How Do You Price Really Special Coins?

In the recent Schuyler Rumsey coin auction, there were a number of coins that I would define as "really special." After the sale was over, I thought about the prices they brought and was initially pretty stunned. Upon further reflection, I still think that these coins brought strong prices but the numbers now make a little more sense . Let's take a look at some of these specific coins and then ask (and answer) a bigger question: how do you price a really special coin? This was not a condition-related sale and there were only a few coins that brought a tremendous amount of money because they were high grade for the issue. Examples of such coins include the 1852-O eagle in PCGS AU55 (Lot 982) that brought $18,400 and the 1870-CC eagle in PCGS EF45 (Lot 1030) that sold for $97,750. In both cases these coins sold to savvy dealers who clearly believed that the coins would upgrade significantly. If they don't upgrade, both coins will prove to be bad deals for their buyers.

But the coins that were of real interest to me in the sale were the still-slightly-under-the-radar rarities like the 1864-S eagle, the 1873 eagle and the 1876 eagle. These aren't coins that condition is solely relevant. They are what I call "fundamental rarities" or coins that are rare in all grades.

In the Liberty Head eagle series, the 1864-S, 1873 and 1876 are three of the rarest collectable issues. In fact, the only eagle that is rarer is the 1875 which is, for all intents and purposes, nearly impossible to find.

The 1864-S eagle in the Rumsey sale (Lot 1017) was graded VF30 by PCGS. It was a coin that I thought was accurately graded and, in spite of a scratch on the reverse, it was evenly worn and rather handsome for the grade. This coin sold for $34,500; by far a record price for the date in this grade. I know the buyer of this coin; he is a very sophisticated collector. The underbidder was a knowledgeable dealer. Were these two individuals crazy or were they savvy?

Before we can accurately answer that question, some background information about the 1864-S is in order. And after this, we need to look at ways in which really special coins (which any 1864-S eagle is) are priced.

The 1864-S is the second rarest Liberty Head eagle after the 1875. There are probably no more than 20-25 known to exist. In my experience, the opportunity to purchase one occurs maybe once every three to five years. This is verified by the fact that only one piece (Bowers and Merena 7/06: 1640, PCGS EF45 at $50,600) had sold in the last five years. To find a piece that was comparable to Rumsey:1017 you had to go all the way back to the Richmond I: 2074 example (graded EF40 by NGC and selling for $10,350 but a coin which, as I recall, was really no better than the PCGS VF30 being offered).

Using comparable auction prices to help determine the price of a rare coin has become commonplace in the last few years. In the case of the 1864-S, this was not a good method for at least two of the following reasons:

The number of auction records for VF30 1864-S eagles is virtually nonexistent. The last coin sold at auction as "VF30" was a raw, cleaned example in July 1997 that brought $8.050. Clearly, this is of no help.

Since the Richmond I: 2074 coin was sold back in 2004, the market for this issue has totally changed. This is proven by the $50,600 that an EF45 brought just two years later. But that was six years ago and, if anything, the number of collectors who want an 1864-S eagle in any grade has at least doubled--if not tripled.

Since we can safely state that using auction comparables to price an 1864-S eagle isn't going to work, then how about checking a published price guide like Coin World Trends? According to the most recent edition, values for the 1864-S eagle are $5,500 in VF20 and $12,500. These were probably accurate in 1992 but in 2012 they are clearly completely and utterly irrelevant in 2012 (but that's another story...)

Before I render my verdict on whether the 1864-S in the Rumsey sale was a good deal or a bad deal, I think there are two other points to touch on.

The first is opportunity cost. If you are a deep-pocketed collector and you are particpating in a challenging series with a number of really special issues included (Liberty Head eagles are a poster child for this) you always have to determine how often will you have the chance to buy an acceptable example. In the case of the 1864-S, it's been pretty well established that its going to be once every three to five years if you are lucky. So the chance to buy a decent one represents an exceptionally important opportunity for the serious collector.

