Why Are Nice Coins So Hard to Find?

When I'm at shows or talking to collectors and dealers over the phone, I hear a common refrain: nice coins are very hard to find. This appears to be the case in nearly all strongly collected series, be it Indian Cents, Civil War era gold or Morgan Dollars. I have a few theories about this which I'd like to share. The first is simple: not everyone has the same concept of what is a "nice" coin. I like dirty, original 18th and 19th century gold and a coin with the aesthetics that I find appealing is clearly not going to be the same for someone who likes coins that are bright and shiny.

I don't think the moaning about a lack of nice coins is new and I'm guessing that collectors in 1912 were complaining in some of the same ways that collectors in 2012 are.

Let me share a theory with you that is basically speculative but which I think has some real merit. As I have stated many times, grading is a continuum. A "grade" is actually a range which can be expansive. As an example, let's look at the MS63 grade.

Assuming that you agree that grading is a continuum, you'll agree with me that MS63 is actually a series of grades that begins with MS63.0 and ends with MS63.9. I would further describe these ranges as follows:

63.0-63.3: coins that are low end or which barely qualify as this grade. I estimate that for the typical series, around 40-45% of the MS63's fall into this range.

63.4-63.5: coins that are decent and which would easily re-grade as a 63 if resubmitted to PCGS or NGC. I estimate that for the typical series around 30-35% of the MS63's fall into this range.

63.6-63.8:  coins that are high end for the grade and which are now (sometimes) designated as "+" or "*" coins by the services. I estimate that for the typical series maybe 10-15% of the MS63's fall into this range.

63.9:  coins that are exceptional for the grade and which are almost assuredly going to upgrade to MS64 at some point. I estimate that for the typical series maybe 5% (and probably less) of the MS63's fall into this range.

If my theory is correct, this mean that at least 70-80% of all MS63 coins are below-average to average in quality. The best of these "average" coins (a coin that I regard as being a solid, commercial example) is likely to get strong consideration for approval at CAC but the majority of them will not be stickered. These not-so-great or just-OK coins are the ones that are generally seen on E-Bay or in Heritage sales, and these are what many collectors are exposed to on a regular basis.

So what about the 20-30% of the MS63's that range from being really nice to exceptional? Where are they and why are they so hard to find? I think the answer(s) are simple.

In many series, there is huge financial motivation to upgrade an MS63 to an MS64. As an example, an 1812 half eagle in MS63 is worth around $22,500-25,000; the same coin in an MS64 holder is worth $35,000-45,000. If I own an 1812 half eagle that I regard as a 63.7 or a 63.8, doesn't it seem obvious that I'm going to go to great lengths to get the coin in a 64 holder and possibly have a $10,000 to $20,000 pay day?

Which brings me to this point: virtually all the high end MS63 coins are in MS64 holders or trying to get there. The MS63+ coins (which translate to the 63.6 to 63.8 pieces described above) are therefore the best available coins and they are typically sold by good retail dealers to their best clients. The typical collector either never gets to see these PQ coins or if he does, often in an auction environment, he has to compete with sophisticated buyers of high end coins.

Another point: I think there are more high end coins around than most collectors (and dealers) realize. It's just that we don't see them as often and much of what we do see on a day-by-day or show-by-show basis is uninspiring.

Now that you've mulled over that theory, I have another one to share with you. Next time you wonder "where are all the nice coins" consider the following fuzzy math.

If a coin is 150 or so years old, it has been collectible for 100 or so years. If the typical coin is owned around five years (and yes I am aware that there are many coins that are in "strong hands" and don't trade until they are held for fifteen or twenty years) that means that the coin you just bought may have had as many as twenty previous owners.

Think about this: that means some or maybe even all of these twenty owners have shipped the coins through the mail in flimsy holders/cleaned the coins/mishandled the coins/stored the coins in PVC flips/stored them loose in cabinets/dipped them and forgot to rinse them/etc. For a coin in nearly any grade to have survived generations of overzealous collectors without having had something bad done to them...well, that just about boggles my mind. And that, in a nutshell, is another very good reason why nice coins are so hard to find.

Are you in the market for nice coins? Send me an email at dwn@ont.com and I will try to hook you up with some very nice coins for your collection!


