most experts, myself included, already grade coins by category and quantifying this information would be relatively simple.