How to Assemble A World-Class Collection of Coins

You can have unlimited funds but without adhering to a basic core group of numismatic fundamentals, I believe it is very difficult--if not impossible--to build a great collection of coins. Some of the best collections I have seen in the last few decades were built by collectors with average discretionary income levels. But these people were true collectors and they understood most of the points that I am going to raise and address in this article. There are literally dozens of fundamental rules that a collector could follow. I am going to stick with ten and give you some insight as to how these rules help me when I make my own decisions on what to purchase and what to avoid.

1. Learn to Identify Value. Some coins are good values while others are poor values. The smart collector is one who is able to identify the coins that are the best values and then takes advantage of this situation. There are numerous 18th and 19th century that are very undervalued. Some of these are likely to remain undervalued because they are in series that are likely to never become popular. Others, however, are part of series (such as Liberty Head half eagles or eagles) that are either just on the cusp of becoming popular or, in the case of eagles, are already coming into their own.

How do you identify coins that are really good values and not those that are being hyped by dealers who'd like you to believe that they are? In this day and age, it is easy to have access to a tremendous amount of numismatic information. The PCGS and NGC population reports, while not perfect, offer insights into rarity and availability that are unparalleled. The PCGS and Heritage auction result archives allow collectors to determine how frequently a coin appears at auction and in the case of the Heritage archives, has photos of each coin sold. Virtually all major dealers now list coins for sale on their websites and this is another good way to determine what is available and what isn't.

A world-class collector is able to identify coins that are good values before they become widely known. The collector who, a decade ago, bought undervalued issues like the 1854-O and 1856-O double eagle, saw tremendous returns on their purchases. What will the next undervalued rarities be?

2. Carpe Diem. Translated into English, this term means "seize the day." In the case of building a great collection, fast and clear thinking is very important. Really nice coins are incredibly hard to find right now and the collectors who are able to buy them are the ones that make fast decisions. In the case of my company (Douglas Winter Numismatics), when I buy coins, I typically put them on my website on a first-come-first-served basis. I constantly hear from collectors who wish they had pulled the trigger faster.

Here's an interesting story. At the recent Philadelphia coin show, I was talking to a very sophisticated collector about his coins. He couldn't really remember everything he bought; understandably so when you consider that he owns hundreds of great coins. But he did remember every single coin that he should have bought but which were the ones that "got away." And I don't think that this gentleman is alone. Most collectors who have great sets of coins grew these sets by intelligent, quick decisions; not hemming and hawing for three days.

3. Learn How to Determine What's a Nice Coin. Notice I didn't say "learn how to grade." I've written this statement before and I've come to realize that this is not a realistic goal for most collectors. It's like a doctor telling me to learn how to self-diagnose. Even if I had the time, I don't have the skill(s) to learn this. And neither do most collectors.

But you can learn to determine what makes a coin nice versus what makes one ordinary. You can learn how to determine if a coin has original surfaces or if it is bright and shiny from a recent processing. You can learn what color a Charlotte gold dollar from the 1850's is supposed to be and learn to pass on coins that aren't "right."

How are some of the ways you can learn this? Study photos online. Look at which coins have CAC stickers and pay attention to these higher-end coins. Go to auction lot viewing and check out the coins which are relevant to your field of specialty. Most importantly, don't sweat the small stuff when it comes to grading. Its more important to learn the difference between a nice MS62 Dahlonega gold dollar and a low-end one than it is to be able to tell the difference between an MS61 and an MS62.

4. Cultivate a Trusted Source. It's likely that some readers will misconstrue the intentions of this point and say "Oh, he's a dealer and he's just trying to drum up business for his firm." This is partly true; I do write these articles partly to boost the DWN brand. But I also like share information and feel it is important to mentor new collectors. And I think having a good source for your coins is really important. As someone who collects paper money, I can tell you that you can't build a great collection all by yourself; you need an expert to provide you with a second opinion.

If you have a real job, you are never going to be able to compete against a full-time coin dealer like myself. (If it makes you feel better, I have no visions about being able to compete against you in your business. But I will be happy to play you in a one-on-one basketball grudge match...)

Bottom line: find a dealer who you like, who you trust, who has nice coins and who is fair with you. They are out there.

