What Makes Certain Coins Popular--and Others Unpopular?

I often make buying decisions based on a coin's popularity. As an example, I will buy a coin like an 1839-O quarter eagle for stock because it is popular and I know it will sell. But I might pass on a rarer coin like an 1862-S quarter eagle because it is not a popular issue and it will be a harder coin to sell. This got me to to thinking: what makes one coin popular and another unpopular? Certain 20th century series are popular with collectors because of a strong nostalgia factor. I would imagine most of the collectors who focus on Lincoln Cents or Mercury Dimes remember collecting them as a kid and the sense of accomplishment that they get from completing a set is an act of closure that extinguishes the nightmares they felt as kids about filling those pesky 1909-S VDB Cent and 1916-D Dime holes.

The nostalgia factor does not really apply to gold given the fact that circulation for these coins ended in the early 1930's. There are certainly some collectors who can remember being given an Indian Head quarter eagle for the holidays by their grandparents or aunt and uncle. But I'm willing to bet that the majority of gold coin collectors are not working on a set of Charlotte half eagles because it rekindles pleasant childhood memories.

The word "promotion" gets a bad rap in numismatics. Yes, there are naughty promotions where worthless modern trinkets get hyped and sold to unsuspecting people for multiples of their true value. But in the better sense of the word, coin promotions can turn formerly unpopular series--like Type One Liberty Head double eagles--into popular ones. The key to a coin promotion is that it has to be sustained and it needs more market participants than the first wave to regenerate its initial success(es).

I mentioned the Type One double eagles series in the last paragraph. One of the most brilliant coin promotions of all time was the S.S. Central America.. The marketing group that owned the coins not only was able to sell them, they were able to generate enough new interest in this denomination that it impacted all Type Ones, not just the few dates that were included in the hoard.

A coin that is historic is always going to be popular. What represents "history" to be may not be what represents history to you. But I'm almost certain we can both agree that a gold coin produed in the 18th century--the first decade of the operations of the new U.S. Mint--is clearly historic. This is one reason why a coin like a 1795 half eagle or a 1799 eagle, while not truly "rare," is still always going to have a very high level of demand among collectors.

Other coins are historic due to numismatically significant factors. In the first paragraph I mentioned the 1839-O quarter eagle. This is a coin that is fairly common in lower grades yet I still really like the issue and will buy nearly any problem free example I can find. Why? It is a first year of issue coin, it is a one year type and it is a visually interesting issue in that it has the short-lived Classic Head design paired with the obverse placement of the mintmark. These factors give it broad appeal and it is one of the few New Orleans quarter eagles that would be of interest to a non-specialist.

Another factor that makes a coin popular or unpopular is its design. A coin like a High Relief is extremely popular because it is beautiful and its design appeals to virtually all collectors. "Plain Jane" coins like three cent nickels and liberty head nickels get little respect from collectors because, to be frank, they are not especially attractive designs.

There is an element of geography with certain types of coins that makes them popular. Dahlonega gold coinage has a large following in the Atlanta and North Georgia area due to having been produced in this part of the country. This isn't to say that a collector from New York City might not become a major collector of Dahlonega gold but the majority of interest in these coins tends to be in the south.

A factor in determining the popularity of a coin has to do with the availability of good reference material. Without tooting my own horn too loudly (OK, at least not blaring it...) I'd like to think that part of the reason that Southern branch mint gold is popular has to do with the fact that I have written easy to use basic reference guides that are updated every few years, inexpensive to purchase, readily available and easy to transport to coin shows and auctions. This might be a coincidence, but the two least popular 19th and early 20th century gold issues (Philadelphia and San Francisco mints) are the ones that I just happened to not have written books about. At least yet...

Size has become an important factor in making gold coins popular or unpopular. Double eagles are more popular than gold dollars mostly because they are much bigger. People like bigger coins and new collectors feel more justified in spending $3,000 for a big, hefty double eagle than they do for a small gold dollar. As the age of collectors continues to climb, it seems inevitable that even more people will shy away from small coins; if only because they will have trouble seeing them.