How to Price AU58 Gold Coins

As a buyer of rare gold coins, nothing makes me happier than seeing choice AU58 pieces with original color and surfaces. I love "Gem Sliders" as these coins tend to have better eye appeal than most MS60 to MS63's and are typically priced at a much lower level. They can be among the best values for savvy collectors but the question that often comes up with these coins is "how much of a premium do they command?" Not all AU58's are similar in quality. In fact, I think there is a huge range of quality and appearance within this grade. There are AU58's that are bright and have clearly been scrubbed. Other AU58's are more original but they are excessively abraded or a bit lackluster. The coins that I call Gem Sliders are ones that probably saw little--if any--circulation and acquired what little wear (or friction) they possess either from collector handling over the years or being transported from location to location. Out of all coins that are graded AU58, I'd say that fewer than 10% are true "sliders" and even fewer of these are what I'd regard as "Gems" for the grade.

The focus of this article is on how to price these Gem Sliders. In some series, such coins are seen from time to time but in most, especially those struck prior to 1880, they are rare enough that pricing can prove to be a challenge.

As I see it, pricing these coins falls into three categories: coins that merit a small premium, coins that merit a moderate premium, and coins that merit a substantial (or even a very substantial) premium.

A Gem Slider 1897-O eagle is a coin that merits a small premium over a less appealing AU58 example. This is so for a variety of reasons. First of all, the 1897-O is not a scarce coin in AU58 nor is it rare in the lower Uncirculated grades. Secondly, of the numerous examples graded AU58, a decent number are original and attractive. Thirdly, there is not a big price jump between AU58's, MS60's, and MS61's for this date. This means that an average quality AU58 might be worth around $800-900 while a truly superb AU58 might only be worth an extra $50 or so.

Gem Sliders that can be acquired for a moderate premium are generally priced at 15-30% over a less choice piece. An example of a coin that might sell for a premium in this range would be an 1851-C gold dollar. The 1851-C is not a rare coin by the standards of Charlotte gold dollars but it is certainly many times more scarce than the 1897-O eagle mentioned above. It is also an issue with a higher overall level demand since it is popular both with date collectors and with type collectors. The premium accorded a Gem Slider is not as great as one might expect for a number of reasons.

The 1851-C is relatively available in the lower Uncirculated grades and MS61 to MS62's sell for a reasonably moderate level in comparison to AU58's. This means that a collector on a limited budget has some options, unlike on an issue where the premium between an AU58 and an MS62 might be too great for him to consider the latter grade. Another thing to consider is the size of the 1851-C gold dollar. On small coins, the "gemminess" of Gem Sliders are not as apparent as on larger coins. This means that the premium tends to be lower.

It should be noted that not all small coins have their premiums held in check by size. An issue like an 1855-D dollar or an 1861-D could command a very strong premium in AU58 because of its rarity, its popularity and its prohibitively high value in Uncirculated grades.

The AU58 Gem Sliders that deserve to sell for a very significant premium are coins that have a number of factors working in their favor. They are typically large-sized coins (although not always; see below), coins that are extremely rare or expensive in Uncirculated and/or coins that are very popular.

To pick a fairly random example of a coin that would sell for a big premium in Gem Slider, let's look at an 1853-O eagle. This is a coin that has a fairly high population in AU58 (especially at NGC) and a scrubby, commercial-quality AU58 might be available for under $4,000. But a very high end, looks-like-an-MS62 Gem Slider is quite rare and could command a price in the $6,000-8,000 range. This sounds like an excessive premium but its not when you consider that there are only two or three properly graded pieces known in Uncirculated and if one were available it might sell for $15,000 or more.

A series that I think deserves high premiums for premium sliders is the Type One double eagle. With very few exceptions, this is a series which becomes exponentially rarer in grades above AU58 and one in which eye appeal is both critical and often lacking.

Again, let's take a random example; this time an 1855 double eagle in AU58. This is an undervalued, under-appreciated date in higher grades but one that is finally becoming recognized for its scarcity. A low-end AU58 example is worth around $4,000. In MS61, this date is worth in the $12,000-15,000 range. So what does that make a gorgeous, mark-free, frosty Gem Slider worth? $6,000? $7,000? Maybe even $8,000?

I can think of many coins where a Gem Slider (or possibly an especially nice AU55) might sell for more than a low end MS61 or even an MS62. An example that comes to mind is a 1796 No Stars quarter eagle. I haven't seen many Gem Sliders of this issue in the last few years but I have seen a number of really unappealing MS61 to MS62's. As a collector, I'd rather spend $200,000+ on a superb AU58 than I would an over-graded, processed MS62. The same scenario holds true on a number of other early gold issues, like 1795 half eagles and eagles, 1808 quarter eagles, etc.

