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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When I first started out in the coin business, I assumed I was going to sell everything; Morgan Dollars, Barber Dimes, St. Gaudens double eagles and Charlotte gold, I'd handle it all. But I quickly learned that it would be difficult--and costly--to be an expert in so many areas of the market. I then decided that I'd become really good at just a few things and leave the rest to other people. Nearly three decades later, that's exactly what I've done: I've become a world-class expert in 18th and 19th century U.S. gold. I think my decision to become highly specialized was one of the best things that I've ever done from a career standpoint. And I believe that what I did has practical applications to new and advanced collectors alike.
Becoming a savvy numismatist isn't necessarily a difficult process. But it is an involved one and one that takes a lot of time. If you are like most people, time is one commodity that you do not have an excess of. Given the high value of time in this day and age, I'd suggest that you use the time you spend on numismatics wisely. This is where specialization makes a lot of sense.
I became a specialist in the area of U.S. gold coinage because, as I mentioned above, I realized that the most economically viable approach to numismatics as a career for me was going to be as a specialist. I'd like to share a few thoughts of mine regarding specialization. Its a lot easier to become a competent numismatist who makes good decisions if you are focusing on a narrow range as opposed to a broad range. But I think the concept of specialization is not totally understood. You can be a "broad specialist," a "narrow specialist" or an ultra specialist."
Which one you choose depends on a number of factors including--but not limited to--your budget, your range of interest, availability of coins and opportunity factors. A "broad specialist" is a collector who has a pre-determined focus but not necessarily a constrained one. Let's say, as an example, that you really like crusty original gold coins made prior to the Civil War and have a budget of up to $5,000 per coin. This means that you might purchase coins as diverse as an 1858-S gold dollar in AU58 or an 1846-D half eagle in VF35. Your focus isn't so much a specific series or type as it is a "look." In other words, your collection is focused on attractive, dirty coins. You might not know the relative rarity of an 1858-S gold dollar in AU58 but you know the "look."
A "narrow specialist" is more focused on coins from a specific mint or of a specific denomination. He might buy an 1858-S gold dollar because he is putting together a set of gold dollars or, even more specifically, a subset of San Francisco gold dollars.
I like this sort of specialization because it gives a collector a much more narrow focus or what I would call a "micro focus" as opposed to a "macro focus." If you are assembling a gold dollar set you have around 80 to 90 coins that you ultimately need to purchase and learn about. This is a lot easier than being an indiscriminate buyer of U.S. gold coins with a pool of hundreds--or even thousands--of issues to become familiar with.
A more narrow focus involving gold dollars would be the San Francisco set I mentioned above. There are only six coins to learn about and it wouldn't take much to be accomplished in this area. But I think most collectors aspire to more than being "Mr. San Francisco gold dollar."
Another way to specialize is to collect by die variety. This is a great collecting strategy for certain coins like bust half dollars or large cents but it doesn't apply all that well to U.S. gold.
In my opinion, the ideal way to collect is to have a #1 set and then a secondary set to keep you busy when you can't find coins for set #1. As an example, you could specialize in collecting early half eagles by date and have a secondary collection that is focused on Dahlonega half eagles in perfect, original EF grades.
Becoming a good numismatist is all about knowledge and by not biting off more than you can realistically chew. you stand a chance to be on equal footing with other collectors in your area of specialization. You might not aspire to write the standard reference book on San Francisco gold dollars but wouldn't it be nice to be able to make purchases in this area of the market knowing that you were clued-in about the rarity, price history, appearance and minting history of each issue?
I recently received an email from a collector who asked what I thought were an extremely intelligent group of questions. In a nutshell, he asked the following. As boomers age, are we nearing a bubble in coin prices? At some point will the number of collectors with the financial means to collect rare gold decrease and will prices suffer accordingly? Go to any coin show and you will see a disturbing trend. The buyers of most “serious” coins (i.e., coins priced at $1,000 and above) are in their 50’s or 60’s and the dealers selling them these coins tend to be at least the same age, if not older. There are not many young collectors at shows and the number of “A” level dealers in their 20’s and 30’s can be counted on one hand. This spells trouble for the coin market, right?
I contend that the answer is not as obvious or as clear-cut as it would seem to be. I am a keen student of the history of the numismatic marketplace and, as far as I can tell, ever since coin collecting became popular in the United States (in the late 1850’s/early 1860’s) it’s been a hobby that mainly attracts older people. Think about it: coins are expensive and people in their 20’s and 30’s have never had enough discretionary income to be making impulsive non-essential purchase. When you are 27 years old, you are thinking about buying a house and saving money for your child’s education; not deciding what series of 19th century gold coin to specialize in.
But the world has changed in the last generation or two and wealth is no longer the exclusive province of the middle-aged and the mature. For the first time that I can remember I have a few good clients who are younger than I am and these collectors tend to be self-made entrepreneurs.
In the 1950’s, many collectors grew old at around the same time and the hobby was in a precarious spot. Lots of great collections were coming on the market at the same time and it seemed unlikely that these coins would be absorbed. For a while, prices were depressed and the short-term outlook of the market was gloomy. But along came the roll craze of the early to mid-1960’s and the market was suddenly reinvigorated by young collectors; some of who became famous dealers who are active to this day.
In the mid to late-1970’s the same trend was occurring. Collectors were graying and lots of coins were coming on the market. All of a sudden, precious metals prices began to boom and lots of new blood came into the market. Two decades later it was the State Quarter program that jumpstarted a moribund market. Again and again, we have seen cycles of demand in the coin market and when things appeared gloomy, something would happen that infused youth into the hobby.