These popularity factors are just a few of the reasons why certain coins are popular and others are not. If you ask many collectors why they specialize in a certain area, the reason may be hard to determine. Often, these individuals collect "what they like" and there is no clearly definable reason; it's just a gut instinct that, say, tells them that they should focus on Proof gold dollars or Gem Saints. And that's the beauty of rare coin collecting.

Which Coins Are the Best Investment?

A potential new client recently asked me a basic but interesting question: which gold coins are the best investments? As those of you who know me realize, I don’t really tout coins as an “investment.” But I want my customers to make money on the coins that they purchase from me and I try to steer them towards pieces that I think will appreciate in value over the course of time. In my opinion, there are a few factors that make specific coins a good investment and which should perform well. Some of these factors are as follows:

1. Liquidity: Does a specific type of coin sell very quickly when I list it on my website or does it tend to languish for an interminable period of time? I notice that certain coins are consistently good sellers. Generally speaking, they fall in the “sweet spot” pricing range of $2,500 to $7,500. They are usually coins with an interesting history and pieces with good aesthetic appeal. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive a coin is the less liquid it becomes (although, in the last three to five years, very expensive coins and ultra-rarities have been remarkably liquid). As I told the gentleman who inquired about coins as investments, the pieces that are the most liquid are the best to own.

The “quality of liquidity” is important as well. Will the person most likely to buy your coin(s) be a specialized collector or a dealer? I personally like coins that I can sell to end-users as opposed to dealers who will look at them primarily as commodities and be more conscious of price than quality.

2. Popularity: Popularity and liquidity are not the same thing. A coin can be liquid but be a part of a not especially popular series (an 1838-C half eagle is an example of coin that is very popular but it is from a series—Charlotte half eagles—that I would not describe as being immensely popular) while a popular coin can be relatively illiquid (an example of this would be an unappealing, lower grade High Relief which most collectors would probably pass on and spend a bit more money to acquire a nice piece). An excellent collection could be created out of nothing but very popular coins—pieces like 1861-D gold dollars, 1839-O quarter eagles, 1838-C and 1839-D half eagles, 1838-D and 1839-D half eagles, 1838 eagles, 1861-O double eagles, etc. I refer to issues like this as the “Krugerrands of Rare Date Gold” as they are coins that are almost like cash.

In the same vein, I am an advocate of “absolute rarity” as opposed to “condition rarity.” A coin like an 1841-O eagle is rare in all grades and I will buy any example I can find, unless it has been harshly cleaned or damaged. An 1843-O eagle is not a rare coin in lower grades and I will generally not purchase a piece unless it grades at least AU55. Give the choice of owning a nice EF40 1841-O eagle or an AU55 1843-O eagle, I would personally rather have the former.

3. Rarity: It would seem obvious that the rarer the coin, the better the investment it is. This is actually not always the case. If a coin is very rare but it is part of a series that is not popular and/or readily liquid, then it may not necessarily be a good investment. An 1846 eagle is a genuinely rare coin that is nearly impossible to find in any grade higher than EF45 to AU50. If I were offered a nice, original AU55 I would certainly purchase it. But this is a coin that I would not expect to sell quickly and it might actually take me a number of months to move it. The problem with this coin is that it is a member of a series (Liberty Head eagles) that does not have many specialists and it is a Philadelphia issue.

The perfect “investment quality” coin is one that is not only rare but which is popular and liquid. A coin that scores highly on all three of these fronts is one that should perform well.

4. Historic Price Performance: With the advances in price dissemination available to collectors, it is easier than ever to track how coins have performed over the past three to five years. We have been in the midst of what is ostensibly the greatest sustained bull market in numismatic history and if a specific coin hasn’t done well since the early 2000’s, than the chances are good it isn’t going to do very well when this market finally cools off.

