The Newest Level of Rarity: The Appearance, or Eye Appeal, Rarity

The Newest Level of Rarity: The Appearance, or Eye Appeal, Rarity

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.

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Coins That I Never See With Good Eye Appeal Part Two: Quarter Eagles

In the first installment of this multi-part feature, I discussed some of the gold dollar issues that are rarely seen with good overall eye appeal. In this, the second part, I am going to look at quarter eagles that do not generally come with good eye appeal. Note that I said "good eye appeal." This doesn't mean that I'm focusing on the rarest dates in the series. Obviously, issues like the 1841 and the 1854-S are very rare in all grades and rarer still with good eye appeal. But that's not my emphasis here. Rather, I am interested in coins that while scarce or even rare based on their overall availability, are especially rare with choice, original surfaces.

As a rule, most pre-Classic Head quarter eagles are scarce to rare in all grades and harder still to find with good eye appeal. One issue that comes to mind as a coin that is just about never seen with good eye appeal is the 1796 With Stars. As you would suppose from a coin with just 432 struck, it is a rarity in all grades. But what most people do not realize is that nearly all survivors are either unoriginal and unappealing or they show multiple planchet imperfections as on many other of the gold issues produced during this year.

The last nice 1796 With Stars to be offered for sale was Stack's-Bowers 2011 ANA: 7593, graded MS63* by NGC, that sold for $287,500. It was earlier sold as Lot 1791 in the Stack's 5/99 auction and was part of the fabulous specialized collection of 1796 coinage assembled by John Whitney Walter. But the best 1796 With Stars of them all is the incredible Gem (NGC MS65) from the Byron Reed collection that was later sold for $1,006,250 in the Heritage 1/08 auction.

Other early date quarter eagles that I believe are very hard to find with good eye appeal include the 1797 and both varieties of 1806 (1806/4 and 1806/5).

The Classic Head quarter eagle that is hardest to find with good eye appeal is a date that will surprise you: the 1839. While not a really rare coin in terms of its overall number known, this issue is rare in properly graded About Uncirculated and very rare in Uncirculated. I have only seen three or four that I would call Uncirculated and none finer than MS62. The single best 1839 quarter eagle that I have seen was Bass II: 309, graded MS62 by PCGS, that sold for a reasonable $10,925.

In the long-lived Liberty Head quarter eagle series, there are numerous individual dates that are hard to find with good eye appeal. To make it a bit easier to analyze them, I'm going to break down the series into a mint-by-mint list.

There are many Philadelphia quarter eagles of this type that are hard to find with good eye appeal. The one that comes to mind as perhaps the most difficult is the 1842. With a mintage of just 2,823, you would expect this coin to have a strong degree of overall rarity. But it is far rarer in higher grades than most collectors realize. I can't recall having seen more than four or five in any grade that I thought were above-average quality and the finest of these, by a mile, is the Superior 9/99: 1863 coin, graded MS62 by PCGS, that I purchased out of this sale for $31,050. A few years later I handled this coin again and sold it to a Midwestern collector who still has it in his world-class set of quarter eagles.

Other dates from this mint that are very hard to find with good eye appeal include the 1844, 1848, 1864, 1865, 1869 and 1870.

There are a few Charlotte quarter eagles that stand out as being especially hard to locate with good eye appeal. In my experience, the ones that are the hardest to locate are due to being poorly made. These include the 1842-C (a date that is actually not poorly made but is, rather, generally seen well worn), 1844-C, 1846-C, 1852-C and 1856-C.

The 1842-C is one of my favorite Charlotte quarter eagles. It is reasonably well made but its lack of eye appeal tends to be as a result of the fact that it was an issue that was used extensively and not saved. There are two or three known in Uncirculated (the finest is the amazing Elrod MS65 coin that was last sold by Heritage in the 2/99 sale) and a small number in properly graded AU55 to AU58.

The other dates on this list are rare with good eye appeal because they were not well made. As an example, the 1856-C is nearly always seen on poor quality planchets and with grainy, unappealing surfaces. The 1846-C is another date in which is invariably the case although there are a few more decent-looking examples around than for the 1856-C.

Eye appeal is not as much of a problem with the quarter eagles from New Orleans is it is with the other branch mints. That said, there are still a few issues that are hard to locate with good appeal. One that comes to mind is the 1856-O.

