The Newbie's Lament: What Should I Collect?

The Newbie's Lament: What Should I Collect?

For new collectors of vintage United States gold coins, one of the most puzzling questions to ask is: what should I collect. The answer, of course, depends on your budget, but it also depends on which sort of collection you are going to build: a set with a focused beginning, middle, and end, or a more random approach.

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How To Become A Coin Kingpin

Deciding what to collect can often be a case of deciding what not to collect. This zen-like statement actually makes a lot of sense once you get over the initial "huh?" Let me explain. Anyone with a more-than-casual interest in coins wants to be a force within the series he collects. By this, I mean he wants to be known as "the CC half eagle guy," or "the face of the Ten Indian market." So how do you get to be "the man" or, better yet, "the kingpin" of the area that you have chosen to specialize in? I think the answers aren't necessarily as intuitive as you might think they are.

1. Suss Out the Competition: Let's say that you've decided to collect Carson City eagles in very high grade. You research the market and determine that these coins are very rare and even though they are expensive they seem within your budget. You still need to find out who your competition is and how far along they are.

Let's say that your major competition in this series is a Texas billionaire with a virtually insatiable demand for the finest known. And he still needs many coins in the set. In this case, you have a problem unless you, yourself, are a billionaire and you are content with knowing that every coin you purchase is probably going to break a record for the date/series. This is discouraging.

But let's say that your major competition--said Texas billionaire--is virtually complete with this particular series and he has shown that he isn't likely to upgrade his Carson City eagles unless they are very, very special coins. In this case, you might not be as discouraged.

Or, you can be creative and look at it this way...

2. Be Adaptable: Just because the series you want to collect has a roadblock like a super-wealthy collector at the top end of the market, this doesn't have to stop you. Instead of buying the finest known Dahlonega half eagles or Charlotte gold dollars, what about a "gem slider" set of choice, original AU58 coins? Or what about putting together a set that features pedigreed coins? Or a set with nicely matched colors? Or a "sharp strike set" in which every coin represents as sharp a strike as possible for a specific issue? The options can be nearly limitless.

3. Timing is Everything: I'm not a huge fan of Gem Saint Gaudens double eagles as I don't think that they necessarily offer the same degree of value as much rarer 19th century gold issues do. But they are currently a comparably good value because of a unique set of circumstances. As recently as five years ago, there were a number of wealthy collectors in this arena and many of them needed the same six or seven rare coins in order to finish their set. When any of these coins came up for sale, it was going to be a Clash of the Titans and a bidding war was certain to erupt.

But just like magic, nearly all of these collectors went poof at the same time. Some lost interest, some completed their set, and some were hurt by the Financial Meltdown of 2008 and had to sell their coins. What this means, a few years later, is that there is now an excellent opportunity for a new collector to become a Kingpin of Saints.

Let me give you two examples. In the Saint series, the 1921 is recognized as one of the ultimate condition rarities. In November 2005, a beautiful PCGS MS66 example sold at auction for $1,092,500. The same coin sold for $747,500 in January 2012. In September 2007, a PCGS MS65 example of this same date sold at auction for $1,012,000. In August 2012, another PCGS MS65 sold for $587,500. Why did these coins--both were very rare and all were very nice--sell for such discounts? Because the top of the Saint Gaudens double eagle market lacked the multiple buyers that it had in 2005 and in 2007. But if you add two or three big players into the mix, I can just about guarantee you that the next nice quality PCGS MS65 or MS66 1921 double eagle that is offered will sell at levels close to--if not at--previous market highs. It has happened before and it is inevitable that it will happen again.

4. It's All About the Relationships. Unless you are willing to devote almost all of your free time to studying about coins and pursuing what you need, you are going to have to establish a relationship with a dealer (or two) who is a well-connected specialist within your intended field of Kingpin-dom.

Let me give you a pertinent example. I recently handled an extremely rare No Motto New Orleans half eagle. This is a coin that I could have sold to a number of collectors. But I chose to sell it to a collector who has nurtured a close relationship with me over the years. He's a terrific guy; sophisticated, well-read on the subject of New Orleans gold, and always ready to buy an important coin that will improve his collection. Because he has been such a pleasure to deal with over the years he was able to purchase a coin which gave him a complete set of New Orleans half eagles in Uncirculated; quite possibly the first such set ever completed.