Since the entire concept of Gem Sliders is so rooted in eye appeal which is, in and of itself, a hard concept to get universal agreement on, it would be impossible to publish a Gem Slider Price Guide. One man's $6,000 AU58 Type One double eagle might be another man's $4,000 coin. The addition of the "+" and "*" grades at PCGS and NGC to reward good eye appeal is a beginning of quantification but it is still up to the market to determine what premiums are applied to Gem Sliders.

What Gold Coins Do CAC Stickers Add the Most Value to?

After two+ years of being traded on the open market, I think few collectors and dealers would argue the statement that CAC stickering has added considerable value and liquidity to many types of United States gold coinage. But are we now able to determine with a decent degree of accuracy which coins are most affected by a CAC (or the absence of a sticker)? Let's take a look at some areas of the gold coin market and see how CAC is adding value. One of the areas that CAC has added the greatest amount of value is in the St. Gaudens double eagle market. The impact is seen two ways. The first is with common "generic" issues in MS65 and MS66. One of the main reasons why the premium for non-CAC certified MS65 Saints is so low when compared to MS64 coins is that most of the coins in MS65 holders are not significantly better than those graded MS64.

What CAC has done is to identify those coins graded MS65 that are nice quality and which are "real" 65's. Currently, non-CAC Saints in MS65 trade for around $2,300. Those with CAC stickers are worth at least 10-15% more. They are also quite liquid and can be sold even when dealers have extensive numbers of non-CAC coins in stock. Non-CAC MS66 Saints are currently worth around $2,750-2,850 per coin. The premium for MS66 Saints with CAC stickers is at least $750-1,000 per coin. Given the fact that the stickered MS66 coins I have seen are very nice (as compared with the non-stickered coins which range from inferior for the grade to decent) this premium makes sense.

Another area where CAC stickered coins are selling for a significant premium is in the better date Saint market. Let me pick a random issue: the 1927-S in MS64. This coin has a current bid of $70,000 in this grade and a bona-fide Gem is worth double this. The quality of 1927-S double eagles varies greatly and there are coins that are very low end and hard to sell for $55,000 and coins that are very high end and worth over bid. I can't recall having ever seen a 1927-S in MS64 with a CAC sticker but if I had a PCGS/CAC coin that I liked I'd quote $75,000+.

Early gold (i.e. gold coins struck from 1795 to 1834) is area that has shown itself to be influenced by CAC stickers. I don't like every single piece of CAC-stickered early gold that I see but I like at least 90% of the coins. Compare this to non-CAC early gold where probably 50-60% (or more) of the coins offered at auction or through dealer's websites are not, in my opinion, nice for the grade. I find this to be especially true with early gold in the MS63 and MS64 grades. As an example, an 1812 half eagle in MS64 with a CAC sticker is currently worth around $40,000. The same coin in the same grade that is not stickered and which is not a CAC-quality coin, in my opinion, might be hard to sell for $32,500. More and more collectors of coins like this are demanding that they be CAC stickered and the premium for the pieces that have the Green Bean is at least 10-15% and climbing.

Because so many Proof gold coins have been doctored over the years, CAC-stickered pieces are currently garnering high premiums. This is more so with Matte Proofs than Brilliant Proofs. I can't remember seeing more than a few Matte Proof gold coins in the last two years that weren't doctored to the point that they weren't even the right color. When the few remaining fresh pieces come onto the market, they realize strong prices. As an example, Stack's just sold at auction a lovely 1913 Matte Proof gold set. All four coins were CAC stickered and all four brought exceptional prices. I see similarly graded washed-out NGC Matte Proof gold from time to time and it brings Greysheet prices or lower; these superb, vibrant Gems brought numbers that were way over "sheet."

I've found CAC to be very particular when it comes to Brilliant Proof gold as well. Lower grade (PR63 and below) Proofs aren't really impacted by having or not having having CAC stickers unless they are a very rare early date issue. In this case, the premium seems to be around 10%. The real premium is for very high grade pieces. As an example, from time to time, a really remarkable PR68 or PR69 Liberty Head quarter eagle will become available. While these coins tend to be pretty amazing from a visual standpoint, very few are CAC approved. I believe that a PR68 or PR69 gold coin with a CAC would sell for a very significant premium; maybe 20-30%.

