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Coin Collecting: Do We Still Have a $20 Hobby ?

By Mark Benvenuto (updated 10-2011)

If you are like many collectors, you may have spent a bit of time wondering just where our hobby has been going since 2007. With the economic slump, then the proclamations of recovery, you can’t help but wonder where that recovery really is when gold flirts with price tags like $1,250 $1680 per ounce, and when silver gets close to $20 $32 per ounce. It makes a person wonder if there I still anything out there that doesn’t automatically have a hefty price tag slapped on it.

For all of us who pine for some bygone day when coins were cheap (if there ever really was one), we present for your collecting pleasure a laundry list of what can still be added to a collection for $20. Here we go.

First: Dealer bargain bins of cents, nickels, dimes, and quarters.

If you have always been the type of collector to wander past these jumbled, often chaotic offerings, slow down. Smell the roses, as it were. Dealers often buy large numbers of coins for a select few within the group that they know they can sell for a profit. This isn’t being crafty, sneaky, or cheap. Dealers have to live and have to eat. The coin business isn’t the grocery business, meaning you can’t eat what you don’t sell. The profit they make the difference between what they spend for a coin, and what they sell it for it what keeps the food on their tables. So, what happens to the many coins in a purchase that aren’t really big ticket items, but that might have been purchased along with those potential gems? They end up in the bargain bin.

Also known as the junk box, dealer bargain bins can be the home of some wonderful U.S. coins. Proof quarters, nickels, dimes, and cents that have been cracked out of US Mint cases sometimes end up here, often for only a dollar or two. A person with a bit of patience can assemble a date run of any or all of these denominations. Additionally, there are plenty of bins that have been sorted according to denomination and series. Wheat back cents come quickly to mind as a coin that ends up in plenty of “copper bargain bins,” if that is a proper term. Loads of these go for much less than a dollar per coin.

Older Jefferson nickels, as well as well-circulated Buffalo nickels, are also the stuff of bargain bins. Silver isn’t entirely absent from the bargain bin either. Roosevelt dimes are often found in them, as well as some of the more common Mercury dimes. A person with a keen eye and some patience can assemble some good looking date runs for $20 or less. If you move up to quarters, you’ll receive less of them for your $20 than you will dimes, but some careful searching can land you a handful of silver Washington, or even Standing Liberty, quarters. Certainly, these won’t be mint state specimens, but they can still be handsome coins.

Second: Silver dollars in circulated, but attractive conditions.

Okay, if smaller U.S. coins aren’t your bag, there are still some bargains to be had among what are arguably the most collected of US silver coins, the Morgan and Peace dollars. Those big, fat Morgans are not entirely out of reach, although $20 will only get you one. The common dates, such as the 1879, the 1880, the 1880-S and the 1881-S to name a few examples, can be had for about $20 each in grades such as very fine. Again, these aren’t mint state gems, but they aren’t dogs either.

The tail end of the Morgan dollar series also has a few promising items. Specifically, the 1921, as well as its siblings from Denver and San Francisco, can all be had for about $20 per coin in a grade such as extra fine. There’s a pretty trio that a person on a budget can still collect. The Peace dollars are just about always check by jowl with the Morgans when it comes to dealer selections. The most common Peace dollar is the 1922, with a mintage of a whopping 51.7 million coins to its official tally. Today you can nab one in almost uncirculated condition for $20. But don’t stop with just this one Peace dollar. Take a look through any of the reference price lists and you’ll find several of these large, silver disks that list at just about the same price tag.

Third: Franklin half dollars.

Tempting though the Walking Liberty half dollars are, let’s simply forget them for the moment, and go to a half dollar series that will be much friendlier to you and your $20 bill. The Franklin half dollars always seem to be in the shadow of the Walking halves, but that’s a good thing when we are looking to keep our costs down. The bad news for these coins is that if you want a proof Franklin half dollar, you will have to part with at least $40 to get one. The good news is that if you want to assemble a collection of circulated Franklin halves, virtually every single date and mint mark are available for less than $20. The common dates are usually $15 – $20 in the low end of mint state. Even the key coin to the series, the 1955, can be had for about $20 in almost uncirculated. And, if you drop down a couple of grades, the Franklin halves become truly inexpensive.

Fourth: Circulated Liberty nickels.

Let’s take a step back to a base metal series, but also a step back in time, and add the Liberty nickels to our “under $20″ list. Almost every collector on the planet knows about the 1913 rarity; and collectors who have looked at this series in detail know that the 1912-D and 1912-S are key coins as well. But look at the common dates which generally means everything from the 1883 without the word “CENTS” on the reverse, right up to the 1912.

The mintages were always in the millions, and often in the tens of millions. Your $20 can get you a lot of these nickels, depending upon the condition you want. Many of them will run only $1 – $2 in the lower circulated grades. Grades such as fine to very fine straddle the line from $5 to $15. It seems there’s a lot still to be had in this series, even if your budget is tight.

Fifth: The oldest U.S. coin you can find in fine, or F-12 condition.