Second is the fact that any really special coin is part of what I refer to as a transaction-driven market. What I mean by this is that when you buy an 1864-S eagle in PCGS VF30 for $34,500 you have essentially created a new market. Yes, this market is considerably higher than it was the last time that one traded. But the reality of the market is that since a VF30 just traded for $34,000 in a public transaction, all the geniuises that live by comparable auction prices realized are now going to see this $34,000 trade. Even if Trends ignores this transaction and keeps their estimated value at 1992 levels, the bar has still been raised.

Let's take a less involved look at the other two really rare date eagles that I mentioned above.

The 1873 eagle in the sale (Lot 1040) was graded EF45 by PCGS. It sold for $43,125.

While not as rare as the 1864-S, the 1873 eagle is still a seriously rare issue with an estimated three dozen or so known from an original mintage of just 800. I have handled two or three in the last five years and actually had a reasonably hard time selling them as I found this to be an issue that lacked the rarity recognition that other issues in the series have.

The last EF45 to sell at auction (an NGC EF45 coin) brought $11,212 in Superior's 9/08 auction. The last transaction of any sort was an NGC AU58 sold by Heritage in June 2010 that realized $27,600. Based on these two transaction and on my knowledge of the series, I figured that the 1873 in the Rumsey sale would bring somewhere in the $15,000-20,000 range.

Why did it sell for so much this time? I think there are a few reasons. First of all, at least two people really wanted this coin. Even though the opening bid was a very strong $24,000, these two bidders slugged it out until the final bell rang at $37,500. Strong price? Yes! Crazy price? Maybe not...

As I thought about the 1873, I had the following realization. For years, this was an absurdly undervalued date. The NGC AU58 that sold for 28 grand in 2010? Even though it wasn't a cosmetically appealing coin, even then I knew it was really cheap. And here's why. For years, the quartet of very rare business strike Type Three Philadelphia double eagles traded in the $5,000-10,000 range for decent EF examples. But after they suddenly got hot, prices rose to $20,000, then to $30,000, then even higher. An 1873 eagle is just as rare as any of the Big Five Philly Type Threes. Why should it sell at such a discount? Especially now that Liberty Head eagles have some strong collector support?

The 1876 eagle in the Rumsey sale (Lot 1047) was graded AU53 by PCGS and it also sold for $43,125. To me, this was a very surprising price.

I find the 1876 to be less rare than the 1873, despite a lower mintage of 687 coins. There are around forty to fifty known and I can recall having owned at least three in the last two to three years. Like the 1873, they were not an easy sell even with the fact that the mintage figure is the second lowest in the whole series after the 1875.

Heritage 10/10: 4892, graded AU53 by PCGS, was a good comparable to the Rumsey coin and it sold for $14,950. I figured the Rumsey coin might bring as much as $20,000 and it opened at just $13,000. Again, two bidders slugged it out and this time, the match lasted longer.

Good deal or bad deal? I liked the coin better than the 1873 (I thought it migt upgrade to AU55 if resubmitted) but I didn't think that the 1876 carried as much opportunity cost. In other words, I would have told a collector that if this one doesn't work out, it's possible that another decent coin will turn up in a year or so; maybe even less. So, on this one, I'm going to have to vote more towards the "not a bad deal but probably not a good deal" camp.

As is so often the case in my writing (and my thinking!) I've gotten a bit off track and still don't feel that I've totally answered the original question in this blog: "how do you price really special coins?"

I've mentioned above that published price information is not a good indicator for really rare coins. And while sometimes helpful, auction price data has to be very subtly interpreted to be truly helpful.

Ultimately, the price of a really special coin boils down to what your gut feels that it is worth. If you are willing to pay $25,000 for a decent 1864-S eagle and you've been waiting four years for the chance to buy one, shouldn't you be willing to pull the trigger at $30,000 or even $35,000?