5. Learn How to Sell. From time to time, you will need to purge your collection. You might have a duplicate that you want to sell or you might have generic Saints that are in a profit position. Learn how to sell them and how to maximize what you have to sell.

Not everyone wants to sell coins the same way. Some collectors want to micro-manage their sales and decide to conduct the process by themselves. Other collectors want limited involvement and decide to put their duplicates in auction. I like the option of using your trusted dealer (see #4 above) as a selling source.

Coin collecting is a two-way market. People spend lots of time learning how to buy coins but seldom learn the selling aspects. The best collectors that I've met understand both and have had positive selling experiences.

6. Build a Library. I have a pretty nice working library and seldom does a day go past that I don't use it. Books and catalogs help me make intelligent buying decisions. They help me establish pedigrees. They help me determine how rare a coin is. I can't imagine being involved in numismatics and not maintaining at least a small coin library.

You don't need to overdo this. If you collect U.S. gold coins, an essential working library might consist of about 10 to 15 books (I'd like to think that at least a few of them will be ones that I've written...) and maybe two to three dozen auction catalogs. To be honest with you, I don't use probably 90% of the auction catalogs that are in my library and over the course of time its likely that I'll jettison the ones that I don't regard as essential. To build a good gold coin library you are talking about $500 to $1,000. It's the best money you'll spend. Trust me on this one; even if you don't believe me on any of the other points I'm trying to make here.

7. Be a Mensch. Yeah, I know the cliche is that "nice guys finish last." And I know that to buy coins you have to be aggressive and even a bit pushy. But you can be a nice guy when doing this and being a nice guy is going to score a lot more points with dealers, auction houses and other collectors than being a jerk.

Many of the men that come to mind when I think "great collector" are really nice guys. People like Barry Enholm, Tom Bender, Steve Duckor, Robert Kanterman, and Dale Friend. These guys are A+ collectors but they are also the types of people I'd actually like to go out with and have a nice dinner. And there is a reason that these guys get offered great coins. Hint: its not only because they are serious and they can write a check for a big coin. It's because they are nice guys who are easy to deal with and whose word you can take to the bank.

8. Really Learn Your Market Area(s). I love dealing with smart collectors and I try to do everything I can to make collectors smarter. But I often meet collectors who have made really bad decisions because they didn't learn their market area(s).

I understand that people are busy and they can't become overnight experts. This is one reason why I've always liked the concept of specializing. It's easier to be very knowledgeable about a few dozen issues (say, Dahlonega quarter eagles and half eagles) then it is to try and learn the ins and outs of the entire early gold market.

But this doesn't mean that you can't learn a few basic market skills. Learn how to see what coins are selling for at auction so you don't wind-up overpaying. Become savvy enough to determine which population figures are reasonably accurate and which are obviously inflated by resubmissions. Analyze what sort of premiums CAC coins are selling for. I believe that the time you take to learn your market areas will pay great dividends for you.

9. Patience, Patience, Patience. You can assemble a set of Dahlonega gold coins in a few months. Believe me, I've seen these rushed sets and the results are usually not very pretty. The collector who has rushed through a set might be lucky and one-third of his coins are be nice. But it is more likely that most will be over-graded and many will be hideous.

Or you can assemble a set slowly and carefully. Its likely that a few coins won't be high-end but most are going to be very nice. You'll have more fun buying one coin here and one coin there. And when you go to sell your coins, your bottom line should be a lot more exciting. Remember: relax, have fun. Collecting is a marathon and not a sprint.

10. Don't Take It So Seriously. As I mentioned above, no one likes a passionate collector more than I do. I feel lucky to be working with collectors who love coins as much as I do. But sometimes I meet a collector who takes things a little too seriously.

Relax. Its just a hobby. Have fun. Coin collecting is supposed to be therapeutic; not something that puts you into therapy.

I could go on and on with suggestions on how to assemble a great collection and how to be a great collector. I'd like to hear your suggestions and welcome your comments.

Gaping Holes in Gold Coin Literature

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about coin books that needed to be written for United States gold coin collectors. A few of what I considered to be the gaping holes in gold coin literature have been filled but others remain. Here, again, are some of my “dream books” and the reasons why I think they would be important. 1. A Collector’s Guide to Classic Head gold coinage. It’s been rumored for years that John McCloskey was going to be producing a book on this subject and I have seen references to his die variety numbering system as far back as the Bass II catalog from 1999. But there is still no collector’s guide to this series.

