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10 Ways to Become a Better Coin Collector

By Doug WinterRareGoldCoins.com ……
CoinWeek Content Partner
As a dealer who works with collectors who range in experience from total beginners to full-on experts, I have a fairly good idea of what separates the masters from the wannabes. Experience, obviously, is part of the equation; but some of the best collectors I have ever seen are fairly new to the game and their skill is largely intuitive. Here are some suggestions and observations I’d like to share with you that might just make you a better collector.

1. Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin

US Coin Collecting - Coin CollectorI’ve seen this happen many times before: a newbie coin collector gets bitten hard by the coin bug and becomes a collector of everything. You can’t fault a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coin collector for being overly enthusiastic, but this is certain to be a pocketbook drain, and it is likely to result in a confusing mess of a collection. It’s likely that your first choice (or choices) of what you collect will change over time but try to reign in your “I must have it all” sentiments and replace them with a little more control. If you can’t stand the downtime between purchases, choose a secondary collection that is inexpensive (paper money, tokens, circulated Liberty Seated silver) to fulfill your compulsion to make a purchase.

2. Become A Student Of Your Series

The coin collectors who impress me the most are the ones who have become specialized in a certain series and who have studied it to the point that they are as knowledgeable about it as possible. This study can take many forms. Some coin collectors are interested in the history of the coins they collect, while others are more interested in the rarity and availability of coins. A coin collector might select a series to specialize in where there is little written and become the author of a book or a web-based guide. My take on studying a series is that for every hour you put into this, your reward is many times the effort.

3. Establish A Good Relationship With At Least One Or Two Dealers

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really great collection that wasn’t the result of a joint effort between a coin collector and a dealer. If you collect something like Dahlonega half eagles in crusty About Uncirculated grades, or varieties of Type One Liberty Head double eagles, you just aren’t going to have access to enough good coins unless you have a solid relationship with a dealer. Sure, you can find most of the coins that you need on eBay, or bidding sight-unseen at a Heritage sale, but my guess is that when you are done you are going to have a set of coins with more problems in it as good pieces. If you collect something like modern coins you don’t really need a dealer; this is as close to being a self-service area as there is in numismatics. But if you are a new collector who thinks he can build a complex set without some help…

4. If You Are An Investor, Think Like A Coin Collector

One of the oldest Doug Winter cliches: a numismatic investor almost never makes money but a good collector often makes money in spite of themselves. Think about this for a second: coin investors inevitably buy the wrong coins at the wrong time from the wrong people. Typically, they buy high and sell low. Collectors, on the other hand, buy coins because they love them, hold them for a long period, and often see a fairly good return on their “investment” even though they weren’t buying to make money. If you are someone buying coins who has no interest in them… stop immediately. Sell what you have and switch to bullion. You’ll save yourself a headache or three when it’s time to liquidate.

5. Buy With Eye Appeal In Mind

Unless you are a specialist who has to buy a certain coin because it is so rare that he can’t pass on it, never buy coins that aren’t good looking. There are relatively few exceptions to this rule. I would still buy an ugly 1864-S half eagle as this is an in-demand issue that seldom is found at all, let alone with good eye appeal. But if we’re talking about an issue like an 1864-S double eagle (a reasonably available coin that can be found with good eye appeal if the collector is patient) it is a huge mistake to jump at a coin that is just so-so. This harkens back to #2 listed above: by learning about the coins you collect, you’ll learn which can be found nice and which are almost never seen with good eye appeal. Here’s a word to the wise: ugly coins are hard to sell unless they are very rare and even then, prepare to steel yourself to a lot of “that’s ugly but…” comments.

6. Pay Up For Quality

Another numismatic cliche: “good coins aren’t cheap and cheap coins aren’t good.” In this day and age, it is certainly possible to get fair value when you buy a coin. But with a real shortage of good to great coins in the market right now, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to buy good coins at auction with low-ball bids or from cash-strapped dealers who have to sell the best pieces they have to pay the bills. The laws of supply and demand have become pretty simple in the coin market in the last five or so years. For every really nice coin, there tends to be multiple buyers. If you aren’t willing to step up to the plate, you will not only miss out on them, you probably won’t be offered any. I’m not implying that you grossly overpay for coins. Just consider your opportunity costs and consider if your stretch at the time of purchase will be rewarded when its time to sell.

7. Trust Your Instincts

Nearly every numismatic mistake I’ve made has been the result of not trusting my first instinct. If you have to force yourself to like a coin, it is probably not the right coin for you. If, after doing your research, you think a coin is well overpriced, don’t buy it (you might make an exception for that choice 1864-S half eagle you’ve been looking for since 1998…). Another instinct to trust has to do with a potential dealer. If the guy offering you coins over the phone makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, don’t deal with him.

8. Learn How To Price The Series You Collect

Most new coin collectors either dramatically under-price or overprice coins they are offered. With the online auction prices realized archives that PCGS, NGC, and Heritage offer, there is no excuse for most collectors to not have a decent idea of how to price frequently traded coins. Really rare coins, like our friend the 1864-S half eagle, are a different matter and this topic has been discussed by me in previous blogs; read them to see what my thoughts are on this topic.

9. Be Patient!

Let me give you a true-life example that illustrates why patience is a numismatic virtue. I met a coin collector about a year ago who was wanting to collect early gold. I sold him a coin or two and he was hooked. He sent me coins to sell for him to raise money for another purchase. He was self-admittedly impatient and was used to collecting coins that could be found with relative ease. It took me over six months to find him the “right” coin but when I did, it was a total home run; a coin that exceeded his expectations and made him realize that his patience had been more than rewarded. If you want to collect really rare and/or really nice coins, you have to be patient, especially in this market.

