The decision to collect this series should not be made lightly as Liberty Head double eagles have the distinction as being among the most difficult and longest-lived series in all of 19th/early 20th century American numismatics.Read More
In the recent Stacks Bowers 2016 ANA Sale, I was fortunate to purchase an amazing 1860 double eagle, graded MS65 by PCGS, which was part of the Bull Run Collection and earlier was sold as Lot 900 in the famous October 1982 Eliasberg Collection auction.
After I bought this coin, I told another dealer that the Eliasberg 1860 “was the finest non-shipwreck Type One double eagle I had ever owned.” This got me to thinking: just how rare are non-shipwreck MS65 and finer double eagles of this type?
This is the first of potentially many articles which focus on rarity and Condition Census information in the Liberty Head eagle series. The first sub-group I’m going to focus on is the 11 Civil War issues. These coins are, with one exception, rare in all grades and a number of them are either unknown or excessively rare in Uncirculated.Read More
On the front page of my website (www.raregoldcoins.com) you will see the tagline Coins with Character. This has been the official motto of Douglas Winter Numismatics for many years, and I am often asked by collectors "what are coins with character?" There is no simple answer, but I feel that the coins I sell are blessed with one or more of the following characteristics which makes them special.Read More
If you’ve been around the coin market for a while, you know that there are many different types of rarity. In this blog, I’m going to discuss the types of rarity you might already be familiar with, and one which you might not: the eye appeal or “appearance” rarity.Read More
Having just published a blog about coin rarity based on grade distribution, I’ve been thinking more about the many concepts of rarity and how they apply to coin collecting. Let’s take a look at a few and discuss them. Rarity is probably one of the two or three most misused terms in all of numismatics, especially from the selling side. I consistently see coins referred to as “rare” which most definitely are not.
Collectors need to remember that rarity is a relative concept. A coin like an 1895 Morgan Dollar is always termed a “rare” coin. Within the context of the Morgan Dollar series, it is rare. But one needs to remember that there are hundreds of examples known in grades up to and including PR67 and, if compared to a coin like an 1867-S quarter eagle (which is priced at a tiny fraction of the 1895 dollar) it is common. What always needs to be remembered when analyzing rarity is context. There are, in theory, hundreds if not thousands of serious Morgan dollar collectors and this makes a coin like an 1895 contextually rare. On the other hand, there are probably less than two to three dozen serious collectors of Liberty Head quarter eagles and an issue like an 1867-S exists in enough quantity that anyone who wants a decent example should be able to find one. In other words, there are basically enough to go around; at least for now.
Rarity is both relative and series specific. It is difficult to compare absolute rarity from one series to another. As I mentioned above, a coin with 20 known in all grades can be a great rarity in a popular series, or it can be a “sleeper” if it is in a series which has the potential of being more intensely collected in the future. There are also numerous esoteric coins that have 20 known but the number of collectors is so few that 20 coins is the equivalent to hundreds of pieces known in a more popular series.
There are essentially two types of rarity. The first is overall rarity. This refers to a coin which is rare in all grades and whose rarity is not solely predicated on its grade. A coin which is rare in all grades is also called fundamentally rare. As a dealer, these are the types of coins I like to buy and what I specialize in.
A coin can be fundamentally rare for a number of reasons. A Proof 1878 gold dollar is fundamentally rare because of its original mintage figure (a scant 20 coins). An 1828/7 half eagle is fundamentally rare because virtually every known example was melted in 1834 when the weight was changed for gold coins and old tenor half eagles were worth more than face value. An 1865 half eagle is rare not only because of a low original mintage figure (1,270 business strikes) but because of the fact that it is a well-used Civil War issue that not only saw active use in circulation was later melted.
In the area of branch mint gold, few issues are fundamentally rare. Most exist in quantities of 150-200 in all grades. But nearly all branch mint coins are grade rarities.
In nearly all series of American coins, grade rarity has become more significant to collectors than condition rarity. An 1843-D half eagle in Very Fine is a relatively available coin and within the context of Dahlonega issues it is common. But this same date in, say, Mint State-63 is very rare and it is described as a grade rarity.