This is a peculiar date. It is not rare from an absolute standpoint as there are as many as 200-300 known. For some reason, this issue is extremely hard to find with original color and surfaces and even a nice AU55 to AU58 is very hard to find. In Uncirculated, this date is extremely rare. There are at most four to five known and none are better than MS62. It has been years since an Uncirculated example has been available.

Other New Orleans quarter eagles that are hard to find with good eye appeal include the 1842-O, 1845-O and 1846-O.

There are a number of Dahlonega quarter eagles that are hard to find with good eye appeal. I would have to say, though, that one date is notorious for lacking eye appeal. In fact, this date is so rare with "eye appeal" that I'm not certain that a good-looking example exists. This date is the infamous 1865-D.

Only 874 examples were produced, making the 1856-D the only issue of any denomination from this mint with a mintage lower than 1,000. Due to improper preparation of this dies (and possibly the planchets as well) every known example of this date has an appearance that could be called--charitably--"odd." The strike is weak and blurry and the surfaces are often rough and full of raised defects. This makes the 1856-D an extremely hard issue to grade and a hard one for the non-specialist to appreciate.

Other Dahlonega quarter eagles that are very hard to locate with good eye appeal include the 1840-D, 1842-D, 1854-D, 1855-D and 1859-D.

The final mint that produced quarter eagles was San Francisco. The issues from this facility tend to be well made but there are a few that, for various reasons, are hard to locate with good eye appeal.

In my experience, the San Francisco quarter eagles that are hardest to locate with good eye appeal are the Civil War issues, especially the 1862-S and the 1863-S. There are a few plausible reasons for this. To begin with, they are low mintage coins. As with all gold coins of this era, they were melted in large quantities. And because of the fact that no quarter eagles were struck in San Francisco during 1864, the 1862-S and 1863-S seem to have circulated a little harder and a little longer than other dates of this era. Both of these dates are seldom found above AU55 and even when seen in comparatively high grades, the tend to exhibit bright, abraded surfaces. Choice, original pieces are rare.

Some of the other San Francisco quarter eagles that are not often seen with good eye appeal include the 1859-S, 1860-S and 1866-S.

There are dozens of date in the quarter eagle denomination that are hard to locate with good eye appeal. Not all of these are expensive and a few, the 1839 as an example, can be found in presentable grades for around $1,500.

For more information on quarter eagles with or without good eye appeal, please feel free to contact Doug Winter via email at

AU58 New Orleans Eagles: A Case Study

Take two 1842-O Liberty Head eagles in NGC AU58. One is worth $11,500 and gets multiple orders on my website within hours of being posted. The other sells in an auction for $6,325 and is a marginal value. Why is one coin worth nearly twice as much as the other despite the fact that they are the same date in the "same" grade? The coin(s) in question is, as I stated above, an 1842-O eagle in AU58. A little background information on this issue is appropriate to help better understand the issue at hand. A total of 27,400 examples were produced. This issue saw extensive use in commerce and it is essentially the first available eagle from this mint given the rarity of the 1841-O (only 2,500 were produced). When available, the 1842-O tends to be in VF and EF grades and it is scarce in the lower AU grades. It becomes rare in properly graded AU55 and it is very rare in AU58. This issue is an extreme rarity in Mint State with just two or three known. The second finest of these, graded MS61 by PCGS, just brought $74,750 in the August 2010 Stack's auction.

I bought the NGC AU58 example illustrated below at the recent Philadelphia coin show sponsored by Whitman and it was among my best purchases at the show. I paid a strong price for this coin but was happy to do so (and would do so again).

1842-O $10.00 NGC AU58

What makes this a special coin? I was really attracted to this coin by its originality. It has superb deep original coloration on the obverse and reverse which suggests that it has never been cleaned or dipped. Notice the depth of the color and how even it is on both sides. I also like how clean the surfaces are. This is an issue that is typically found with densely abraded surfaces and even the MS61 piece that I mentioned above had considerable marks on the surfaces. This example, however, was immaculate. The luster of this coin, while a bit subdued as a result of the intensity of the color, is undisturbed; a result of its not having been cleaned, dipped or processed. This coin has wonderful overall eye appeal and this sort of "look" is much appreciated by connoisseurs of U.S. gold coins.

Now take a look at what I consider to be a very average "commercial quality" NGC AU58 that was last sold as Heritage 4/10: 3705. This coin brought $6,325. If you were the successful bidder, you might want to cover your eyes and not read this paragraph but...I didn't like this coin. Why didn't I like it? A number of reasons. First, I think the coin was over-graded. I regard it to be little better than AU50 to AU53 and have a problem with it in a 58 holder. Secondly, the coin is almost entirely unoriginal. It has little natural luster and is brighter than I would like to see in a coin graded AU58. Finally, it is very scuffy for the date and grade. There are numerous marks in the fields and the luster is clearly broken on both the obverse and reverse. A detracting elliptical-shaped mark below star six might possibly be mint-made but, to me, it really hurts the overall eye appeal.