I personally think that Classic Head gold coinage is one of the most collector-friendly series. The quarter eagles and half eagles from 1834 to 1838 have a charming design, are very short-lived and lack the extreme rarities (and ultra-expensive issues) found in the Liberty Head series. And, as Dr. McCloskey has shown, there are a number of extremely interesting naked-eye varieties.

A few of the topics that I’d really liked to see covered in a future Classic Head book would include die characteristics of Proofs (it can be extremely difficult to tell a true Proof from a Prooflike business strike), a detailed history behind the establishment and abolishment of this design (this period in American coinage history remains under-researched and not well understood), a detailed explanation as to why these coins tend to show poor strikes and a date-by-date analysis as to the rarity and collectability of the Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles.

This wouldn’t be a very long book (I’m guessing 125-150 pages tops) and it probably wouldn’t be a best-seller but it would stimulate what I think is one of the most interesting United States gold coin series.

2. An Encyclopedia of Proof Gold Coinage. The knowledge that most collectors have about Proof gold is sketchy at best. The Breen Encyclopedia and the Akers books contain population estimates about many Proof gold issues but the numbers are typically at odds with each other.

Here’s what I’d like the definitive book on Proof gold to contain. First, I’d like pictures of all the known Proof issues. Secondly, I’d like diagnostic criteria for all proof gold coins. Thirdly, I’d like Condition Census information (where possible). Fourth, I’d like an explanation of the manufacturing process of Proof gold and some detailed information on things like why Three Dollar gold pieces tend to show intense orange-peel texture or why certain issues come with heavy cameo contrast and others do not and to mention, once and for all, accurate information on the Matte Proof manufacturing process.

The problem with such a book is that it would be very expensive to produce (especially with attractive pictures) and I can’t imagine more than a few hundred copies would ever be sold.

3. A high quality “coffee table” book about collecting United States gold coins by type. This topic has sort of been covered by the Garrett/Guth gold coin book and the new book on gold coin collecting by type written by Jeff Ambio. What I’d like to see is a book that takes the design and the scope of the former and weds it with the depth and clarity of the latter.

As more and more new collectors decide to focus on gold coin collecting by type, I think the importance of producing a well-written, easy to use and superbly illustrated book on every major United States gold type becomes more and more critical.

I’d like this book to have information about the how’s and why’s of type collecting, suggestions of what dates work best for type collecting, etc. I’d also like to see really good color photos of every major design type.

This is a book that I can actually see selling quite a few copies and I could imagine the format being spun-off to encompass silver and copper as well.

4. A book on San Francisco gold coinage. If you think about it, there is no real reason for San Francisco gold being less popular than the Southern branch mints other than the fact that there is (currently) no standard reference available to collectors. It has been proven, time and time again, that previously unpopular areas of the market invariably get a shot in the arm when a good book is published.

The reason that I have never written a book about San Francisco gold coins isn’t that I don’t care about the subject; I actually like San Francisco gold quite a lot. My biggest drawback has always been the fact that there are an awful lot of individual issues from this mint and that many of the post-1880 coins just aren’t all that interesting.

If I could ever find the right person to help me with this project, I would consider getting involved.

5. An in-depth collector’s guide to early gold coinage. The recent Dannreuther book on early gold is a fantastic reference for advanced collectors and for collectors who are focused on die varieties. But it lacks basic information for newer collectors that I’d like to see in a book on early gold coinage.

I’d like to see this book in a similar format to the one that I use for branch mint gold, with information about strike, surfaces, luster, color and eye appeal for each issue as well as important die characteristics, rudimentary die variety information, auction price information, a roster of finest known coins, etc.

And I know exactly the right person to write this book. So if you are reading this blog, Paul Nugget, write the book on early gold that could be your legacy and prove to everyone (other than me who already knows it...) that you are the world’s greatest expert on early gold!

