A total of 17 half eagles were produced at the New Orleans mint between 1840 and 1909. Focusing on the No Motto Liberty Head issues (struck between 1840 and 1857) there are at least five issues which I would call “rare” (i.e., fewer than 100 examples known in all grades). These are the 1842-O, 1847-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, and 1857-O. Of these five, which is the rarest in terms of overall rarity and which is the rarest in high grades?Read More
The No Motto type of Liberty Head eagle was produced at the New Orleans mint from 1841 through 1860. By using CAC population figures, we can get an idea of which dates display condition or appearance rarity. CAC is a service which is rewards good eye appeal, unlike the grading services which are grading more from a technical standpoint.Read More
The Dahlonega mint began production of quarter eagles in 1839 and discontinued this denomination in 1859. There are a total of 20 issues and two major types: the popular one-year Classic Head (1839 only) and the Liberty Head (1840-1859).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.
Do you buy rare gold coins?
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Contact me, Doug Winter, directly at (214) 675-9897 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now that CAC has become an integral part of the rare date gold market, there are certain things that their database of coins that have been approved can tell collectors. This wasn’t necessarily true as recently as a year to a year and a half ago, but I believe that enough coins have been seen by CAC that their numbers have gained a degree of legitimacy. This is especially true for expensive and/or truly rare coins.
One thing that CAC data can tell a savvy collector is how rare a coin is with good eye appeal. In other words, if the combined PCGS/NGC population of a certain date/mintmark is 15 coins in EF, how many of these are choice and original?
How do these figures look in a series which is notorious for having numerous condition rarities? I decided to analyze the increasingly popular Liberty Head eagle series using CAC population data from their most recent report (September 2013) and compare it to research which I published a few years ago.
In 2008 I published an article entitled The Ten Rarest Ten Libs. I based this research on my 25+ years of specializing in this denomination, consulting auction records from the past two decades, and looking at current PCGS and NGC population data. My Top Ten list was concerned more with absolute rarity (i.e., the total number of coins known in all grades) versus condition rarity (the number of coins known in higher grades).
According to my research, here are the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles:
- 1865-S Normal Date
- 1839, Head of 1840
- (tie) 1858, 1859-S, 1864, 1866-S With Motto, 1876, 1877
Looking back on this list five years later (!), I basically still agree with it - except for one glaring omission: the 1855-S. I’m not sure why I didn’t include this date in my Top Ten; I very possibly might have forgotten it. Today, I would certainly include it and place it as high as #8 on the list. I would also eliminate the 1858 from the #10 grouping, and quite possibly the 1859-S and 1864 as well.
Before I delve into the CAC populations, there are a few caveats which I think are important to better understand this blog.
Firstly, we are assuming that at this point in time a good number of rare date gold coins get sent to CAC. However, I happen to know at least four major collections of Liberty Head eagles which have never been seen by CAC, and which contain many coins currently “unbeaned” by CAC which should be nice enough to qualify if and when they are sent in.
Secondly, we are making an assumption that “CAC quality” coins really are nice for the date and grade. I personally don’t think that is a stretch, but I clearly have seen some better date Liberty Head eagles with CAC stickers that weren’t all that nice and, conversely, have sent some coins to CAC which I thought were very nice and, for whatever reason(s), didn’t get blessed.
Thirdly, I think making assumptions about the rarity of coins like Liberty Head eagles based solely on CAC data would be a mistake. Instead, I would view the CAC data as a component of determining high grade rarity.
Let’s look at the Liberty Head eagles which, as of October 2013, have yet to see a single example approved by CAC:
- 1865-S Normal Date
- 1866-S No Motto and 1866-S With Motto
There are no huge surprises here. This group of 12 coins is well represented on my Top Ten rarest list. The 1864 is a bit of surprise as I have handled a few nice pieces in the last few years and the same is true with the 1866-P and the 1866-S No Motto.
Now, how about the dates in this series with only 1 coin approved by CAC. Along with the dates, I’m going to list the grade of the sole CAC-approved coin.
- 1839 Head of 1840 (EF40)
- 1858-S (AU50)
- 1859-S (AU50)
- 1867-S (AU55)
- 1870-CC (EF45)
- 1877 (AU55)
This is an interesting group. All five are rare, and at least one (the 1839 Head of 1840) is on the Top Ten rarest list. The other four are dates which are a bit more available but which seldom come with nice surfaces and natural color; two elements which are rewarded by CAC. In this instance, the CAC results hold pretty true to form; more so than what I expect from NGC or PCGS results.
As a final list, let’s look at the dates in this series with just 2 coins approved by CAC. Again, along with the dates I’m going to list the grades in which CAC has approved these.
- 1855-S (EF45, AU55)
- 1859-O (EF45, AU53)
- 1860-S (VG8, AU55)
- 1862-S (EF45, AU55)
- 1864-S (VF30, EF45)
- 1870 (AU50, AU55)
- 1871 (AU55, AU58)
- 1876 (AU53, AU55)
- 1895-S (EF45, AU53)
To me, this is the most interesting list, for two reasons. The first is the dates (1859-O, 1862-S, 1864-S) which I didn’t expect to see two of, let alone one. The second is the presence of the 1895-S, a date which gets little respect from even the most ardent specialist and which only two reasonably low grade pieces have been approved by CAC to date. Sleeper alert!!
I’m going to revisit this topic in the near future, as I think it is a good way of determining the true rarity of certain coins in high-end “PQ” grades. By the same token, it also has relevance for lower grade coins like VF and EF when it comes to determining how nice a really rare coin is for its respective grade.
For more information on CAC and on Liberty Head eagles—with or without CAC approval—please feel free to contact me by email at email@example.com.
Although I can’t take credit for inventing the concept of Market Premium Factor (MPF), it is something that I have discussed before and find very interesting. The basic concept of MPF is that in a specific series of coins, certain dates trade for premiums over the common (or basal) issues. An interesting series to explore the concept of MPF is Indian Head eagles. In this series, basically any coin not dated 1926 or 1932 (the two basal issues) is considerably scarcer than a basal issue. However, until very recently most of these dates sold for little more (if any) than the two common issues. A date like the 1912 with a PCGS population of fewer than 500 in MS63 and fewer than 175 in MS64 and above did not command much of a premium over a 1932 with a population of over 10,000 in MS63 and over 5,000 in MS64 and above.
Why could dates like the 1910, 1910-D, 1911, 1912, 1914 and 1915 be purchased for virtually no premium over the common dates like the 1926 and 1932? Because until recently, the Indian Head eagle series was not seeing many collectors putting together date sets. These coins were trading primarily as type coins and this meant that no one really cared about what date they were purchasing.
The MPF for a series changes when it becomes popular. Suddenly, Indian Head eagles have become more popular. There are not necessarily a ton of new collectors putting complete sets together. But there is enough new interest in the series that even a neophyte can recognize the fact that a 1910-D eagle in MS64 is much scarcer than a 1932 in the same grade. When this occurs, the premium factor between the basal issues and the slightly scarcer issues increases. Suddenly a coin like the 1910-D eagle is now bringing 10-20% more than a 1932.
There are still a number of series that do not have fully developed MPF’s. In the St. Gaudens double eagle series, there are at least a dozen issues which sell for “type coin” prices which are considerably scarcer than the basal issues such as the 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927 and 1928.
For the savvy collector or investor a key to making a good return on your investment is to identify coins that are scarce but which do not sell for a significant premium. If and when this series becomes popular and collectors start paying attention to specific dates, you might well have some nice profits.