There's something else about our relationship, though, that transcends coins. A few years ago, someone very close to me was sick and needed immediate care. I called this collector for a reference and within a few minutes I was able to make an appointment with a specialist who was very difficult to see due to his busy schedule. Like I said, it's all about relationships...

5. What's Old is New Again. If you want to be the Kingpin of your series or collecting area(s) you can focus on coins that are traditionally obscure and lack collector interest as a result. Or you can focus on coins that have traditionally been popular but for some reason are currently out of favor. (And, yes, this point is fairly closely related to point #3, above).

For many years, Charlotte gold was as popular as Dahlonega gold and it was certainly far more popular than New Orleans. But Charlotte gold has become the least popular of the three southern branch mints. Lower prices and availability of some great coins in the past five to ten years have meant that at least one or two collectors could have put together fantastic, world-class set; and at comparably reasonable prices as well.

My point here is this: just like with the Gem rare date Saints that I discussed above, Charlotte gold is a proven area of the market with a good reference book and a long collecting history. Values peaked for these coins around 1999-2000 and, in some cases, Condition Census coins are selling for less than they were nearly a decade and a half ago. These seem to be a surer bet than something like high grade With Motto San Francisco eagles from the 1880's and 1890's that have never really been popular and possibly never will be.

What are some areas of the numismatic market in which it is still possible to be a kingpin? A few of my suggestions are as follows:

1. Gold Dollars: There are two or three collectors competing for finest known coins at the very top end of the market but this series offers a lot of opportunity for the kingpin-in-training.

2. Better Date San Francisco Gold Coins, 1854-1878: There are pockets of strength in this market but there is no one collector who I'd consider The Man when it comes to very high end SF gold.

3. Type Two Liberty Head Double Eagles: This is an area of the market that remains pretty calm after being in the spotlight for much of the 1990's and early 2000's. When really special coins become available (which is not all that often) they seem to bring considerably less than I think the are ultimately worth.

4. Indian Head Half Eagles: This is a series that tends to have periodic flares in popularity but then it grows dim for years. There is currently some rumbling in the higher end but The King of Five Indians seems to still be waiting to claim his crown.

Do you need help to become a Coin Kingpin? If so, please contact Doug Winter by email at

Deciding What to Collect

During the last few weeks I've had a similar conversation with a few new and more experienced collectors: what should I be collecting? I've found all the conversations that I have had with these collectors to have a similar unifying theme; at least from the standpoint of the collectors. My observation is that everyone takes the "what should I collect?" question a bit too seriously and expects there to be a rigorous set of rules that they have to follow. I personally think they are forgetting the fact that coin collecting is more about having fun than following a set of rules. If you are reading this on my website, you've probably already decided that you want to collect United States gold coins. Taking this a step further, if you are a brand-new collector (or you are at least new to gold coins) how do you decide specifically what to focus on? Or do you need to focus on anything at all?

There are a number of considerations that come into play. The most obvious of these is your budget. If you are currently comfortable spending $2,500 on a single coin than you should probably recognize the fact that you are eventually going to be comfortable at a higher level; let's say $5,000 or so per coin. If this is your comfortable level, then you have to be practical when choosing an area to collect. Early gold, as an example, will not work for you as very few pieces are available in the $5,000 range. Look at auction records, dealer websites and pricing guides to help select an area that you can afford.

Do you have to put together a set? That really depends on an individual collector's perspective. A few decades ago, nearly everyone collected specific sets by date. But coins were a lot cheaper back then so it was not impractical to decide to assemble a full date set of Dahlonega quarter eagles or San Francisco eagles in high grades. Today, rare coins are expensive and for many collectors it isn't practical to assemble a date set. Or, they may have to settle for very low quality examples of the rarities within their selected set.