Winter's New Book Reviewed

A review of my book “Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909” was recently featured in the on-line publication “The Esylum” dated October 1, 2006 and listed as Volume 9, Issue #40. The Esylum is the online weekly publication of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society and I very highly recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for numismatics as it is a really exceptional publication made all the more wonderful by the fact that it appears, like clockwork, every Sunday night in the in box of my email. To subscribe, contact Wayne Homren (the newsletter’s editor) at his email address which is BOOK REVIEW: GOLD COINS OF THE NEW ORLEANS MINT 1839-1909

One new book I've had the pleasure to review recently is the second edition of Doug Winter's "Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909." The 237-page paperback is published by Zyrus Press ($34.95). From the publisher's web site: "In 1989, the first edition of Doug Winter's book Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909 was published. It popularized these under-appreciated coins and introduced many new collectors to the field.

In the ensuing two decades, much has changed in the New Orleans gold market. Newly discovered hoards have changed the rarity levels of certain dates while others remain very difficult to locate."

Well, it hasn't quite been two decades since 1989, and the book wasn't published in 1989, it was published in 1992. Still, fourteen years between editions is a long time. But it's been worth the wait. The new edition is much improved, starting with the all-new enlarged color images of each coin. But this new edition is more than just an update - it is essentially a new book with completely updated information encompassing all that has been learned about the series in the past fourteen years.

One of the biggest changes, acknowledged by the author in his preface, is the number of post-1880 eagles that are now known. He writes: "Substantial quantities of these coins have been found in Europe since 1992. In some cases, total populations have doubled or even tripled and I don't doubt that the numbers will continue to rise in the coming years."

For example, I turned randomly to the entry for 1894-O Eagles and compared it with the corresponding entry in my copy of the first edition. Of the original mintage (still believed to be 107,500), the total number known is now 550-750+, whereas at the time of the first edition only 140-160 were known.

The layout of each entry follows a common format and is very easy to read, another great improvement over the first edition. Mintage, Rarity Rankings, Strike, Surfaces, Luster, Coloration, Eye Appeal, Die Characteristics, Major Varieties, Significant Pieces Known, Auction Records, and Total Known (with a breakdown by grade) are listed for each coin.

To address what he felt were two major shortcomings of the first edition, the author included research articles which in my opinion, are worth the price of the book alone. In his Preface, Winter writes "[in the first book] ... there was virtually no information about the history of the New Orleans Mint. I am not a historian and I felt that my contributions about this topic would be unoriginal at best. I commissioned Greg Lambousy, the Director of Collections of the Louisiana State Museum, who wrote what I feel is a simply brilliant concise history of the Mint. Also, David Ginsberg has written an article about how gold coins of this era circulated; a study that will explain exactly why so many of these coins are so rare today.”

Lambousy's article draws on many of the known sources in numismatic literature such as the 1862 Harper's New Monthly Magazine article "Making Money" and writings by and about Mint official John Leonard Riddell, but it also references a number of much lesser known sources. The bibliography is quite complete to my knowledge, although I didn't see a reference to the 1846 Merchants Magazine and Commercial Review article by Freeman Hunt titled "United States Branch Mint at New Orleans." The thirteen-page article includes two pages of photos of the interior of the New Orleans Mint and its workers, courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum.

I have to agree with Winter that Lambousy's article is a very valuable concise history of the Mint, and well worth reading. There are some great tidbits of history here, numismatic and otherwise, such as Riddell's invention of the rotary ingot machine, and brothers Rufus and Philos Tyler's invention and patenting of the silver dollar counting table. Along the way there are interesting diversions into Riddell's conflicts with fellow workers, structural problems of the Mint building, control of the Mint under the Confederacy, and story of William Mumford who was hanged by Union forces in front of the Mint of June 7th, 1862.

David Ginsberg's article is equally original, well-researched, and interesting to read. In addition to consulting some of my own favorite references on this era (Carothers' "Fractional Money" and Gibbons' "The Banks of New York, Their Dealers, The Clearing House, and the Panic of 1857," Ginsburg uncovered a number of valuable other sources including an 1843 publication, "The Letters of Lowndes, Addressed to the Hon. John C. Calhoun." The book has a priceless account, reprinted here, of a traveler's maddeningly difficult cross-country journey while attempting to conduct commerce with a mishmash of different paper money issues. Such difficulties make it easy to understand how having gold coinage could greatly ease the problem of traveling to distant parts of the country in those days.