1842-O $10.00 NGC AU58

Here's an instance where a plus grade would help distinguish the coins a bit or, even better, a designation of "original surfaces" could be placed on the DWN AU58 which might allow potential buyers to know the coin is special.

The difference in values for this issue in this grade is not a one-time occurrence. Heritage 4/06: 3915, a remarkably clean AU58 example in a PCGS holder, brought $15,065. This is more than two and a half times the amount that Heritage 4/10: 3705 brought earlier this year.

The moral of the story is that a grade on a holder is important but coins still sell themselves based on excellent visual appeal.

The Availability of Original Southern Branch Mint Gold Coins - Part One

Need to get the rest of the article from Mary. In a recent blog (July 30, 2007) I discussed my criteria for what constitutes "originality." Using this criteria, how available are Charlotte, Dahlonega and New Orleans gold coins? In the first of what may be a multi-part series of articles, I’m going to look at C, D and O mint gold dollars and discuss their availability with original surfaces and color.

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.

Proposed New Grading System

Oh great…just what we need: more numbers to further complicate grading. I’ve got a proposal that doesn’t entail expanding the current Sheldon scale or creating new adjectives. But I think it could be very beneficial to collectors. Let me run it by you and see what you think. Back in the early to mid 1980’s, before the creation of PCGS and NGC, I knew a few reputable dealers who employed an expanded numerical grading system. This system never really caught on but the more I think about it, the more I like it.

A sample grade using this system would be as follows:

1886 $2.50 MS65 A/B/A/B/B

Basically what this means is that an 1886 quarter eagle has been graded MS65 and it is rated as an A for strike, B for luster, A for color, B for surface quality and B for overall eye appeal. This system was used, in a form somewhat similar to this, by ANACS back when they were the only game in town and graded coins using photo-certificates. What if PCGS and NGC decided to use this system and these expanded ratings appeared on their holders?

There are, of course, good things and bad things about this system. The good things are that these expanded grades tell a potential buyer more about a coin that just the simple grade of “MS65.” The negative aspect is that it potentially adds more subjectivity to a system that has already been accused of being too subjective.

But I don’t think this system is a negative. I think if standards are created within each series, than a system with expanded grade modifiers could be very helpful to the collector.

As an example, rating a coin from “A” to “F” based on strike is really not all that difficult. In the case of an 1886 quarter eagle—an issue that is generally seen very well struck—most examples will garner either an “A” or a “B.” What would be more difficult is an issue like an 1844-O eagle which shows a wide variation in strike. My answer for this is that only a few 1844-O eagles will be given an “A” for strike; most will be called a “B” or even a “C.”

Luster is not difficult to categorize. A coin either has superior luster (which means it will be given an “A”) or it has inferior luster (it will, in this case, probably be given a “C”).

Coloration on gold coins does not presently carry the weight that it does on silver so it should not prove to be as controversial to call a coin an “A” when it comes to this factor. However, there are certainly some subjective areas here, especially when it comes to circulated coins. As an example, I tend to not like coins which have what I call a “Euro Grime” look. These are coins that have been stored in European bank vaults for 50-100 years and they have developed a dark golden color with blackish highlights. Other people do like this color and think coins with this look are “original.”

Surface preservation is also reasonably easy to categorize. A coin with very clean surfaces for the grade and issue is clearly easy to identify as is a coin with heavily marked surfaces. Certain issues, like Type Two double eagles from San Francisco, are almost never seen with choice surfaces so an example that was given an “A” for its surfaces might be more desirable than one given a “C.”

The really difficult category would be the fifth and final one: eye appeal. This is clearly the most subjective of these categories. A coin that one person finds appealing might be looked at as unappealing by others. However, I think that experts can reach a very high level of consensus on eye appeal. If you show a certain Dahlonega half eagle to ten experts, I think that nine or ten of these people would consistently agree that this coin has “A” level eye appeal.

If all coins were given these five categories, it would be interesting to see the effect on pricing. Obviously, an 1886 quarter eagle in MS65 that was rated as A/A/A/B/A would sell for more money than a similarly graded coin that was rated as B/B/B/A/B.