But where is it written that you absolutely have to complete a set? Let's say you really like Dahlonega quarter eagles and you've been able to purchase six or seven really nice About Uncirculated common dates over the years. As you draw closer to completion you come to the realization that you are never going to be able to afford the key issues such as the 1855-D or the 1856-D. I look at sets of coins on a regular basis and, to be honest, I'd be a lot more impressed with a partial set of ten Dahlonega quarter eagles that contained very nice coins than a complete set of twenty that had a damaged 1856-D, an 1855-D that was harshly cleaned and a few other pieces that stuck out like a sore thumb.

Something that I recommend to certain collectors is what I call the "best available coin" strategy. This requires thinking outside the proverbial box a little bit but it makes sense to me. Let's say that you've decided on some basic parameters on all the coins you'll be buying. You want all the coins to be gold, you want them all to be dated prior to 1880, you want them all to have original mintage figures below 25,000, you want them all to have PCGS populations of less than 150 in all grades and you want them to grade at least AU50. If you've established these parameters, why limit yourself to coins from a specific mint or denomination? If you see a coin that is choice and original and which fits most (or all) of your strategic parameters, buy it; it doesn't matter if its a San Francisco quarter eagles, a Philadelphia half eagle or a Carson City eagle.

Earlier, I mentioned personal preference and I think this is an extremely important factor in deciding what you want to collect. Buy what appeals to you, not because a dealer is touting a coin or because there is a promotion trying to convince you a series is undervalued. Some people don't like small coins. If you are in this camp, that's fine; stay away from gold dollars and quarter eagles. Some people like big, hefty coins; if this describes you than you are going to naturally be attracted to eagles and double eagles.

There are other factors that relate to personal preference. You may or may not be attracted to a coin because of its design. I personally do not find the Liberty Head gold series to be dramatically attractive from an artistic point of view so I do not derive aesthetic satisfaction from specializing in these coins. Gold coins struck between 1795 and 1900 appeal to me more as a result of their historic significance than their beauty.

As someone who buys millions of dollars of coins every year, I find myself more and more value-conscious all the time. Many coins strike me as poor value. Why? Generally because, in my opinion, I feel that they do not meet the supply/demand ratio that makes sense to me. I find it hard to rationalize getting excited about a $10,000 coin that I can find at any coin show (sorry, Mr. 1911-D quarter eagle...). I like coins that I can only find from time to time and I like coins that have two or three or four eager collectors waiting for each one that comes available.

Popularity is an important factor in deciding what to collect. I'm not saying that you should collect generic St. Gaudens double eagles in MS63 because they have a very high level of demand. But I'm saying that you should be careful about focusing on a seemingly undervalued issue that is a good deal mainly because no one cares. Yes, you might be a brilliant contrarian and you might have stumbled on the next Three Dollar gold piece series circa 2003-2004 (an undervalued series on the cusp of dramatically expanding in popularity) But you may have also found an area that is a marginal deal because no one is likely to care any time soon. Ask a trusted dealer or collector friend what he thinks about your decision(s).

The most important message that I'd like you to take from this is that collecting should be fun and that you should collect in order to satisfy yourself and not others. Sure, I'd like every upscale collector in the United States to collect Charlotte and Dahlonega gold. I'd get to be King of the Market for a few years, retire and start work on that great screenplay I've been kicking around for years. But I respect the fact that C+D gold isn't for everyone. Find what you love, learn as much as you can about it and have fun. After that, it's all easy...

"I Know What I'm Going to Collect. What's Next?"

So you've made the decision that you are going to collect a specific series. What are the next step(s) that you should take? If you are going to form a serious, high-end collection one of the first things that you need to do is to examine comparable collections. As an example, if you have decided to assemble a set of Liberty Head eagles, it would make sense to know the grades of other sets that have been put together.

When it comes to 19th century gold, some of the old stand-bys are the Norweb, Eliasberg and Bass collections. It is very instructive to compile lists of the coins in these three collections as they pertain to what you are planning to collect yourself. For example, if you have decided to assemble a set of high grade New Orleans half eagles, you can make a spreadhseet of the relavent coins in these three collections.

Luckily, this information is reasonably easy to access. (Thank you, Internet...) On the PCGS website, the Set Registry pages list the "probable" grades of the Eliasberg and Bass gold coins (not to mention another pretty decent set, that found in the Smithsonian). The grades of the coins in the Norweb collection can be found in the three sales of this collection that were conducted by Bowers and Merena back in the mid-1980's.