On page 88 Winter reprints a delightful account by David Akers of "Debunking the Myth of the '1841-O Half Eagle,' taken from the October 1997 Pittman I catalog. It's the story of John J. Pittman's 1841-C Half Eagle, which he purchased in the Farouk sale. The coin had earlier been part of the Col. E.H.R. Green collection. The New York firm Stack's had a beautiful album of photographs of the Green Half Eagle collection in their research library, and Walter Breen reviewed it while researching his monograph on U.S. Half Eagles.

"Because of the shadows on the photo, the C mintmark looked like an O to him, so Breen mistook it for an example of the legendary (but non- existent) 1841-O." Breen's mistake was taken as fact and carried on through the decades while the grinning Pittman would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the coin, saying only coyly, "It pays to look at every lot!" Pittman later admitted "I always knew there was no such thing as an 1841-O Half Eagle, but I had so much fun going along with Breen's story."

San Francisco Gold Coinage

Having just returned from a nice long weekend in lovely San Francisco, I found myself often* asking the question “why doesn’t such a great town with such an indisputable numismatic history have a more active collecting base?” I can think of at least four reasons why San Francisco gold coins lag their fellow branch mints’ popularity.

    No one has written a book on these coins. Without seeming too egotistical, I think that my books on Charlotte, Dahlonega, Carson City and New Orleans books have been real shots in the arm for each of these mints. If and when someone writes an accessible, concise book about San Francisco gold coins, this will remedy a century of neglect. I won’t be writing this book. Will anyone step up to the plate?

    Unlike the Southern gold coinage, production of San Francisco issues dragged on for nearly a century and entailed denominations ranging from gold dollars to double eagles. There are simply too many coins for most collectors to keep track of and they come in too wide a range of size. If I were the Czar of San Francisco Gold Collecting, I would try to market these issues in three age brackets: the early years (pre-1880 issues), the middle years (1880-1906) and the late years (1908-1930).

    Continuing on the same track as Reason #2, there are too many different types of San Francisco coins to get all-encompassing collections started. The individual who collects St. Gaudens double eagles is unlikely to collect gold dollars. This seems to be a case of “never the twain shall meet” and because of this, San Francisco gold coins continue to have small pockets of cult interest that never merge together to form bigger interest groups.

    Despite not being very popular many San Francisco gold issues are already very highly priced. This makes it harder to market them as undervalued sleepers. In a related vein, many of the early issues are very rare in all grades. Very rare coins are hard to promote because they are hard to find in any quantity.

* = OK, so I’m exaggerating here. I actually didn’t think about business or coins at all the whole weekend but on the plane ride back the subject did come up once or twice…

How Rare Gold Coins Are Priced

One of the most confusing areas for a new coin collector to understand is pricing. Many collectors have experience in purchasing stocks and are used to being able to open a daily newspaper and seeing accurate price quotes for a specific item. In most cases, the coin market operates on an entirely different basis. Stocks and bonds are easy to price because they are commodities. Every regular share of IBM is the same and is valued accordingly. Most gold coins are not regarded as commodities due to their rarity and the fact that coins which are graded similarly may have significant differences in value due to their appearance.

The easiest United States gold coins to price are very common issues like Uncirculated St. Gaudens double eagles. As an example, a Mint State-63 1924 is a coin that has a fairly standard value. It may trade on a wholesale level for $375 and on a retail level for $390. In fact, the buy/sell spread of such a coin is generally within 5% and there is little difference in price for these coins among sellers.

Slightly rarer United States gold coins are still relatively easy to price. An example is a common date Mint State-63 $5.00 Indian Head gold piece. This is not a very easy coin to find but it is certainly not a "rare" issue. Generally speaking, an average quality example common date in Mint State-63 sells in the $1,100-1,300 range. But there are exceptions to this rule that may prove confusing to the novice collector.

In an auction, there are two PCGS graded Mint State-63 1909 half eagles. One is a average quality coin and it sells for $1,150. Another is a very high end coin and it realizes $1,800. Why is there such a big difference in price? The answer is simple: at least two bidders felt that the high end example had a good chance of becoming a Mint State-64 if it were removed from its encapsulation and resubmitted. In a Mint State-64 holder, the coin is worth $2,500-2,750. The buyer of this coin is, in essence, gambling that he can upgrade it and, in the process, sell it for a nice profit.