By the same token, an investor wants to avoid a coin that is currently at an all-time high in price. If you look at the price levels for a coin like a 1911-D quarter eagle in Uncirculated, you can see that it was selling for considerably more money by the beginning of 2006 than it had at any time since the halcyon days of the late 1980’s. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that the 1911-D had probably risen to the point where it was no longer a good value. And this is exactly what has happened, as the value of this issue has dropped 10-20% in the past few months.

If you are a bottom-line oriented coin buyer, avoid issues which appear to be at a market peak. Conversely, being a total contrarian might not be a great idea either. The perfect coins to buy are those that have shown some price increases in recent years but whose price levels still make sense, considering their rarity and grade.

Online Coin Sale Observations

In the last five years, my website raregoldcoins.com has become a primary focus in my business. It has been interesting to observe which coins sell the most quickly and why, in my opinion, they do. I’d like to pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned as I believe it will help you make better decisions when it comes to your collection.ntage Adidas jackets and sporting event tickets. But when it comes to buying coins on Ebay, I think I’m pretty much done. 1. Photogenic coins sell. In this instance the term “photogenic” is interchangeable with the more numismatic term “eye appeal.” When I buy a coin which has really pretty color or which has great luster or which has a very sharp strike (or, better yet, a combination of all these attributes) I can be reasonably certain the coin will sell well. If a coin has a glaring negative attribute that is readily apparent in an image, it is likely to be a hard sell. As an example, an otherwise nice coin which has a large grease spot on Liberty’s cheek will be hard to sell, even if the coin is quite rare. When you are putting together a collection, buy coins that are pretty.

2. Coins in the right pricing “sweet spot” sell. For me, this pricing zone is in the $2,500 to $7,500 range. There are coin dealers who seem to be able to sell lots of $25,000+ coins. (I certainly sell my fair share of them). But once you get past $10,000 or so, the air gets pretty thin in most series and liquidity drops. That’s why I like interesting coins in the $2,500-7,500 range. They are generally quite liquid and I can turn over my inventory a lot more quickly when I’m selling coins in this price range then when I’m selling expensive coins. Let me add that I have no problem with buying expensive coins but that my resistance level increases based on the series. In other words, with early gold coins, there are virtually no decent pieces available in the $2,500-7,500 and I would expand this sweet spot to $10,000-20,000. But with Charlotte, Dahlonega and New Orleans issues, I feel that there is excellent value in the lower price range(s) and my focus shifts accordingly. I will certainly buy a $20,000 Charlotte or Dahlonega coin but it has to be pretty special to get me interested.

3. Interesting coins sell. People like coins which can be summarized in a few words or less. The 1838-C half eagle is popular because it’s a first year of issue and it’s the only Classic Head half eagle from the Charlotte mint. Even if you aren’t a specialist in Charlotte coinage, you are likely to quickly discern the appeal of this coin. In the same series, an 1844-C half eagle may not be an easy to sell. It is clearly a scarcer date than the 1838-C but its range of appeal is limited to collectors who specialize in Charlotte gold coinage; whereas the 1838-C might appeal to type collectors, date collectors and people who just like neat coins. There are other “neatness factors” that appeal to collectors: very low mintage figures, unusual designs, key date status, good pedigrees and large size are all positive attributes. If a coin which I am being offered for sale has one or more of these attributes, the chances are good that I will add it to my inventory. A collection that contains interesting coins is a collection that I would be very pleased to purchase from its owner.

4. Coins have to be properly priced. In this day and age, it is reasonably easy for a collector to determine how much the last four AU55 1840-0 quarter eagles have brought at auction. If I price a coin comparably to these four auction records (and it is a decent looking piece) the chances are good that it will sell. If I price my coin at 50% more than the last four records, it won’t sell. Now there are exceptions to this rule. Coins that do not trade regularly at auction (like the same 1840-O quarter eagle but in MS63) are much harder to price. And certain coins (like an 1880-O eagle in AU50 or better grades) are clearly undervalued and are worth more than most published pricing guides suggest.