Knowing what quality coins were owned by a great collection is important informantion for a new collector. As an example, let's sat you are being offered an MS63 example of a specific Liberty Head eagle. If the best piece Bass owned was an MS61 and Eliasberg only had an AU55, then the chances are good that this is a significant coin.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. Let's say that the MS63 Liberty Head eagle mentioned above is from a small hoard that was discovered after Bass or Eliasberg stopped actively buying coins. In this situation, the significance of the Bass and Eliasberg holdings are not as great. An example of this would be an 1894-O eagle in MS63. This date was essentially unknown in Uncirculated when Eliasberg was buying and very few examples better than MS60 were available to Bass. Today, because of hoards found overseas, this issue is scarce but not impossible to find in MS63.

If the series that you are goping to collect has a number of active Set Registry collectors, it is important to study the top sets that are on both the PCGS and NGC websites. Let's say that you are focusing on St. Gaudens Double Eagles. Without being congnizant of the best active sets in the Registries, you won't have a good idea of what grades you'll need to make your set competitive.

But there is much more to assembling a high-quality set than checking out Set Registry information. I'd strongly suggest that before you buy any coins for your new set that you invest a few hundred dollars in books and auction catalogs. There is no more important guide for the new collector than important specialized auction catalogs. I have written articles on which catalogs are important for the gold coin specialist to own and won't be redundant be listing them again; use the search function on my website to look for these.

One other thing you need to decide is just how high-end you want your set to be. If you have deep pockets and lots of patience, you will probably want to purchase coins that are either the finest known or which rate high in the Condition Census. If you are have a more modest budget, you will want to stick with coins that are above-average for the issue but not necessarily in Uncirculated grades. Learning the quality of other specialized sets will give you a good idea what the best grades for each specific issue are.

Reconnecting With Collecting

Even though I am a dealer who has a reputation as being very pro-collector, I hadn’t actually collected anything numismatic (with the exception of 19th century books and catalogs) for a number of years. Being a dealer and a collector simultaneously is very difficult and I certainly did not ever want to find myself in a situation where I was debating whether to sell a new purchase or to keep it for my collection. This changed around two years ago when I let myself get talked into collecting National Bank Notes. A dealer friend of mine had been an avid collector of Nationals from his home state for a number of years and his enthusiasm was contagious. I started to dabble and, before I knew it, I was hooked. Two years later, I am a confirmed Natty-holic.

So what have I learned in my reconnection with collecting and what sort of advice can I give to you, the collector? Following are a few ideas. Please note that although I am collecting paper money, I think the gist of what I am saying is applicable to coins as well.

Specialization Works For Me

I’m the sort of collector who would rather be very knowledgeable in a few areas than semi-knowledgeable in many. That’s why I decided to focus on just one specific state for my National Currency collection. I feel the same way about coins. I’ve written this a jillion times before but I am strong believer in the adage that being strongly focused as a collector makes you stronger at assembling a really great collection. Now, I don’t necessarily believe in being ultra-specialized. I could care less about varieties that are impossible to see without strong magnification and I am, in my own way, as much of a type collector within my specialization as I am a date collector. But every time I get bored and think that I should expand my collection to include another state or two, I realize that this is a bad idea and that I’d rather have a great specialized collection that a random group of interesting pieces.



Eye Appeal is Everything

If an object isn’t aesthetically appealing to me I don’t want it in my collection, no matter how rare it is. I’ve already been faced with situations where I have had the chance to purchase a very rare but very ugly note. In every one of these situations, I’ve chosen to pass on the note. Even though I plan on assembling a set that includes at least one piece from every town that issued notes, I am not yet in the mindset that I’ll buy something that’s ugly just because it is very rare. I would assume that, as my collection progresses, I will have to buy some pieces that are duds from the standpoint of appearance. But these will probably be among the last items I purchase and they will be made with a degree of regret. I have also reached the conclusion that, at this point in my collecting career, I would rather have a really pretty duplicate example of an interesting note (or coin) than a single example of a rare but unattractive issue.