10. Don’t Bother Learning To Grade

When I had kidney stones two months ago, I didn’t take a crash course in how to become a urologist, I just went to the best available doctor and was treated. And it isn’t likely that you are ever going to have the time to really learn how to grade; certainly not to the point that you can tell an MS62 from an MS63. But, you can learn how to determine if a coin has real color, if the surfaces are original, if it is well-struck for the issue, if it is new or not new, etc. I used to think it was a good idea to tell coin collectors to learn to grade and now I realize that it is naive. You can learn to grade to a point but, mainly, learn how to choose coins that are in the top 5-10% for the grade.

If some of these suggestions hit home a little bit hard, don’t fret. This blog wasn’t written with any specific people in mind and these are mistakes that I have seen made by beginners and sophisticated collectors alike. If you can follow a few of these from time to time, you are likely to enjoy rare coin collecting more and to become a better long-term numismatist.
Doug Winter Numismatics, specialists in U.S. gold coins

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About Doug Winter

Doug_Winter2Doug has spent much of his life in the field of numismatics; beginning collecting coins at the age of seven, and by the time he was 10 years old, buying and selling coins at conventions in the New York City area.

In 1989, he founded Douglas Winter Numismatics, and his firm specializes in buying and selling choice and rare US Gold coins, especially US gold coins and all branch mint material.

Recognized as one of the leading specialized numismatic firms, Doug is an award-winning author of over a dozen numismatic books and a recognized expert on US Gold. His knowledge and an exceptional eye for properly graded and original coins have made him one of the most respected figures in the numismatic community and a sought-after dealer by collectors and investors looking for professional personalized service, a select inventory of impeccable quality, and fair and honest pricing. Doug is also a major buyer of all US coins and is always looking to purchase collections both large and small. He can be reached at (214) 675-9897.

Doug has been a contributor to the Guidebook of United States Coins (also known as the “Red Book”) since 1983, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues.

In addition, he has authored 13 books on US Gold coins including:
  • Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909
  • Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint: 1870 – 1893
  • Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861
  • Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint 1838-1861
  • The United States $3 Gold Pieces 1854-1889
  • Carson City Gold Coinage 1870-1893: A Rarity and Condition Census Update
  • An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles
  • The Connoisseur’s Guide to United States Gold Coins
  • A Collector’s Guide To Indian Head Quarter Eagles
  • The Acadiana Collection of New Orleans Coinage
  • Type Three Double Eagles, 1877-1907: A Numismatic History and Analysis
  • Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861: A Numismatic History and Analysis
  • Type Two Double Eagles, 1866-1876: A Numismatic History and Analysis

Finally, Doug is a member of virtually every major numismatic organization, professional trade group and major coin association in the US.


Doug Winter
Doug Winterhttps://www.raregoldcoins.com
Doug Winter founded Douglas Winter Numismatics (DWN) in 1985. The nationally renowned firm specializes in buying and selling rare United States gold coins. He has written over a dozen books, including the standard references on Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans gold coinage, and Type 1 Liberty Head Double Eagles. Douglas has also contributed to the A Guidebook of United States Coins, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars, and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues. He is a member of the PNG, the ANA, the ANS, the NLG, CAC, PCGS, and NGC - among other professional affiliations. Contact Doug Winter at [email protected].

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  1. Doug,
    Your columns are always interesting, but I don’t agree with #10 because the grading services make mistakes from time to time and there are some overgraded coins out there. A good student of any series should be able to grade coins from that series with reasonable accuracy. Thanks for another great column with some very good advice.

  2. i agree with scott. as collectors we have state of the art grading equipment,books,internet info, and years of wasted nites going through 1000s of mostly worthless coins. other than that i do have a life!

  3. I think even experienced collectors and dealers have a tendency to overestimate their grading abilities and to underestimate the difficulty of grading certain series like $2.50 and $5 Indian gold coins, which even a seasoned pro can have trouble distinguishing a high AU from a low BU.

  4. I’d put as #11: Look at lots of coins in person.

    If you go to a big show with a little beforehand knowledge, you can see how strike, surfaces, originality, and availability actually apply to the given series that you are collecting. Also, it will give you an idea of what is really rare instead of what is “rare” according to some advertisement.

  5. I started collecting about 4 mths ago, your article was the first I ever read. I`ve gone into everything (coins & banknotes USA & world). All 10 points are what I been using, except focusing on one catalog. I have started collecting not for a quick turnaround in return, but rather I enjoy it & will pass it along to my grandchildren.

  6. I think that you should be able to discern the difference between a MS62 and MS63…you may not be able to tell the difference between MS67 and MS68 but MS60-62 typically have eye appeal issues and MS63 tends to start to have better eye appeal.

  7. Doug, I usually find your columns (particularly those on gold coins) to be terrific but this one really misses the mark. Everyone who is serious about buying an investing in coins should learn how to grade. Simply looking at a NGC or PCGS coin or even ones with CAC stickers and accepting those marks as gospel is sheer ignorance. Both services overgrazed coins and CAC has a tendency to sticker toned coins that are super ugly or at best unattractive. Learning to grad coins can provide people the opportunity to purchase coins that are superior for the grade and avoid the average graded coins. Have to strongly disagree with you on this one.

  8. Hello ,I’m A Old Fashioned Grandmom Who Find’sThe History Of Old Coins Fasinating !
    I Have A Dated Coin Looks Like The Year
    1876 ,Can You Tell Me Who Face Is On This Coin
    It Is Not President Lincoln Face
    Can l Send You A Picture Of This Coin

  9. I’m have to say I collect coins for the looks and value. So I dont focus on only one series at a time because I dont care to have alot of common date Morgans or Walking liberty halfs when I can only focus on Key Dates or extremely beautiful or rare coins. So only one I disagree with is focusing on one series at a time. I love all old coins in general


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