5. Rare coins sell. This sounds obvious but it is a point that needs to be reiterated. Whenever I list a really rare coin for sale (like an 1861-D gold dollar, an 1847-O half eagle or an 1870-CC eagle) it sells quickly and receives multiple enquiries. People want to own rare coins, especially if they are attractive and fairly priced. If I had to chose between, say, an 1870-CC eagle in EF45 and an 1873-CC eagle in AU55 (an issue which is rarer than the 1870-CC in higher grade yet priced comparably) I would always choose the former. Unless you are putting together a date set, focus on the rare dates for each series.

So what doesn’t sell? Obviously, I don’t go out and try to purchase coins for my inventory that are going to sit around for months and stagnate. But there are patterns I see on my website and these are patterns which you should avoid when assembling your collection:

1. No matter how rare the coin, certain series are really hard to sell. An example of this would be Liberty Head San Francisco eagles. Even if I have a really attractive, fairly priced example of a very rare issue like an 1863-S this is a hard coin to sell unless I happen to be working with a specialist collector who needs this specific date. I try to avoid thin, highly specialized markets.

2. Even if they are cheap, I avoid ugly coins. On more than one occasion, I’ve bought a coin at auction because it’s been too cheap to resist. But it’s been cheap for a good reason: it has heavily abraded surfaces or it is obviously scrubbed or it is very poorly struck. You get what you pay for and if you are buying coins based solely on price, you are destined to have a collection full of duds.

3. Ubiquitous coins are hard to sell as well. If I listed a bunch of common and semi-common Liberty Head half eagles or had a long list of common Saint Gaudens double eagles, the chances are good that they wouldn’t sell, even if they were genuinely nice coins for the grade or if they were priced competitively. Buyers go on my website looking for rare gold coins. You are building a rare coin collection. Always keep the word “rare” in mind when you are considering adding a coin to your set.

Grey Area Gold Coins

What do you call a gold coin that is too scarce to be regarded as a generic but is not rare enough to be called a rare date? I have always called these grey area gold coins “unusual dates” and was recently asked by a collector if they are a) good deals and b) good investments. Yes and no.

Let’s use the $10 Liberty Head series as our guide and let’s use the 1901-S eagle as our baseline. The 1901-S is the most common date in this series with a total population of nearly 13,000 graded at PCGS. This coin has a June 2006 Trends value of $500 in AU50, $575 in MS60 and $650 in MS62.

Now let’s randomly choose two “unusual date” $10 Libs. and compare populations and prices.

First, we’ll look at the 1856. This is a No Motto coin that is considered to be relatively common but its total population of 160 graded at PCGS is about 1/80th the number of 1901-S eagles graded. Trends on this coin is $600 in AU50 and $1,100 in AU55 (we won’t compare its price in MS60 to the 1901-S due to a huge difference in rarity between the two dates).

At a $100 premium in AU50, the 1856 seems to be a fantastic deal. And it is. It has a population of just 35 coins in this grade with 74 better at PCGS. But here’s the rub. There are not many collectors of $10 Libs. by date and the collectors who do want an 1856 probably are looking for a coin that’s at least an AU58 to MS61. So the 1856 is essentially an outcast that is unloved by the generic market and unwanted by the rarities market. Hence, its extreme lack of demand and its low price.

Let’s now look at another date, the 1895-S. I’ve always regarded the San Francisco eagles from the 1890’s to be the poster children for the Lost Cause of Unusual Date Gold. PCGS has only recorded 221 in all grades with just seventeen of these better than AU58. Trends for this date is $1,500 in AU58 and $2,500 in MS60. In MS60, this is a date with a PCGS population of just four with a scant nine graded higher. At $2,500 it has to be a total rip, especially with a common date 1901-S valued at $575. Right?