This kind of collecting (looking for a specific grade, as opposed to a specific denomination) can be a fun challenge. Plenty of Indian Head cents can be had in F-12 for only a couple of dollars. Believe it or not, a few of the common date two cent coppers can also be had in this grade for about $20. As well, quite a few of the three cent nickel pieces are available for $20 or less in F-12. A few of the latter year half dimes also qualify as $20 coins. We’ve already mentioned the Liberty Head nickels, but the common Buffalo nickels can be had in the same grade, often for less than $5.

Quite a few common date Seated Liberty dimes fall into this price zone, as do numerous common Barber dimes. On top of all that, several of the Seated Liberty quarters, and even a few of the Standing Liberty quarters can be had at this grade for $20, or a bit less. It’s only when we get to half dollars and dollars that the silver content starts to get in the way. But we’ve already seen that there are possibilities in the Franklin halves, as well as the Morgan and Peace dollars. Thus, if you are willing to look at a solid but circulated grade, you can still find quite a bit within the many U.S. series.

Sixth: Foreign coins from countries now in the euro zone.

What happens if you want to get out of United States coinage though? Well, how about taking a look at some of the many coins that were used not so long 36 The California Numismatist • Fall 2010 ago in the countries that now use euros as their common currency? There are German marks, French francs, Italian lira, Austrian schillings, Spanish pesetas, Dutch guilders, and a host of other nations’ coins out there, all waiting to be examined by collectors. It can be a whole new world, especially if you have always concentrated on U.S. coinage before.

Now, certainly, there are no blue books with neat holes for each of these European pieces. But look at a Standard Catalog of World Coins and find out just how each system was set up before they made the switch, and you’ll have some idea of where you might want to start. For example, there were 100 pfennigs in each German mark, with the largest coin being the 5 mark piece. Or, the Italian lira originally broke down into 100 centisimi, decades ago. The Italian government had seen so much of the value bleed away from the lira over time though that there were 500 lira coins on one end, and small, aluminum 5 and 10 lira coins on the other, at least right at the time of the switch. Look in detail at some of the other nations in Europe. Then, go look through some dealers’ stocks, perhaps at the next show you attend. You’ll find plenty of these at $1 or less.

Seventh: Silver crown-sized coins of the world.

If there are Morgan and Peace dollars to be had at $20, there have to be some crown-sized coins of the world that come in at the same price tag. Have you ever looked at the trade dollars of Britain? How about the large, silver Japanese yen of the last century? The large, silver pieces of South America also shouldn’t be counted out. And of course, the larger coins we just mentioned, of many European countries, can also fall into this category. When it comes to the numismatic version of globetrotting, $20 can still take you pretty far. Well, that list lengthened rather quickly.

Please note, we haven’t included anything made of gold. Every coin made with it is simply too expensive right now. Also, we haven’t included U.S. or foreign bullion coins, even those made of silver. They can be fun series to collect, but again, are too expensive for our purposes. Finally, we haven’t included any older U.S., large, copper series. Though these are purely collector coins, old copper seems to rise with the prices of silver and gold.

But hey, we have proved that a single piece of U.S. currency with President Jackson’s face on it can still buy a serious numismatist some serious fun, even when the economy is rough. What will be your next $20 venture into fun?

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  1. I’ve been building a Franklin half dollar set in the past two months, and buying coins that are very choice or gem. I have 15 now including the 1949-S. Average cost is $28. A few weeks ago I lost 4 auctions by a $1 over my max bid. So I’ve tried bidding on the 4 at the winning prices. $37 $33 $39 $43 from those auctions I barely lost.

    Now…I’ve lost with the winning bidders bidding as high as $50 $60 $70 for the same coins. Just crazy.

    I did a search to see if there was an article recommending the franklins recently, and came upon your article.

  2. The problem is that NCG and PCGS are pricing the collector out of the game. Thats why the go to Au coins you know they are real and you don’t have to pay someone to tell you they are at a $100 a pop

  3. I love looking thru the junk bins I have found some pretty great coins in my opinion they are not valuable but the history behind them to me is the amazing part especially for $0.25 is awesome. I have found a great Indian Head, 2 Depression Era Tax Tokens, WWII Ration Token, and much more so it pays to check the junk bin no matter how annoying it is to search thru hundreds of coins.

  4. I just scored 100 rounds each of 5 Reichsmark coins of the Garrison Church no date and the Hindenburg no swastika issues. They are the result of hoarding when the national socialists demanded a recall of all silver currency. These coins are 90% feinsilver. They were stored in
    PVC envelopes since the late 50`s or early 60’s and were covered with the green slime associated with the decomposition of chloride based plastics. Luckily they were not given enough
    moisture for an acidic condition to develop. In short; I wound up with a hoard of coins that are to 50% very fine and to 50% almost to uncirculated. The acidic damage was almost nonexistent.
    12,5g feinsilver/ piece at $4,70 per coin in Sept.2015. Luck is very important. If I keep the best ones and sell off the 65-75% that don’t make the cut (when silver jumps); I get primo coins for nothing. Expense, like all other conceivable values in an Einsteinian universe are relative.
    Don’t lose your head. Don’t lose your head.


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