Having an Expert In My Corner

While my level of expertise has clearly improved greatly since I’ve started my collection, I will be the first to admit that I am not yet an expert. While I think I have a pretty good eye, I am not yet sophisticated enough to detect very good alterations to notes. That’s why I’ve elected to have a really smart dealer be my representative at auctions. In my opinion, paying him 5% for his expertise is one of the best deals I can imagine. I’m certain he’s already saved me from myself at least a few times and he’s also encouraged me to be more aggressive on items that I should probably be buying but was figuring too cheaply. As a beginner, it’s really hard to collect without someone assisting you and I, for one, can heartily recommend establishing a good working relationship with one or two experts in your chosen specialization.

Older Is Better

In the field of paper money, you can neatly divide the body of all notes issued into two parts: large size and small size. When I first collected, I focused on small size notes. They were cheaper and more available. But as I looked at more notes and became more sophisticated, I gravitated towards large size notes. Using a very basic analogy, I came to see the division in notes as the equivalent of early coins (basically pre-1900) versus modern coins (post-1900). When I was a coin collector, I always preferred older coins and, in fact, never purchased any pieces struck after 1890. At this point in my collecting career I am willing to spend more money on older notes and to have fewer pieces in my collection. That said, I will buy small size notes but they have to have a very strong “coolness factor” for me to give them consideration.

Establishing a Comfort Zone

While I am very comfortable buying notes in the $500-5,000 range for my collection, I still do not feel comfortable enough to buy very expensive notes. A few months ago I was given the opportunity to purchase a small group of very rare (and expensive) notes that would have unquestionably taken my collection to the next level. But they were priced at levels that exceeded my comfort zone and I decided to pass on them. In retrospect, I wish that I had purchased at least one or two of them but, to be frank, I’m just not quite comfortable enough with my new collection to spend this amount of money. In another year or two, I probably will. And I think this is good advice for any collector. Establish a comfort zone for the first few years you collect and don’t exceed it until you feel that you are ready to do so.



Use the Best Resources Available to You

When I first started collecting coins as a child, information was hard to come by. You had to guess at how rare coins were and pricing was essentially a crapshoot. Today, there is a staggering amount of great information available to collectors in almost all areas. I quickly learned that for National bank notes, I had amazing resources available. To learn more about the notes, I bought Don Kelley’s incredible reference book. To get an idea of rarity, I purchased Kelley’s census information. And for pricing, I referred to the CAA/Heritage auction archives and Sandy Bashover’s Track and Price software. For coins, there is comparable—if not superior—price and rarity information available for nearly every series. In my opinion, the accessibility of this information has made collecting more fun than ever.

Make Some Collecting Friendships

Collecting tends to be a solitary pursuit but I’ve found that one of the real benefits from buying any sort of object is the friendships that you make in the pursuit phase. I have two close dealer friends who both happen to be collectors of National bank notes. Whenever a new auction catalog arrives in the mail, I know I can count on getting emails from both of my friends about the notes in the sale that they think I will be interested; just like I send them emails about the notes from their states that I think they will be bidding on. And after the sale is over, we inevitably compare our success from the sale. What’s really funny about this is that the three of us almost never talk about coins, even though we are all extremely successful in this arena. But when we meet up for dinner at a coin show, the talk inevitably turns to our collections. To me, this is an extremely satisfying part of collecting; maybe THE most, in fact.

Think Long Term

When I buy a note, I don’t worry about flipping it for a quick profit. I’m assembling my collection over the long term and hope to have at least fifteen to twenty years worth of effort into it before I even consider selling it. That’s not to say that I won’t at some time in the future analyze my holdings and make a decision to weed out the duplicates and the duds. But I’ve found that buying for the long term makes collecting alot more fun. I’m using funds that I don’t have to worry about for more pressing needs and I look at my collection as a long-term asset that is going to provide my family and I with some nice income when I’m old and no longer interested in it.

As I mentioned above, I’ve really enjoyed my foray back into collecting. I think it’s made me a better dealer and I’m looking forward to expanding my collections in the coming years. And who knows—maybe I’ll even start to buy coins again!