There is no doubt in my mind that CAC has greatly improved the value and liquidity of nice NGC coins. As someone who sells a good number of NGC coins, I've noticed that pieces that have CAC stickers are regarded as being just about as "good" to collectors as PCGS coins; unless the collector is working on a PCGS-only Registry Set and will not purchase any coins at all in NGC holders. In the collector marketplace, the current hierarchy for many series of US gold coins is as follows:

1. PCGS coins with CAC stickers 2. NGC coins with CAC stickers 3. PCGS coins without CAC stickers 4. NGC coins without CAC stickers

A major exception to this rule is rarity. If a coin is a very rare date (say an 1883-O eagle or an 1842-C Small Date half eagle), collectors are still concerned first and foremost with the coin itself and not the plastic.

Another exception is the popularity of the series and who the end users are. Certain series, like three dollar gold pieces, are just not popular enough right now that CAC stickers make all that much of a difference from a price standpoint. Other series, like Type Three Liberty Head double eagles and Indian Head quarter eagles, are sold mainly by marketers who do not "preach the gospel" of CAC and, therefore, the current market premium is not as great as in other series.

It has been interesting to view the market acceptance of CAC in the last two years. The market has gone from being initially cynical (and in some cases hostile) to being accepting to, in some cases, fully embracing CAC. This has been most clear in the premiums paid for CAC coins and I think we'll see these premiums continue and, in many cases, increase as demand grows in the coming years for the highest quality rare coins.

Some Thoughts on PCGS’ New Secure Plus Program

PCGS recently released the details on their new Secure Plus program. Instead of summarizing it here, I’d suggest that your go to their website and play the video link that will explain their interpretation of the new program. I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and feelings about it. You can essentially split this new program down the middle and look at it as two distinct facets. To me, the “Secure” aspect is a no-brainer. In a nutshell, PCGS has basically harnessed the technology that will enable them to make a record of all the coins that are submitted to them under this new program. They claim it will end coin doctoring and stop gradeflation in its tracks.

As someone who has been pretty public in his disgust with coin doctoring for many years, I’m glad that PCGS is instituting this program. By the same token, it seems sad to me that a) this had to happen and b) that it took as long as it did. In some areas of the market, there are barely any “original” coins left. PCGS’ step is sort of like making a decision to preserve Bison in 1937: great idea but a little late in coming.

I have always partially attributed coin doctoring, to some degree at least, on PCGS and NGC. If these services had rewarded originality from the beginning and had been really, truly consistent this would have eliminated a lot of the doctoring that has occurred for the last twenty+ years. In the area that I specialize in, United States gold produced from 1795 to 1900, “bright and shiny” has always trumped “dark and crusty.” The irony here is that, finally, dark and crusty is becoming in style. After decades of coins being dipped, dunked, doctored and debilitated (catchy, no?) the coins with character that many people want are exceptionally hard to find.

While PCGS is not really publicizing this, I think the security aspect will be very important in their future efforts to fight counterfeit coins and holders coming in from China. I can’t possibly imagine that some clever guy in Shanghai isn’t already coming up with remarkably good quality early type coins or better date dollars. All it takes is a good distribution system for these to flood the market and by PCGS making it harder for these coins to make it through, that has to be a big positive.

One thing I am a little baffled about is what are we to make of the millions and millions of coins already graded by PCGS? Obviously, the nicest coins are going to be placed into the new Secure Plus holders. But what about the 1% or 2% of the coins that are outright mistakes? What about the coins that people, for whatever reason, decide not to resubmit/regrade? This is going to create a number of secondary markets and it will be certain to cause confusion.

The “Plus” aspect of this new PCGS service is more controversial, in my opinion. What the plus grades will do is to take an area that is already subjective and make them even more so. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. PCGS is essentially decimalizing grading (a subject that I wrote about a number of years ago) and this is something that I believe that very good graders can do. But it puts a lot of pressure on PCGS (and NGC’s) graders to be very consistent and very accurate. Will a PCGS grader who is rushing through a cart full of coins to grade be able to figure whether an early type coin is a 63.8 and follow this coin up with a Saint that he has to determine if it’s a 65.8? It can be done but not easily.

The pricing of Plus coins is going to be very interesting. I’ve written extensively on how broken the price reporting mechanism in the coin market is and how badly it needs to be fixed. So, if we can’t accurately get the value for an MS63 Charlotte half eagle, how are we going to get the value for a 63+? And how consistently graded will the Plus coins be? Will one MS63+ Charlotte half eagle be a 63.7 while another is a 63.9? PCGS expects there to be sight-unseen trading for these coins so I’m hoping they will be graded with enough consistency for this to occur.