What I find most helpful is knowing the series in question very well. As I mentioned above, the Liberty Head eagle series has become more popular in the last two or three years than at any time I can remember. So pre-2010 auction prices often have to be taken with a grain of salt. And it helps to know that certain other rare issues, like the 1883-O, have a number of recent auction trades and private sales in the $40,000-70,000 range. The 1883-O is more popular than the 1873 and the 1876 but it is of comparable rarity. If an AU50 example of this date is worth $50,000-60,000 then shouldn't an 1876 in AU53 be worth at least half this?

These are the sort of questions that make numismaics such an enjoyable pasttime to me. Do you have questions or comments regarding the values of really special rare coins? If so, please feel free to email me at

Are Auction Prices Wholesale or Retail?

Until a few years ago, the vast majority of coins that sold at auction were purchased by dealers. It was a safe bet to say that the prices realized at auctions were wholesale and collectors could assume that they would typically pay 10-20% more than what coins were selling for at auction. But this has all changed. One of the key elements to Heritage's rousing success in the coin auction business has been to make sales more collector-friendly. Today, a sizable amount of the coins that sell at auction are going directly to collectors. So, are auction prices now representative of the wholesale or retail markets? The answer is not as easy as you might think...

The answer is actually, as you might have, guessed, "answers." Nothing in the coin market is cut and dry anymore and the new auction market and the prices that coins fetch in an auction conducted in 2010 can have a broad range.

The first thing that has to be analyzed is what coin is being sold. If it's something that's extremely collector-friendly (like a rare date Type One Liberty Head double eagle) the price realized is likely to represent a retail level as it is likely to have been sold to a collector. If it's a widget or a low-end coin that sells cheaply we can assume that a bottom-feeder dealer bought it and the price it brought is clearly at the wholesale level.

The next thing that has to be gauged is the quality of the sale itself. One of the most amazing things about the Bass sales, in my opinion, was the fact that virtually all the coins were bought by dealers. If the Bass sales were to be held today (and conducted by a technologically savvy firm like Heritage) I would venture to guess that over 50% of the coins would be sold for retail as opposed to wholesale prices.

Is the coin in an auction a grading play? (In other words, is it an AU58 in an older holder that would upgrade to MS61 to MS62?) In this case it is a virtual certainty that the coin sold to a dealer. But there is an immediate asterisk that must be applied to the sales price. If the coin is worth $5,000 in AU58 and $13,000 in MS62, it is highly possible that at least two ramblin' gamblin' dealers would pay $10,000-11,000 for the coin. In such an instance, the collector needs to be careful not to assume that just because one AU58 coin sold at auction for $10,000-11,000, the next one(s) will as well.

Auction records are most useful when they occur with some degree of frequency (two or three examples per year) and when any anomalies can be discarded.

Let's say, for example, that a certain Charlotte quarter eagle in AU55 has sold at auction five times since 2007. The prices realized have been $3,500, $3,750, $2,650, $8,000 and $4,000. We can pretty much immediately boot the $8,000 auction record as we can assume that this was a severely under-graded coin with a large spread to the next highest grade(s). We can also boot the $2,650 record as this may have been for an extremely low end coin or it may have been in a "bloodbath" auction that, for a host of reasons, saw very low overall prices in specific areas of the market. This leaves us with three prices: $3,500, $3,750 and $4,000. A quick assumption can now be made that this AU55 Charlotte quarter eagle has a value in the range of $3,500 to $4,000. Another way of looking at this is that the wholesale value might be $3,500 while the retail value might be $4,000.

I have a theory that auction firms give collectors just enough information to do damage to themselves. They provide an archive of auction prices which show what coins have sold for and with a little bit of digging, the collector can determine if the coin sold on the floor, over the phone or to an Internet bidder. But unless someone really follows the market carefully, all of this "information" can do little more than serve as an easy way for the neophyte to make major mistakes. I have long said that hiring an auction representative for 5% is far and away the best value in all of numismatics. This fee (which amount to a whopping $250 on a $5,000 coin) is a small price to pay to have a specialist explain to you why a certain auction record is valid or not valid.

So 700+ words later, I'm back to my basic question: are auction prices wholesale or retail? As you can plainly see, there is no quick answer to this and I urge collectors, new or experienced, not to be lulled into a false sense of security based on what seems like unquestionable information.