But the real grade rarities in American numismatics tend to be in 20th century series. An average quality MS64 1912 St. Gaudens double eagle is worth around $5,000 in MS64 and $25,000 or more in properly graded MS65. The disparity can be far, far greater with coins from the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. As an example (and I selected this totally randomly) a 1942-S quarter is worth $300 in PCGS MS66, $2,500 in PCGS MS67 and close to $20,000—maybe more—in PCGS MS68. That’s a big difference in quality for a difference in appearance that might not be readily recognizable to more than a handful of dealers and specialized collectors.
The difference between the 1843-D half eagle and the 1942-S quarter is that the former has a reasonably significant degree of value in all grades. Even a cleaned, no-grade 1843-D is worth around $1,000; an average quality circulated 1942-S might not fetch six bucks at your local coin shop.
To my way of thinking the “best” coins are what I call dual rarities. This is a coin that is not only rare from an overall standpoint (i.e., it might have a total number known of 40-50) and it is among the best known for that particular issue. Going back to a coin I mentioned earlier in this blog, the 1865 half eagle, a nice AU55 example would be a dual rarity as it would be among the finest known examples of a coin which is rare in all grades.
The newest category of rarity, one that dates from the 1970’s but which is probably at its height right now, is what I refer to as appearance rarity. Appearance rarity can be related to strike (Full Bands for Mercury dimes, Full Head for Standing Liberty quarters) or it can be related to coloration (Red and Brown or Red for Lincoln Cents). The newest categories of appearance rarity relate to the actual finish of a Proof coin (Deep Cameo/Ultra Cameo) or for business strikes (Prooflike or Deep Mirror Prooflike).
I have mixed feelings about appearance rarity. If I was collecting Lincoln Cents by date, would I spend $100,000+ for a PCGS Red MS65 1926-S or $5,000+ for a mostly red MS65 Red and Brown? Easy answer for me (without a doubt I’m in for the Red and Brown coin) but, then again, I’m a fundamental rarity guy and not a condition rarity so the concepts of appearance rarity seems totally wacky to me. But there are instances I will and do pay a premium for appearance; an example would be a better date Type Three double eagle in MS63 designated as Deep Mirror Prooflike or a rare date Proof Liberty Head half eagle designated as Deep Cameo.
One of the oldest subcategories of rarity is also one of the hardest for the layman to figure. Certain series, like Large Cents and Capped Bust half dollars are avidly collected by die variety. There might not be more a few dozen very serious collectors in these two areas but they tend to be extremely passionate and often very well-heeled. For a non-specialist like me, I am often amazed at the huge prices certain early cents bring but I can appreciate them. My only caveat for a variety collector is to avoid paying premiums in series which are not avidly collected by die variety. You may collect Trade Dollars by variety but if you do you are one of probably ten or fewer collectors who do. Paying a large premium for a seemingly rare variety might not prove financially prudent down the road.
In closing, I’d like to quickly address a question which I am often asked by new collectors: how can you tell if a coin is truly rare? I think frequency of appearance at auction is an excellent guide.
- If a coin appears for sale at virtually all major sales, it is common. An example of this would be a 1901-S eagle in MS64.
- If a coin appears a few times a year at auction (say three or four times), it is at the very least scarce. An example of this would be an 1849-D half eagle in AU50.
- If a coin appears less than once per year at auction, it is rare. This is true from both an in-grade and overall rarity perspective.
- And if a coin appears at auction once every three to five years? That, in my opinion, is a coin which is very rare or even extremely rare.
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At shows or while viewing auctions, I look at a lot of coins. Most leave no impression, some make me pause for a moment before I resume looking at more coins and a small number get me to stop everything else I'm doing (I'm a notorious multitasker), exclaim "wow" and get my thoughts immediately oriented towards "how do I buy this coin and what will I have to pay for it." There are not alot of coins with this "wow" factor but I find that nearly all the coins that excite me have one or more things in common. What are some of the things that make a coin special for me and how do they affect my decision to purchase them?
1. Great Scarcity. I deliberately didn't say "great rarity." Obviously, if I'm looking at lots in a Heritage sale and I see an 1854-S quarter eagle which looks like it was run over by a train, I'm still going to stop, look at it carefully and probably figure a bid. But I'm more likely to be impressed by a coin with great relative scarcity within a series. In other words, if I see a real Uncirculated 1870 quarter eagle (a date which is almost never available in true Mint State), I'm likely to be "wowed." This isn't necessarily an expensive coin but I'm more likely to be stopped in my tracks by a CAC-quality MS62 1870 quarter eagle than I am a far more expensive but far more often seen issue.