High end or "PQ" coins are anomalies that do not neatly fit into pricing structure. Generally speaking, pricing guides (see below) reflect price levels for average quality pieces.

There are numerous pricing guides for United States gold coins that are available to the collector. There is no one single source that is "the best." Most experts, myself included, use a variety of pricing guides as well as instinct for pieces that are particularly hard to price.

"A Guidebook to United States Coins" (aka "The Redbook")

This is an overlooked but surprisingly accurate pricing guide that is both convenient and reasonably priced. Each edition of this annual publication has suggested valuations for most United States gold coins in four grades: VF-20, EF-40, AU-50 and MS-60.

The valuations include the input of many experts, including myself. These valuations are meant to be "retail" prices for average quality coins. There are good and bad points about the prices in "The Redbook."

The good points include the convenience of this book (it can be bought in any good book store or on-line), the impressive credentials of its contributors and the broad scope of its information. The negative points include the fact that the pricing is done at least a year in advance and there are not enough grades listed for each issue. A problem that I have always had with "The Redbook" is it continues to list prices for coins that do not exist in a specific grade.

Overall Rating: Very good for beginners but probably not likely to be used very often by advanced collectors.

"Coin Dealer Newsletter" Monthly Quarterly Newsletter

The "Coin Dealer Newsletter" ( is a pricing guide for United States coins that is published weekly. In addition, its parent organization publishes a more in-depth newsletter, referred to by most dealers as "Quarterly," that focuses on series that are collected by date.

The newsletters that are of interest to United States gold coin collectors are "Quarterly II" which includes pricing for gold dollars, quarter eagles and three dollar gold pieces and "Quarterly III" which has pricing for half eagles, eagles and double eagles. Each issue lists prices for "VF," "XF," "AU", MS-60, MS-63, MS-64 and MS-65 as well as four grades for Proof issues where applicable.

According to the editors of the CDN, they "report prices on national dealer-to-dealer buying and selling information. These wholesale prices result from our monitoring all possible sight-seen transactions and offers to buy and sell."

The best point about CDN pricing is the fact that it is carefully monitored and changed to reflect confirmed transactions. It is also very good for pricing coins that fall into the category of semi-better dates. Another good feature about the CDN is the fact that it lists prices for eleven different grades of Liberty Head gold coinage and eight different grades of pre-1834 issues. Negative points include the presence of just one XF and AU grade (making it especially hard to figure the values for EF-45 and AU-58 coins using these prices) and the fact that these supposedly "wholesale" numbers are available to any "retail" collector willing to subscribe to the CDN.

Overall Rating: An essential pricing source for the advanced collector.

Online Pricing Guides

With the advent of the Internet, a number of online pricing guides have become available to collectors. The best-known of these are Numismedia ( and the PCGS Daily Price Guide (

These are extremely comprehensive price guides that are monitored and updated by knowledgeable consultants. They are meant to be "retail" guides for the collector.

In my experience, the values in these guides are fairly accurate for lower grade rare issue United States gold coins (Very Fine and Extremely Fine) and generic issues but tend to be somewhat inflated for higher grade coins.

At the present time, the jury is still out on these on-line price guides. There is no doubt in my mind that within a few years, one of these guides--or maybe an entirely new guide--will become the accepted industry standard for rare coin pricing.

Overall Rating: Some day, an online price guide will be the industry standard. But not just yet...

Coin World Trends

Coin World is published weekly and it has the largest circulation of any numismatic publication. One of the most popular features of this publication is its weekly "Trends" valuations for United States coins. Prices for United States gold coins are published every three weeks.

"Trends" is a retail guide to coin prices. According to its editors "sources for pricing include actual transactions, public auctions, fixed-price lists and any additional information acquired by Coin World staff." For Liberty Head issues, there are a total of ten different grades, ranging from Fine-12 to Mint State-65.

Most specialists in United States gold coins use "Trends" extensively. If you look at the inventory section in my web site you will note that my pricing is listed in relation to "Trends." I use it extensively when I am buying coins. I rate "Trends" as the most important pricing source for United States gold coins and strongly recommend that any serious collector have a copy of the current "Trends" pricing whenever he is making a purchase.