Getting back to the pricing issue for a second, it will be very interesting to see how the market values Plus coins in split grades where there is a huge difference in values. As an example, a common date Indian Head half eagle in MS64 is worth around $3,500. An MS65 is worth around $15,000. What does that make a 64+ worth? $4,000? $6,000? 9,000? Until there have been a few hundred Indian Head half eagles graded 64+ by PCGS and they’ve traded I’m not sure that will be a good answer.

It’s been sort of lost in the hype that NGC is working on a plan of their own. I am pleased that NGC is adopting the same plus system that PCGS is. Can you imagine how confusing it would be to have two different grading services using two different grading standards?

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the rare coin market in the last few decades and, for the most part, I’ve been an early adapter to those changes that I liked and believed in. I’m taking a bit of a wait and see approach with PCGS’ new system; mainly because I’d like to see a significant number of newly-graded coins. If I like the system, I will become an enthusiastic convert. But from what I can tell so far, these changes are being done with good intentions and they are destined to have a major impact in 2010 and beyond.

PCGS Hires a New Grader and Some Thoughts on Third-Party Grading

I’ve used this forum in the past as a venue to criticize the grading services. So, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due and congratulate PCGS on their new hire as a grader, Charlie Browne. I’ve known Charlie for the better part of two decades. He was last employed by Certified Asset Management, a wholesale firm and market maker of high-end US coins.

Charlie is an old school New England coin dealer; one of the last of the “smart and fair” guys (along with Warren Mills from RCNH and a few others) that used to include such now-retired luminaries as Ed Leventhal, Russ Vaughn, Chris Tracey and Jay Miller.

Here’s what I’ve always admired about Charlie. He’s a guy who gets by with a great eye for coins; not an ability to bake/putty/smoke/laser them. I’ve always liked doing business with Charlie: he’s a square shooter, he paid-up for nice coins and his inventory always had more choice, original pieces than most dealers. He’s going to make a great addition to the PCGS staff.

For the most part, I’m pretty impressed by PCGS and NGC’s ability to get it right when it comes to grading. But I’ve always had two basic complaints when it comes to the whole concept of third-party certification. The first is that graders are continually looking at coins that are out of their comfort zone. I think that I can grade 18th and 19th century gold as well as anyone but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to series like Buffalo Nickels and Walkers. How can PCGS and NGC expect their graders to be experts, simultaneously, in Indian Cents and Pattern silver dollars?

My second issue has to do with real-world experience. I love the fact that in Charlie Browne, PCGS now has a world-class grader on staff who has spent the last few decades buying and selling coins. You can read about grading, you can take grading classes, you can set yourself up as an expert on grading in chat rooms, etc. But there’s only one way to really, truly learn how to grade: you have to buy and sell coins and you have to do it in a situation where mistakes are going to hit you directly in the pocketbook.

Looking back over my two+ decade career as a professional dealer, my most vivid and memorable grading experiences haven’t been the big hits. They’ve been the situations where I made a titanic mistake; one that cost me financially. Trust me, there is nothing more humbling and more experiential than buying an early half eagle, paying MS63 money for it, having it come back a grade or two lower and, after much consternation, regrading and grumbling, selling it for a $10,000 loss. Unless you have absolutely no conscience, these mistakes teach you a lot!

Getting back to Charlie Browne and PCGS, what I really like about this hire is the “fresh eyes” that he will bring to the PCGS grading room. The more I think about it, the more I wish that both PCGS and NGC would bring in “guest graders” every few months. Guys like Charlie know the current market standards for most series, they know when the services are being too tight or too loose and they know that “look” that has the most commercial appeal.

When they coin market was in great shape a few years ago, I would imagine that the pool of potential graders that PCGS and NGC had to pick from was pretty unimpressive (or the impressive guys were probably pricing themselves at levels about two or three times their true market value...). Now that the market has contracted and some of the high-flyers are, shall we say “grounded,” the talent pool is probably a lot more impressive. For a variety of reasons, PCGS can now hire a world-class guy like Charlie Browne and I wouldn’t be surprised if NGC is in negotiation with their own impressive guy(s).

So, here’s to the Charlie Browne/PCGS situation working out well for everyone involved. I know that I’m excited about this announcement and I think Charlie will be a great addition to the PCGS staff.