As you become more familiar with a series, you learn what dates are seen with regularity (even if they are perceived to be "rare") and which just don't turn up very much. As an example, I was at a show recently and was offered a Proof example of a date which I hadn't remembered seeing in some time. I did a quick search through auction records and noted that this date became available at a rate of about once every four or five years. The coin itself wasn't a Gem but it had a decent appearance and it was priced fairly. I was happy to buy it for my inventory.
2. Great Eye Appeal. Eye appeal is best defined as a combination of factors (strike, luster, color, preservation of the surfaces) which combine to make a coin attractive. Most savvy buyers have one or two hot buttons which, if they are pressed, have a greater impact. For me, these tend to be thick, frosty luster and deep, rich even coloration.
Luster is the reflection of light from the surface of a coin. When a coin is worn, dipped, cleaned or processed, the luster is impaired and the eye appeal is impacted. As I look through coins at shows and at auction, few have nice original luster and, as a result, when a coin with "booming" original mint frost is available, it tends to look great.
But part of a weakness for luster is also knowing the series which you collect. As an example, 1847-C quarter eagles are sometimes seen with thick, frosty luster and higher grade pieces can have really good eye appeal as a result. An issue such as an 1848-C quarter eagle is not known for good luster and I can't recall having seen more than two or three coins which had a "wow" factor as a result of good luster.
I can love a coin if it isn't sharply struck or if it shows an average number of non-detracting bagmarks but I have a hard time with coins that have bland, washed-out color. To me a coin with no definable color has no character and this sort of "blah" appearance is hard for me to embrace.
As with what I mentioned above for luster, the same is true with color: as you learn your area of specialization, you learn what color(s) a coin should show. As an example, the proper color for an early date Dahlonega half eagle is much different than that for a date from the mid-1850's. But when coins have been processed, they tend to look alike; meaning an 1841-D half eagle will look virtually the same as an 1858-D. And this is why that when I see an 1841-D with the "right" shade of green-gold color, I get excited and it gives me the wow factor.
3. Great Pedigrees. I'll come right out and admit it: I'm a sucker for a great pedigree. A few weeks ago, I started to read the auction descriptions for the Eric P. Newman coins which are going to be sold in a few weeks by Heritage at the 2013 CSNS auction. The coins were impressive, the grades were impressive. What excited me most about this deal, though, was the pedigrees which many of the coins have. As an example, the star in this first group of Newman coins is an 1852 Humbert $10 graded MS68 by NGC. Not only has Mr. Newman owned this coin since the 1920's, it came from the famous Zabreskie sale of 1907 and, even more impressively, has a direct pedigree that goes back to Augustus Humbert's estate. In other words, this coin belonged to the man who struck it. How cool is that?
Not every pedigree means that much to me. There are a few which have personal significance and I will stretch to buy nice coins from these collections even if they are a bit "out of the box" for me. Amongst sales from my lifetime, the ones which impact me the most are Bass, Eliasberg, Milas, Norweb, James Stack, Duke's Creek, Green Pond and Dingler. Just about any coin from a Chapman Brothers sale (with a verifiable pedigree) would have a high wow factor for me as would coins from "name" collections sold prior to 1945.
4. Great Historical Significance. As a child, my interest in coins was predicated on my love of history. As an adult, this has, if anything, intensified. A coin with Wild West association is of interest to me and that's why a nice CC double eagle from the 1870's has more of a wow factor for me than a nice CC double eagle from the 1890's. Others historic eras which send a shiver down my numismatic spine? Certainly the Civil War and, a bit less so, World War 1. I'd also give high wow marks to San Francisco gold coins from the 1850's and antebellum New Orleans issues from the 1840's.
Numismatic significance goes hand-in-hand with historic significance. Sure, I'm a coin weenie but I will admit that factors like a coin being a first-year-of-issue or a one-year type excite me.
Another dimension which can increase the wow factor of a coin for me is its age. An eagle dated 1799 just seems Older" (and therefore cooler) than one dated 1800 or 1801 and this tends to get my attention when I'm looking at coins. I think this is the case with most collectors. A nice coin dated in the 1790's has more appeal than just about any other American issue, regardless of denomination.