Absolutely. It’s a total rip. In fact, it’s such a fantastic rip that I’ll buy exactly none for my inventory in the next year. Not because I can’t find such a coin; I’m probably going to be offered one or two in the coming few months. No, I’m passing on this coin because I won’t be able to sell it. There’s just nobody that wants a coin like this with the possible exception of a telemarketer who may resell it to an unsuspecting investor. Except the problem is that this telemarketer will want to pay $1,500 for the coin, he’ll take three months to pay and when I get his check it will probably bounce.

Gold coins are expensive and the Liberty Head series go on and on for decade after decade. This is why Philadelphia and San Francisco Liberty Head gold aren’t popular. Who wants to collect an expensive series that is seemingly never ending? And, conversely, this is exactly why Carson City, Charlotte and Dahlonega gold are popular. They are short-lived and, with a few exceptions, don’t contain any daunting, ultra-expensive stoppers which make assembling a set out of the range of most collectors.

So, you still don’t believe me and are still convinced that coins like 1856 eagles in AU50 and 1895-S eagles in MS60 are a great value? Go look at auction prices from five or even ten years ago and see how these coins have done versus “common rare date” coins like EF45 Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles or AU55 Carson City double eagles. Coins like the 1856 eagle and the 1895-S eagle have been among the very worst performers in the single all-time greatest price run-up in numismatic history. Not exactly a very compelling endorsement, eh?

Factors in Coin Purchase Decisions

A collector recently asked me an interesting question: “what makes you to decide to buy certain coins and to pass on others?” The factors that I use in deciding what to buy for my inventory are actually quite similar to the factors that a good collector should use in deciding what to buy for his set.

The first thing I consider is if I like the actual coin itself. In most situations, I try to buy nice coins. By “nice” I mean a coin that has good overall eye appeal and one that I would rank as being in the top 10% for the grade. But there are situations where I might buy a coin that I regard as being “average” quality for the grade or one that I know has been dipped or which seems a bit enthusiastically graded. These situations, which are pretty rare for me, tend to occur when I am offered a date that I really like or a coin that I think is really undervalued. As a collector, I do not suggest you indulge in this compromise behavior very often.

As a dealer, liquidity is very important to me. I like to sell my coins quickly and I try to buy coins that I know will move in a few weeks. I carefully monitor my inventory and if I see that a certain coin gets a lot of attention when I post it on my website, I try to buy other examples of this date. The liquidity factor of a coin should also receive consideration from a collector. You never know how quickly you might have to sell your coins down the road and you will generally find that having coins that are easy to sell are a lot more enjoyable than owning coins that take forever to get rid of.

I try to buy coins that are good values. This does not necessarily mean that I think a coin is undervalued. What it means is within the context of a specific series I like the value that a coin offers. As an example, I like virtually all New Orleans eagles from the 1850’s. If I am offered nearly any reasonably attractive, fairly priced piece from this era, the chances are good that I will buy it. I also like all higher grade New Orleans eagles from the 1890’s and early 1900’s. But there are specific higher grade coins that I will pass on because I feel that the premium over the next grade down is way too high. As an example, I recently bought a nice PCGS MS62 1892-O for under $2,000. I also had a chance to purchase a piece graded MS63 but it would have cost more than triple the price of the MS62. Even though the higher grade coin had a very low population and seemed interesting I didn’t like the level of value it provided. Therefore, I passed.

I try to purchase coins that are popular but not necessarily too popular. It can be hard to define the line between popularity and “too popular.” An example of a coin that I will always buy because of its popularity is the 1861-D gold dollar. But I tend to shy away from higher grade examples of this date because I am not sure that I believe that a decent Uncirculated 1861-D is now worth close to six figures.

This is a fine line that smart collectors and dealers always have to walk. You want to be somewhat “cutting edge” when you buy coins and find a market that is undervalued. But by the same token, you don’t want to be the lone voice in the wilderness buying a series that only you feel is undervalued.

So, in summary, I’d say that the things that mean the most to me when I buy a coin are the following:

    Is the coin nice?

    Is the coin relatively easy to sell?

    Do I like the value that the coin represents?

    Is the series that this coin is included in currently undervalued or have values peaked?