Luster Pros and Cons

Luster - Pros and Cons - Gold coins basically come with three types of luster: satiny, frosty and prooflike. In this blog, I’m going to discuss these three “looks” and the pros/cons of each. I’ll also add an illustration of each look. And away we go... The most common luster seen on United States gold coins, especially those from the 19th century, is frosty in texture. Frosty luster can be extremely attractive. I would describe it to the new collector as having a “hard” look and it is most associated, in my experience, with coins produced at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints.


Frosty luster is considered a “plus” by most collectors. Unfortunately, this sort of luster is becoming harder to find as more and more gold coins are chemically treated. Coins with original frosty luster have what I call a “wagon wheel” effect where the luster flows clockwise and appears to almost radiate out from the center of the coin.

Some of the series that are famous for having above-average frosty luster include the Fat Head quarter eagles and half eagles from the 1820’s and 1830’s, Classic Head gold, No Motto Philadelphia issues and Three Dollar gold pieces.

Another type of luster seen on United States gold coins is satiny in texture. Satiny luster tends to be less attractive than frosty luster but it can be very appealing. I would describe it to the new collector as having a “soft” look and it is often seen on branch mint coins from the 19th century and on San Francisco issues from the 20th century.

For the new collector, satiny luster is more difficult to understand and appreciate than frosty luster. This is due to the fact that it is more subtle in its appearance. As an example, the luster on the coin shown above is excellent in-hand and shows very few breaks in the fields. But most collectors would think this coin has a considerable amount of wear; due to its subtle luster and, obviously, the weakness of strike at the centers.

In my experience, satiny luster is more often seen on New Orleans issues, Civil War era gold and some of the Reconstruction era Philadelphia issues.

The third and final major type of luster is prooflike. When dies are readied for production they are polished and/or rubbed with a cloth in order to make them appear bright and “new.” This polish fades rather quickly and certain issues are almost never seen with mirror-like reflectiveness. As an example, I have seen very few Prooflike coins from Charlotte and Dahlonega and only a handful from New Orleans.

Generally speaking, 19th century gold coins with very low original mintage figures tend to have prooflike surfaces more often than not. As an example, the 1890 quarter eagle pictured above is an issue with a mintage of only 8,720 and it is often found with reflective surfaces. Some of the other types of coins that are sometimes seen with prooflike surfaces include Philadelphia Type Three gold dollars, Philadelphia quarter eagles from the 1870’s and 1880’s, Three Dollar gold pieces and Liberty Head double eagles from the 1890’s.

I personally have mixed emotions about prooflike gold coins. Due to the fact that gold is a soft metal, the surfaces tend to easily pick up marks, nicks and scratches and these tend to be strongly amplified by deep, reflective fields. Unless a Prooflike gold coin is a Gem, it tends to have a “scruffy” appearance and may have compromised eye appeal as a result.

There are two interesting subtypes of prooflike coins that the collector should be aware of. The first are coins that are Deep Mirror Prooflike. These are coins with especially reflective surfaces and a look that can be deceptively similar to that of a Proof. As an example, there are certain gold dollars from the 1880’s that are extremely hard to tell apart from Proofs. Generally speaking, many of the gold coins that are designated as Deep Mirror Prooflike by NGC command strong premiums, especially for issues that are generally seen with frosty or satiny surfaces.

The other subtype is semi-prooflike. A semi-prooflike coin, as one might guess, is a coin that has a blend of mirror-like reflectiveness along with either satiny or frosty luster.

As a gold coin collector becomes more sophisticated and sees more coins, he is likely to see pieces that have a wide variety of luster types. By becoming more familiar with these various types of luster, he will become a better coin buyer and better able to purchase coins that are choice and original.

How are problem coins valued?

I’ve discussed many times the process in which how nice coins are assigned price levels. But how are problem coins valued? This is an interesting question and one which is becoming a bit easier to answer since NCS coins have become a well-accepted part of numismatics. (Before I begin, I should state here that NCS or Numismatic Certification Service is a division of NGC that certifies and encapsulates “problem coins” which NGC does not see fit to put in their regular holders. This includes coins that are harshly cleaned, polished, heavily scratched, rim filed, etc. NCS only uses adjectival grades—i.e., they would call a coin “AU details” as opposed to “AU55 details.”)

The reason why non-problem coins are easier to value than problem coins is, well, because they don’t have problems. There is a greater degree of consistency of appearance between an 1830 half eagle in PCGS AU55 (or NGC AU55) than there is with this same issue when it has the details of an AU55 but it has been cleaned.