5. Great Backstory. I'm a sucker for a coin with a great backstory. Let me give you an example.
Perhaps you've seen the small red presentation boxes which people used to give gold coins in as Christmas gifts. They were typically for gold dollars and quarter eagles and they were reasonably common from the 1880's until the 1920's. On a few occasions, I've had people email photos of otherwise-common Liberty Head or Indian Head quarter eagles which are housed in these boxes. Sometimes, the boxes are inscribed and sometimes they come with letters which feature ornate notes from a grandmother to her grandson/granddaughter. I like the sentimental value that these have and because of the backstory, I will always buy them and sell the peripherals alongside the coins to add to the wow factor.
A few months ago, Heritage sold a Gem gold dollar from the 1880's (I think it was either an 1885 or an 1887) which came in a lovely little presentation box with a beautiful, ornate inscription inside of it. I didn't buy it but the dealer who did (hint, he's tall, from Oklahoma and his last name rhymes with Barter...) is someone who is as easily swayed by a coin's backstory as I am.
What is it about a coin that gives you the "wow" factor? I'd love for you to share this with me and invite you to add a comment to this blog. Are you interested in acquiring coins for you collecting which have a strong wow factor? if so, please contact me via email at email@example.com.
After 25+ years of encapsulating coins and 50+ million submissions, it is clear that PCGS and NGC have had a huge impact on the way we view coin rarity. I have personally learned many things: which coins are rare and which are not; which coins are true condition rarities and how issues within a specific series can be viewed on a comparative basis. This got me to thinking: how many coins within a series need to be graded (on a percentage basis) to make definitive rarity statements? And once this has been determined, what percentage of coins within certain series have already been graded by PCGS and NGC? To start making trenchant observations about absolute and conditional rarity, I think we have to feel confident that over 50-60% of all known coins in a specific series have been graded. When it comes to expensive (let's say $5,000 and up) gold coins, I think the percentage of all coins graded by PCGS and/or NGC ranges from a low of around 65-70% to a high of close to 90%.
Let's take a look at a few specific areas and try to guess what percentage of coins have been graded.
1. Charlotte and Dahlonega Gold
The Charlotte and Dahlonega market was reasonably hesitant to embrace third-party grading and this initially made sense, given how erratically these coins were graded by PCGS and NGC during their formative years. But by the end of the 1980's, submitters were more confident and large quantities of these pieces were being encapsulated. And given the high average value of C+D gold, it makes sense that even the low end coins would eventually be sent in for slabbing.
My guess is that a great majority of Charlotte and Dahlonega gold in all denominations resides in PCGS or NGC holders as of 2013. There are certainly still a few old school collectors who have held out and won't have " those confounded newfangled slabs" in their collections but these are seen less and less as the years pass. And given the fact that there were never many C+D coins in overseas sources, such as European banks, the thought of bags of Dahlonega half eagles lurking in Dortmund seems remote.
When you look at PCGS and NGC populations figures for C+D mint gold, you have to remember a few things. The first is that these figures are inflated by resubmissions. The second is that they, of course, do not include damaged or cleaned coins which do not qualify for slabbing. Taking these two factors into consideration, I'd still say that the percentage of C+D gold which has been graded by PCGS and NGC is comparatively high; ranging from 75 to 85% of the known examples. In the case of choice, high end pieces (MS60 and above) this might be as high as 90% with the few renegade raw coins being those held by museums such as the ANS and the Smithsonian.
2. Proof Gold
I always felt that one aspect of slabbing which was undervalued was its ability to protect fragile coins. Back in the old days, coins were typically transported to shows loose in 2x2 plastic flips and it would always make me cringe to see a coin like a Gem Proof Liberty Head double eagle in a soft flip. You knew that these coins were collecting hairlines with every trip to Long Beach or New York. Slabs were far safer environments for such coins. Because of this, Proof gold was an early adherent and by the late 1980's/early 1990's many Proof gold coins were already in slabs.
Then came the Great Proof Gold Era of 1995-2000 when collections such as Childs, Bass and Pittman were sold at auction. In some cases you had very rare issues with ten or so known coins having three different survivors sold in a short period of time. Virtually all of these coins wound up being encapsulated or, in the case of the Bass collection, were sold in PCGS slabs.