The X factor in today’s market—and the future coin market(s)--is, of course, the Internet. Unlike in 1960 or 1980 or in 1990, it will be easier to replace this generation of graying numismatists with younger buyers due to the accessibility of information and the ease of purchasing rare coins on-line. And there is another factor that I believe will come into play as well: foreign buyers.
As is well-known, huge middle-class and upper-class populations are being created in China and India. These are countries with an interest in American culture and cultures that greatly prize gold. It is possible (not likely, but possible) that new markets for American gold coins could develop in these countries and this, of course, would greatly change the dynamic of the future coin market.
My guess is that some time in the next decade or so, we will see a significant change in the demographics of the coin market. Many of today’s “super-collectors” are going to be net sellers in a decade or so and it is certainly possible that prices at some point could drop in the short-term. But if this scenario occurs, I think it is highly possible that this dip will be short-lived and that a new generation of eager collectors will fill the void.
The year was 1995. I can remember my wife Mary telling me that it was really important to establish a presence on the Internet; that it would be the future of the coin business. No way, I thought, people are still going to want to read print ads and receive mailed price lists. The Internet was slow and bulky and you could basically die of old age waiting for each coin image to come up on screen. Sixteen years later, it seems that, as usual, she was right and I was wrong. The Internet has, along with third party grading, changed the coin market like nothing else in history. Why has the Internet been so good for the coin market and what are some of the changes that it has wrought?
The best thing about the Internet for all hobbies has been the dissemination of information. 10 to 15 years ago, if you wanted information about rare coins you had to dig for it. You could open a Redbook and get mintage figures and you could find information about die varieties in various specialized books. But like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, in the past, information was strictly controlled. If you were lucky, you were invited into the secret circle and given some of the information you needed. If you didn't know the secret handshake, you were pretty much on your own.
The impact of the Internet can be felt in a numbers of distinct ways. One is the newest phenomenon of the Internet (better known as Internet 3.0): social networking. Back in the pre-web days if you wanted to meet and talk with other collectors, you had to join a local coin club or, if you were lucky and lived in a town with a good coin shop, you met at the bid board on Saturday and talked coins with other interested locals. Now, it is reasonably easy to connect with fellow collectors and share information, buy and sell coins, talk about which dealers are good or bad, etc. I would expect that Facebook will become a much more important platform for coin collectors in the coming year.
As I mentioned above, the Internet has given collectors access to information that was formerly difficult to acquire. Pricing information from auctions is easier to source than ever before. A decade ago, the only place that compiled annual auction data was Krause Publications' annual auction prices realized book(s). These were expensive, not always complete and only provided a one-year window into specific series of coins. Today, sites such as Heritage.com and PCGS.com enable collectors to see 10 or even 20 years of auction results for a specific coin in a specific grade. This is critical information for determining what to pay for a coin or what to price a coin at when you are ready to sell. I would expect that better, more sophisticated coin pricing sites will be introduced in the coming years as well.
As recently as ten years ago, many dealers did not have a website and many of the ones that did featured clunky, slow moving sites. Today, coin websites are considerably more sophisticated and offer much better quality images and descriptions than before. The fact that collectors now feel comfortable enough to buy coins sight-unseen is a result of better technology (hello cable modems!) and it has greatly broadened the size and scope of the market.
One of the biggest changes we have seen in the last decade as a result of the Internet is a restructuring of the auction market. One coin auction firm responded better to technological advances in the last ten years and as a result they have basically decimated their competition. Ten years ago, the vast majority of coins sold at auction were purchased by dealers who were sitting in the room. Today, most lots sell to Internet bidders. Its a little unnerving for a new collector to walk into a coin auction and see it basically empty (with the notable exceptions being the FUN and ANA sales which still attract good crowds or very important specialized collections) but to be told that the auction is in fact a rousing success and that there are hundreds of active bidders participating.
I would expect that we will see similar changes with coin shows in the next ten years. I'm not certain we will have an actual "virtual bourse" but with coin dealers and collectors getting older, travel becoming harder and more expensive, and the number of shows simply too great to be sustainable, I'd think we'll see very different types of shows than what we have now and that they will be far more Internet-based.
How has the rise of the Internet changed the way that I do business? I can think of numerous ways in which it has and there are a few that stand out in particular. I have always sought to purchase pretty, high end coins but now a major consideration for me is if the coin is "photogenic." I might pass on a very dark or somewhat splotchy piece because it won't image well on my website and will be hard to sell as a result. It is very important for me to get my new purchases listed online as soon as I can after I return from a show. Instead of spending the weekend following a show relaxing and decompressing from an intense two or three days of trading coins, I know spend the next few days writing descriptions and having my new coins imaged.
The Internet has improved my cash-flow as it has sped up the amount of time it takes to sell a coin. In the pre-Internet days, I would create price lists and mail them out or put my new coins in print ads. The process would take weeks. Now, I put new coins on my website and often they are sold within hours and shipped within a day to their new owner. By the same token, it's made my concept of what's "fresh" change. I can have a coin on my website for thirty days and if it hasn't sold, it's no longer fresh and I have to rethink the pricing and selling process(es). The Internet has sped up the business cycle in ways which can be great but which can be a little scary as well.
I can foresee some exciting changes to the coin market as a result of the Internet. I would expect that dealer websites will become more interactive in the near future and that there will be more video and customization. If 3-D imaging ever becomes a reality, the inclusion of such images on coin website would be fantastic. I would expect there to be more social networking, more specialized auction sites and, as I mentioned above, more and better access to pricing.
I'd love to hear your input about the Web and its impact on your collecting habits in the past decade.