Let me explain what I mean by this. If you were to call me up and offer me an 1830 half eagle in PCGS AU55, I would have a decent idea of what to expect. I’m figuring that it has light wear, a decent amount of remaining luster, maybe a few scattered marks in the fields and probably a pretty good overall appearance. But if you call me an offer me an 1830 half eagle in an NCS holder that states the coin has “AU details” but has been “cleaned,” I’m not sure what to expect. Has it been lightly cleaned or harshly cleaned? Does it have an acceptable appearance or does it look overly shiny from having been polished or perhaps whizzed?

From my experience with viewing NCS coins, there is a very wide range of coins in these holders.

I’ve seen coins that NCS has called “cleaned” that look pretty acceptable to me; not very different, in fact, from coins encapsulated by both NGC and PCGS. I’ve also seen coins placed in NCS holders that had planchet flaws or mint-made surface that, in my opinion, could just as easily be in “normal” NGC or PCGS holders.

But back to cleaned coins and how to value them. As a general rule of thumb, I think that if a coin has been lightly cleaned it is worth around half of what a non-cleaned example would be worth. The NGC or PCGS AU55 1830 half eagle that I mentioned above is a $60,000 coin if it has a decent, original appearance. In an NCS “AU details—cleaned” holder it’s more likely worth $30,000 or so. And if it’s a very harshly cleaned AU coin with some damage as well it is more likely worth in the area of $15,000-20,000.

This brings me to a philosophical question. Would I, as a collector, want to own a very rare but very ugly coin that costs $20,000 or $30,000? I do not personally like problem coins even though I can understand their value and why certain collectors would want, say, an “affordable” example of a desirable coin like an 1808 quarter eagle. But I would rather spend my $20,000 or $30,000 on a coin that was less rare and more aesthetically pleasing. If my budget for a very rare coin like an 1808 quarter eagle was only $20,000-30,000 I would re-examine the “need” for this issue to be in my collection and would spend the money on something nicer.

Remember what I said above about the varying degrees of “cleanedness” or damage seen on NCS coins? I might actually not mind owning an NCS encapsulated 1808 quarter eagle with VF or EF details that had been lightly cleaned and which had a good appearance. The thing to consider, though, is that many other collectors feel the same way and such a coin might actually sell for a value level not much less than a VF or EF that was in a regular NGC or PCGS holder. The real question is would I want to own an 1808 quarter eagle that looked like it was run over by the proverbial train. And if I did, what would I pay for it?

Where Have All The Nice Coins Gone?

If you talk to nearly any dealer or read nearly any numismatic newsletter you’ve no doubt heard a similar complaint for many years: it has become incredibly hard to buy “nice coins.” Clearly, this is true. But the reason(s) why nice coins have become so hard to buy are somewhat less obvious. I have a few theories as to where all the nice coins have gone and why it is so hard in today’s market to find others. The first reason has to do with the increased size and scope of the rare coin market. There are far more deep-pocketed collectors than ever before and certainly far more than most people realize. There are many reasons for this: the increased appeal of numismatics as a result of the Internet, the explosion of wealth in this country and around the world and the lack of good investment alternatives as in years past. Simply put, tens of thousands of very high quality coins have left the market as a result of new collectors.

The second reason is a little less obvious. It is my opinion that more formerly-nice coins have been ruined by cleaning and processing than we realize. Let’s take a typical common date Dahlonega half eagle as an example. Let’s say that there are 200-300 examples known of this date in all grades. Even before the mania for cleaning coins began, at least 75% of these coins had either been harshly cleaned, damaged or very heavily worn. This leaves us a pool of approximately 25-50 original or semi-original “nice coins.” Now let’s say that this number has been reduced another 50% in the last decade as dealers have given into the temptation of taking a crusty EF coin and turning it into an ugly AU coin. Now we are talking about maybe as many as 15-25 nice original examples of this supposedly common date. This number is further diluted by the fact that most of the choice examples of scarce, popular collector coins are off the market in tightly-held collections. At the end of the day, we are talking about a tiny pool of nice, original coins available for the new collector.

Here’s another theory of mine which we’ll call reason #3. Veteran observers of the rare coin market (like me) became jaded by the proliferation of great collections which came to the market in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Eliasberg, Bass, Pittman, Norweb...the list goes on and on. We were spoiled by these great old collections and now that hardly any other great old collections await us, our reaction is that “there are no more nice coins left.” I find it interesting that the coin market of the 2000’s has become more democratized than the market(s) of the past. Instead of one person owning huge numbers of great coins (i.e., Harry Bass), there are now many collectors who own smaller numbers of the good stuff. Old School dealers like me are just going to have to get used to the fact that the auctions we will be attending in the future are not likely to be Eliasberg-esque.