Overall Rating: Currently the single best pricing guide for rare United States gold coins.

Auction Prices

For certain issues, prices realized at auction is an extremely important way to determine price.

A number of United States gold coins are rare enough that the majority of offerings are at auction. If you do not have this information at hand, it is hard to price such coins. And, more often than not, if you are offered an example of a very rare coin, the chances are good that the exact piece you are looking at was recently sold at auction.

I would recommend that serious collectors receive each catalog issued by Heritage, Bowers and Merena, Superior, Goldberg and Stack's. Make certain that you also receive the prices realized lists issued by these firms a few weeks after the sale.

Overall Rating: A very good secondary pricing source, especially for esoteric, infrequently-traded items.

There are a few important factors to consider when using coin pricing guides. These include the following:

The prices in all of the guides discussed above reflect coins graded by reputable services such as PCGS and NGC. Coins that have been graded by less reputable services are often worth considerably less.

The prices in these sources are guidelines, not offers to buy or sell. In some cases they are too high; in others they are too low. As a collector, it is important to learn which issues are undervalued and which are overvalued.

Prices in the Coin Dealer Newsletter are representative of sight-unseen dealer-to-dealer transactions. In other words, if a published price level for a certain issue is $1,800 in "EF" this value equates to an offer that I would make another dealer without seeing the coin and assuming that it just barely qualifies at that level. A very nice EF-40 example could be worth more and an EF-45 could be worth multiples of this amount. Collectors should not expect to be able to buy many coins at CDN prices.

Unless you (or your dealer) has seen coins from a specific auction, the prices realized can be misleading. High end or "PQ" coins often sell for significant premium at auctions. But not all "PQ" coins upgrade and some turn out to be bad deals for their owners. There are also unique circumstances at auction, such as when two collectors both "have to own" a specific coin and wind up paying an enormous price in a battle of wills.

Coins in "name" auctions (such as Eliasberg or Bass) often bring more than in "ordinary" sales. Just because an 1855-C quarter eagle in EF-45 at the Bass auction sells for 30% over Trends does not mean that you should pay that much for a piece you are being offered.

It is always harder to price esoteric or infrequently-traded items than common issues. It is especially hard to price finest known or one-of-a-kind items. There is not set formula that says, for example, than an AU-55 is worth x% more than an AU-50 and x% less than an AU-58.

There are also no firm "ground rules" in regard to what to pay for a certain coin relative to its value in "Trends." Some coins are worth 65% of Trends while others are worth 150% of Trends. The best ways to determine that you are getting fair value are to establish a good relationship with a reputable dealer and to learn as much as you can about how the series you collect is priced.

Ten Best United States Coin Books

New collectors often ask me to recommend books to add to their numismatic libraries. I find myself recommending a core group of fifteen or so over and over again. This made me realize that it would be very helpful to write a short article that listed the ten essential United States coin books. My parameters for these books are simple: they are well-written and useful. I have built and sold at least three different numismatic libraries but I have always kept copies of the following books. Simply put, they are too useful--and too good--to ever sell.

These books are not listed in any specific order. None are terribly hard to locate and all are essential.

A Guide Book of United States Coins, Richard Yeoman. The Early Coins of America, Sylvester S. Crosby. The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Don Taxay. Fractional Money, Neil Carothers. Numismatic Art in America, Cornelius Vermeule. Early American Cents/Penny Whimsy, Dr. William H. Sheldon. Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Coins. The History of United States Coinage, Q. David Bowers. Early United States Dimes, 1796-1837, Davis, Logan, et. al. United States Gold Coins, Significant Auction Records 1990-1999, John Dannreuther and Jeff Garrett.

    1. A Guide Book of United States Coins, Richard Yeoman.

    Better known as the "Redbook," this reference was first published in 1947. Today, it is among the best selling non-fiction books of all time. More than just a catalog of prices, the Redbook is a wonderful one-volume reference that is full of important information. I have been proud to be a contributor since 1983! This work is easily located at any bookstore or it can be bought online through such website as

    2. The Early Coins of America, Sylvester S. Crosby.

    This incredible one volume reference was first published in 1875 and it has been reprinted a number of times since. Perhaps the most impressive fact about this book is the fact that over 125 years after it was written, it is still the standard reference on Colonial coinage. Just as impressive is the fact that virtually none of its historical and numismatic information has been improved upon. Originals are rare and expensive; the Quarterman Publications reprint, available for under $100, is fairly easy to find and it is the best produced of the various reprints.