There are still two rich sources of unslabbed Proof gold: the ANS collection and the US Mint collection in the Smithsonian. But other than these two, I doubt if there are more than a handful of gradable Proof gold coins that still lurk in the raw. I'm going to guess that the percentage of pre-1916 proof US gold coins that have been graded by PCGS and NGC are at least 85% and may actually be as high as 90%.
3. Early Gold
I can remember auctions full of interesting unslabbed early gold coins as recently as the mid-1990's but these days are long, long gone. Today, virtually all early gold that is capable of being encapsulated is now encased in slabs. There were holdouts in this area of the market who lasted longer than in the two categories mentioned above and for good (and bad) reasons. I can remember dealing with some old time collections as recently as the 1990's who felt that they knew more about early gold than PCGS and NGC did and, in a few cases, they were right. Also, lower grade early gold wasn't as expensive then as it is now and a raw problem-free 1810 half eagle wasn't looked at like a man with two heads might be today.
The grading services have vastly improved their ability to grade early gold and most of the old time collectors who scoffed at slabs have passed away or are no longer active. Today's generation of early gold collectors and investors would just as soon eat dirt as they would buy any early gold coin unslabbed and they have come to rely on PCGS and NGC to help them grade these complicated issues. As a result, I'd have to estimate that at least 75-85% of all early gold is now encapsulated and I wouldn't be surprised if the actual number is as high as 90%.
4. Generic Gold
When I speak of Generic Gold, I aam refering about coins such as common date With Motto Liberty Head half eagles and common St. Gaudens double eagles. Staggering numbers of these coins exist in the higher circulated grades and the lower Uncirculated grades and many of these have been graded by PCGS and NGC. If you look at population figures for coins like 1901-S eagles in MS62 to MS64 or 1927 Saints in MS62 to MS64, the numbers are pretty impressive.
But I think there are still very large quantities of these coins that have not been sent in to PCGS and NGC. I know for a fact that there are at least six or seven American firms who import large amounts of United States gold coins from European and other overseas sources every month. While supplies from Europe ebb and flow, the quantities coming over every year are still immense; in the tens of thousands at the very least.
So while there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of generics in slabs, I think that the quantity of raw coins remains very large. I'm sort of guessing here but I wouldn't be surprised if the number of slabbed generic coins in slabs is only 50% of the total that have survived.
As I mentioned above, one of the parameters of slabbing coins is the economics involved. If a coin is worth $400, it is less likely to be slabbed than if it is worth $3,000. But a reasonably interesting $400 coin, like an AU50 1851-O dollar is more likely to be slabbed than an uninteresting $400 gold coin like a common date $2.50 Indian in AU50. Becuase of this fact, I think there are still tens of thousands of cheap American gold coins which have yet to be slabbed although this number is diminishing over time due to the rise in gold prices and the demand for slabbed coins versus raw coins.
There are still some non-gold series where lots of nice collector-grade coins have not been slabbed due mostly to collector preference. Examples of this include Large Cents, Seated Liberty coinage and Barber coinage in all denominations. This includes significant numbers of problem-free coins in the $100-2,500 price range in grades ranging from AG to AU. You can still go to coin shows and find interesting raw coins like 1862-S half dollars in nice EF45 or 1874-CC trade dollars in VF30. While I don't see the end of the line--yet--for such coins, I can tell you that more and more are being "made" at PCGS and NGC.
So what can we conclude from my percentage guesstimates regarding numbers of coins graded at the services?
The most important conclusions is that, yes, sizable percentages of many United States gold coins have been encapsulated and due to this fact we can make statements about rarity--fundamental, absolute and condition--which really couldn't be made as recently as a decade ago.
That said, there are still important and impressive individual coins "in the wild" and in collections that are not widely known which always make me hesitate to make definitive statements along the line of "this is the finest known" or "this is the rarest Liberty Head half eagle in Uncirculated" (and believe me, I make more of these statements than the average coin dealer...) With the recent sale announcement of the Eric Newman collection, this reminded that important new discoveries (or re-discoveries) await us with each passing year.
I want to know your thoughts on this subject. If you'd like, share them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.