One final reason comes to mind. The rare coin market has become watered-down by modern coins. As recently as a decade ago, no one collected coins made during their lifetime; let alone paid huge premiums for coins struck a year or two ago. A number of dealers (and collectors) who used to be active in the market for “nice coins” jumped ship and are now focusing on modern issues. Moderns also get a lot of publicity these days while the day-to-day trading of attractive classic issues is done with less fanfare. Ironically, there’s a whole new generation of collectors who are a lot more excited by a PR70 American Silver Eagle from 1999 than by a superbly toned PR67 Barber Quarter from 1899. As always, what is “nice” is a matter of perspective...

I think the bottom line is this: in 2007 we are seeing a lot more collectors competing for a lot fewer nice coins. It was never easy to buy nice coins. In some ways, I’d love to turn back the clock to 1987 but when I really stop and think about the market twenty years ago, nice coins weren’t growing on trees back then and when you did have them, they were a lot harder to sell.

Impaired Proof Gold

Impaired Proof gold. What is it and do collectors covet these coins? This article takes a quick look at an interesting, little-understood subject. Proof gold coins were struck in very small quantities for collectors. Mintages figures for most issues produced before 1900 are extremely low; in many cases less than 50 coins per year. The typical survival rate for a pre-1900 Proof gold coin is around 50% of the original mintage figure. Most of the coins that have survived were handled with care and grade PR64 to PR66 by today’s interpretations. But a small percentage of the surviving Proofs were mishandled and now grade lower than this.

There are essentially two ways in which a Proof gold coin can become Impaired. It can either have been spent (accidentally or on purpose) and received wear from circulation or it could have been mishandled through improper storage and/or harsh cleaning(s).

I have heard stories that during the Depression, a number of Proof gold coins were spent by collectors who could no longer afford to have high face value coins. As an example, it is not uncommon to see Proof Liberty Head double eagles from the 1890’s and the 1900’s which are lightly circulated. By the beginning of the Depression, these coins were not worth substantially more over face value and dozens (if not hundreds) of pieces were placed in circulation.

Proof gold coins which are circulated are very easy to spot. They typically show noticeable marks in the fields and signs of friction on the high spots. Because of the fact that proof gold coins have extremely reflective surfaces, these marks tend to be very heavily amplified and appear worse than they might actually be.

How these marks affect the grade of a Proof gold coin is fairly subjective. It is very unusual for a lightly circulated Proof gold coin to be graded less than PR55 or PR58 by PCGS or NGC. If a Proof gold coin saw a considerable amount of circulation, the surfaces may no longer show enough reflectiveness to convince the grading services that the coin was actually struck as a Proof. In the instances when Proof gold coins of a certain year were struck from the same dies as business strikes, identification may prove to be impossible.

Many business strike gold coins with light wear can be quite attractive; especially if they are original and uncleaned. Lightly circulated Proof gold coins tend to be generally unattractive and, as a result, they do not appeal to most collectors. There are certainly exceptions to this rule and I have seen gold coins which grade PR55 or PR58 which have fairly good overall eye appeal.

Proof gold coins with significant hairlines from prior cleanings are another story. These aren’t really “impaired” and the grading services will generally put them in holders as long as the hairlines present on the surfaces are not totally obtrusive. I have seen a decent number of gold coins graded PR60 or PR61 which have clearly been harshly cleaned with an abrasive. If these were common modern issues, they wouldn’t be encapsulated but the fact that they are rare dictates that they tend to be assigned a “net grade.”

I, for one, do not care for harshly cleaned Proof gold coins. Frankly, they are ugly. And if you are going to collect Proof gold coins, the chances are good that you care about the aesthetics of the coin.

But there are circumstances where I think that Impaired Proof gold coins are very interesting. As an example, I recently bought a PCGS PR 1870 quarter eagle. This is an issue with an original mintage of just 35 Proofs. After some research I discovered that this date was rarer than I thought as a Proof. In fact, there are as few as seven or eight Proofs known. I priced the coin at a touch under $5,000 and got a number of inquiries about it the first day it was listed on my website. Here was a coin that was pretty decent to look at, genuinely rare and reasonably priced, considering its rarity.

In conclusion, I don’t think that I would ever make Impaired Proofs a major part of my coin collection but there are clearly instances when selected examples could be pretty intriguing.