    3. The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Don Taxay.

    Published in 1966, this is a well-researched and extensively illustrated book. It contains information on the history of the United States mint(s) and many of its most interesting issues. Of particular interest are the sections on the issues of 1792-1793. While long out-of-print, originals are not hard to find and generally sell in the $40-60 range. After a brilliant career as a researcher in the 1960's and 1970's, Taxay disappeared from the numismatic scene and has not been heard from in over twenty years.

    4. Fractional Money, Neil Carothers.

    This somewhat obscure work was actually Carothers' doctoral thesis, written in 1930 while he was at Princeton. It is a fascinating analysis of economic conditions and their impact on coinage. Rather than focusing on the larger denomination silver coins (and gold), this work is most closely concerned with minor coinage. It is not always the easiest book to read, but it is extremely interesting and comprehensive. Originals are scarce and cost in the area of $100; a reprint was produced by Bowers and Merena a few years ago and this is an excellent value in the $20-30 range.

    5. Numismatic Art in America, Cornelius Vermeule.

    Written in 1971 by an Art professor and, as such, a unique look at the aesthetics of United States coinage designs. The book contains many interesting photographs, including design sketches of coins that can be found nowhere else. This is a very underrated work but one that I have read and enjoyed a number of times. It is reasonably scarce but can be found with some patience. A nice, slightly used copy fetches $45-65 and is well worth it.

    6. Early American Cents/Penny Whimsy, Dr. William H. Sheldon.

    Early American Cents was published in 1949 while Penny Whimsy, written with the assistance of Walter Breen and Dorothy Paschal, was published in 1958. The former is the book that introduced the 70 point grading scale to American numismatics; the latter has better plates and revised information. Penny Whimsy has been reprinted but originals are often offered for sale in the $40-60 range. Both are expertly written, interesting to read even if you do not care about Large Cents and enduring classics.

    7. Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Coins.

    This is quite possibly the most ambitious book ever written about United States coins. It is over 1,000 pages in length and it contains information on essentially every major issue struck in the United States from the 17th century to the present. It is marred by Breen's personal biases and politically motivated theories but it is the single best one volume work on American coins and a mandatory work in any library. It is readily available in the $100 range and should be carefully read by all coin collectors.

    8. The History of United States Coinage, Q. David Bowers.

    This book was written in conjunction with Bowers' four auctions containing the Garrett collection, sold from 1979 to 1981. Bowers is the most prolific numismatic author of the modern era and all of his books are worthwhile additions to a library. This is probably my favorite of his works as it is a superb overview that appeals to both the novice and the advanced collector. It is well illustrated and attractively produced as well.

    9. Early United States Dimes, 1796-1837, Davis, Logan, et. al.

    This 1984 book is a classic one volume reference on a previously undercollected and misunderstood area of American numismatics. It is a collaborative effort of five well-known collectors and it is a nearly perfect work; easy to use, well-illustrated and with enough information to satisfy the beginning or advanced collector. The 1980's and the 1990's saw a considerable number of important references on silver and gold coins and this was, in my opinion, one of the very best.

    10. United States Gold Coins, Significant Auction Records 1990-1999, John Dannreuther and Jeff Garrett.

    Let's face facts. Most collectors would rather know what a coin is worth than the history behind it. The value of this new book is that, in one convenient place, a tremendous amount of pricing information can be found. I find this book extremely useful when buying and selling gold coins, especially for rare, esoteric items that I do not handle on a regular basis. Currently available from PCGS for $129 and worth every penny.


    It would have been easy to add a number of other books to the list. And, of course, I am totally ignoring other areas of American numismatics such as medals, tokens and paper money.

    I would strongly that suggest that you invest your next $500 - $1,000 numismatic purchase on books as these will more than pay for themselves over the course of time. I would be happy to provide any additional information on coin books and welcome your email.