The "Deal Shopping" Mentality and Rare Coin Prices

I had an interesting experience at the Long Beach show that I thought was worth sharing. A new-to-the-market collector/investor came up to my table and asked to see my “best coins.” I was happy to share them with him and pulled out a gorgeous 1802 quarter eagle in PCGS AU58 and a lovely 1798/7 eagle in PCGS AU55. After some back-and-forth negotiating, I could see this deal was not going to get done. The reasons why it didn’t are what I want to briefly discuss. Now let me say in advance that the individual that I was dealing with is younger than I am, better looking than I am, smarter than I am and without a doubt much, much richer than I am. He’s someone whose family has had tremendous success investing in other areas and he is a recent convert to the rare coin market. But I think he’s approaching coins from a totally wrong perspective.

This guy likes deals. And he likes sexy, interesting coins. In other words, he wants to buy the best coins that I (or other dealers) have but he wants to buy them at levels that are unqualified, unquestionable “deals.” Good market or bad market, I don’t see this happening.

One thing that I have learned as a dealer in the last few years is that really good coins are really hard to find. Most of the great old-time collections have been dispersed and you just don’t see many “old time Gems” any more. Any when you do, like in the instance of the recent Naftzger Collection of late date Large Cents, the pent-up demand for the fresh, superb coins is so strong that they sell for crazy prices.

The investor I mentioned comes from a real estate background and he is, no doubt, used to panic sellers who have a nice piece of property but who are in over their heads and have to bail. Quickly. This doesn’t really seem to happen much anymore in the coin market. The speculators who bought the “deals” in the last Bull Market are the guys who bought the overgraded, overrated “stuff” that, in retrospect, maybe wasn’t such a good deal after all. The guys who bought the great coins and paid up for them aren’t selling. They aren’t selling because they don’t have to and because they know that what they have can’t be easily replaced. The "stuff" is what you tend to see, over and over, in auctions.

In the coin market, price buyers invariably wind-up with the worst possible coins for the grade. As I have mentioned before, there are coins with huge variations of value within a specific grade. For example, there are MS65 1795 half eagles that I think are worth well over $500,000 And there are MS65 1795 half eagles that I wouldn’t pay $350,000 for. The guys who “like the deals” are always going to wind up with the substandard coin. No ands, ifs or buts. It always works out this way.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good values in the coin market. I can think of dozens and dozens of coins that are undervalued in relation to their rarity and level of demand. I think that’s what the deal-hunters don’t understand. The real deals in numismatics come with knowledge of coins, not buying something for 10% less than Greysheet Bid. The Greysheet is never going to teach you that, as an example, an 1864-S eagle is a sensational value at double current published levels.

I realize that this sounds like a self-serving dealer blog justifying the “need” to stick a high price tag on nice coins. It’s not meant to be that but I can understand that interpretation. I just was sorry to see a potentially great customer pass on two incredible coins for his collection because they weren’t “deals.”

Are Early Gold Coins Overpriced?

A good client of mine recently asked me the question “are early gold coins overpriced?” As with most intelligent questions, I don’t think that this one has a pat answer. My feeling is that some early gold coins are poor value at current levels while others are good to very good values. Read on for my take on the current early gold market and my suggestions of where the best values are. Appearance and eye appeal are, obviously, critical factors in determining the desirability of any coin. In the area of early gold, I think these factors are especially important. The reasons are fairly obvious: these are hand-made coins that vary in quality literally from year to year, many survivors have been cleaned, abused or damaged and the third-party services tend to be inconsistent (to say the least) when it comes to grading early gold.

A fairly general statement that I think can be made about the early gold market is that only a small handful of the coins that exist have good eye appeal and a pleasing overall appearance. I personally feel that virtually every early gold coin that is choice and original remains a good value while most every good early gold coin that is low end for the grade and unoriginal is poor value. But this observation is fairly simplistic and needs to be expanded.