I’ve read about possible changes to the Sheldon system which include expanding to a 100 point system. I hate this idea. But changing the current 70 point system to a system with five ranked categories just might make sense.

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?

Importance of Expert Assistance During Auctions

A recent auction experience reminded me why it is so important to view coins in the proper condition(s) and why it is so important for collectors to have an expert look at auctions lots for them. At the 2006 FUN show I was walking by the table of a West Coast auction firm who happened to have a group of coins on display for future sales. Included in this group was an early gold coin that was a major rarity and which had an excellent pedigree. I excitedly called a client of mine who I knew would be interested and told him about the coin. I hurriedly viewed it without magnification and using harsh convention center lighting. It looked magnificent to me and I relayed this to my client.

At another show a few months later, I looked at the coin again. It still appeared to be nice.

Prior to the June Long Beach sale, I touched base with my client and reminded him about the impending sale of this coin. Was he still interested? Very. Was he willing to pay what I felt he would have to in order to own this great coin? He said he was.

I viewed the coin again but this time with a 5X glass and using my special coin light that I bring with me to auction viewing rooms. As I tilted the coin into the light and rotated it on its axis, something looked wrong. I checked the coin again and realized that it had, in fact, been subtly wiped many years ago. To the naked eye, the coin looked like a virtual Gem and I had wondered why it was only in an MS62 holder. And given its impeccable pedigree, it had to be a great coin. Right?

Well it was a great coin. But it wasn’t going to upgrade and it did have a subtle but definite problem that might well have made it difficult to sell down the road. And I shuddered thinking about what would have happened if my client bought it and had me crack it out in an attempt to upgrade it. The coin might have wound up in an MS63 or even an MS64 holder. Or, it might have no-graded and we would have had a five-figure problem.

What’s the moral of this story? There is no possible way that the problem that this coin had could have been determined without seeing it in person. And even seeing it in person, it was very hard to detect the wipe lines with a good glass, a good light and an expert’s eyes looking at it. Considering that this coin was worth well north of $100,000 it presented a unique set of circumstances that I feel could only have been properly handled by a very knowledgeable dealer.

How Important is Strike?

How important is strike when it comes to determining the desirability of a gold coin? In my opinion, probably not as important as it should be and for what is probably an odd reason. For certain series, strike is a critical component in determining the value of a coin. As an example, a certain date in the Mercury Dime or the Standing Liberty Quarter series might be worth $1,000 in MS65 with a normal quality strike but $20,000 with a sharp strike. There are no gold series in which strike carries a significant premium. Why?

I would have to say the answer has to deal with clever marketing. A few decades ago, some clever marketers made up Full Split Band and Full Head designations and proposed that they were worth enormous premiums. It was discovered that these coins were, in many cases, very hard to find with a sharp strike. You could look through roll upon roll of common coins like the 1945 Dime and not find one with Full Split Bands. Clearly the few examples that were well struck were worth premiums.

Why aren’t gold coins marketed with strike designations? Probably because no one has (yet…) thought of a way to make collectors pay a huge premium for a St. Gaudens double eagle with a full torch or a New Orleans quarter eagle with complete feathers on the eagle’s left leg. But if PCGS or NGC were to suddenly bless the concept of strike rarity in certain gold series, you can bet that certain issues would suddenly command huge premiums.

Why should gold coin collectors care about strike? In my opinion, poorly struck gold coins often have bad eye appeal and should be avoided. However, there are exceptions. As an example, certain branch mint issues are always weakly struck. I have never seen an 1856-D quarter eagle that was not very poorly struck and because of this I will not use strike as a consideration when determining whether of not I am going to buy an 1856-D. But an issue like the 1848-D quarter eagle is usually well struck and if I am offered a piece that has a distinctly below average strike, the chances are good that I will pass.

It is important for collectors to learn which issues are well struck and which are not. This is one reason why my books on gold coins go into careful detail on strike for every branch mint issue. If you pass on a lovely original 1849-O eagle just because it has weak stars, you are making a big mistake: every known example is very flat on the stars. But if you are offered a nice Uncirculated 1847-O quarter eagle with an extremely weak reverse, some basic knowledge of the series will show that this issue can be found with reasonably sharp detail on the reverse.

If you decide to collect U.S. gold coins (or any coins for that matter) learning how the coins are supposed to look is any extremely important consideration. Look at as many examples of what you collect as you are able to. Read all you can. The more information you have at your disposal, the more informed your buying decisions will be.