As with most markets, early gold issues can generally be divided into three categories: common or “generic” dates, better dates and rarities. And in the case of early gold we might even be able to create a fourth category: the “super-rarity.” How are each of these categories doing?

Even if you know very little about early gold, you might guess that the area most prone to showing weakness in a downward market turn would be the common dates. An example of what I would term a “generic” early gold coin would be an 1806 Round 6 Half Eagle. There are as many as 1,000 examples known of this issue and it is fairly readily available in grades up to and including MS63 to MS64.

If you go to a major national coin show you are likely to see a decent number of 1806 Round 6 half eagles. These would generally be available in the AU55 to MS62 grade range. (Lower grade 1806 Round 6 half eagles are difficult to find because the nice, affordable examples tend to be closely held by collectors; the very high end MS63 to MS64 tend to either show up at auction or they are placed in tightly-held, high end collections and do not trade with frequency). The examples available for sale tend to be low end and unattractive. At current price levels, I think they are not especially good values. Why is this?

As recently as five to six years ago you could buy a nice, fresh AU 1806 Round 6 half eagle for $5,500-6,000. At this affordable level, this coin was a good value, despite the fact that it wasn’t really “rare” in the sense of most early gold. Today, a similarly graded coin will cost you at least twice this amount. The problem is that these coins now tend to not be nice for the grade and the new price range of $11,000-13,000 no longer qualifies as “affordable.” Are coins such as this overpriced? If they are typical low to middle quality coins, the answer is a fairly resounding yes. If they are accurately graded and solid, choice pieces I would say that they are really overpriced but that they are relatively marginal values at these levels.

An example of an early gold coin that I regard as a “better date” would be a 1799 half eagle. This issue is not truly rare but it is available with far less frequency that an 1806 Round 6 half eagle. I think the market for an issue like this has held up rather well; even if a 1799 half eagle in, say AU55 is currently valued at least twice as highly as it was five or so years ago. Collectors still expect an AU55 example of this date to have good eye appeal and ugly examples are harder to sell than they might have been a year ago but I think this area of the market is solid. Are coins like this overpriced? I would say, pretty resoundingly, in fact, that they are not; especially in the solid collector grades of EF40 to AU55.

A “rare date” early gold coin would be, as an example, an 1826 half eagle. This popular Fat Head issue has a surviving population of maybe three dozen and it tends to be offered for sale at the rate of one or two coins per year. This is another issue that has seen significant price increases in the last five years but the fact is that the supply of 1826 half eagles in virtually all grades is nowhere near the (current) demand. Yes, coins like the 1826 half eagle are currently expensive. But given their unquestionable rarity I would have to say that coins like this remain fairly priced.

And what about our fourth and final category—the so-called “super-rarity?” An example of this would be an 1815 half eagle; an issue that is extremely rare in all grades and which typically appears for sale at the rate of approximately once per three to five years. My gut feeling is that these major rarities, in all the various early gold series, are still reasonably priced. There is an 1815 half eagle coming up for sale in the 2009 FUN auction (graded MS64 by NGC and pedigreed to the Garrett collection) that is almost certain to shatter all price records for this date and which could be one of the highlights of the 2009 Numismatic Year.

What about issues like the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle or the 1808 quarter eagles; coins that aren’t “rarities” in the classic sense of the word but which are exceptionally popular and numismatically significant? I think, in theory, that these are overpriced given their big-picture rarity. Given their strong level of demand I would still buy them for inventory. However (and this is a BIG however) I think the market has become far more selective on coins like this. If they are not CAC-quality, they have become hard to sell unless discounted in price. And this scenario is likely to continue as long as decent 1796 quarter eagles command prices in excess of $125,000-150,000+.

How to Price Very Rare Coins

If you collect very rare or finest known coins, figuring out what to pay for an item that you need for your collection can be difficult. Here is a real-life example of how I came up with what I believe to be an accurate value for a one-of-a-kind coin. The coin that we are going to use as our Coin Pricing Lab Experiment is the Finest Known 1860-C half eagle; an item that my firm recently handled.

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