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Coin Collecting Strategies – Don’t Follow The Herd

Stock photo of a sheep.
Sometimes, the best coin collecting strategies are the ones you devise for yourself.

By Al Doyle for CoinWeek….

This article isn’t designed to get anyone to trod along a popular or familiar path. Why not let your natural interests lead to creating a unique and customized approach to numismatics?

It seems that the standard date and mintmark/Whitman folder method of coin collecting seldom works out as hoped. Using the Morgan dollar series as a popular example, the person who starts out with good intentions and the goal of a date set usually realizes before long that high-priced keys such as the 1889-CC, 1893-S and 1894 makes completion an impossible dream.

Even if the funds are available for obtaining every date in a certain series, are there other (possibly more fulfilling) ways to collect coins than what could become a rote process of filling holes? Here are some interesting and out of the box coin collecting strategies that I have seen over the years.

The Everyman Collecting Method – BU Sliders

A photograph of an 1885-CC Morgan dollar graded PCGS AU58 CAC.
An 1885-CC Morgan dollar graded PCGS AU58 CAC.

Think back to the 1980s just as third-party grading was about to revolutionize the coin business/hobby. In those days, AU-58 pieces could be sold as “sliders” at whatever the market would bear or offered as MS-63s to the unsuspecting. A savvy friend developed an appreciation for flashy-looking coins with a hint of rub priced at much less than choice BUs.

Since his grading skills were solid, this guy knew what to look for when shopping for bargains. A fair number of buyers now seek AU-58s in third-party holders, but my forward-looking friend was able to put together a nice collection of eye-appealing coins for modest prices before others caught on to AU-58 concept.

The Low-Ball Collecting Method – Coins Worn Completely Flat

Consider the opposite approach, especially if you’re the kind of person with an offbeat sense of humor. More than a few numismatists have put together type sets of the most heavily circulated coins they could find.

A photograph of an 1877 Indian Head cent graded PCGS AG03 CAC.
An 1877 Indian Head cent graded PCGS AG03 CAC.

The rules of this coin collecting strategy are simple: To qualify for inclusion, coins must have been worn to the Poor-1 to About Good-3 range by honest usage in circulation. Carrying a circ coin as a pocket piece or other artificial means of lowering the grade are prohibited.

Obtaining older pieces for the crummy type set is easy, as well-worn large cents, Seated Liberty dimes and Bust quarters can be found wherever coins are sold. Try and hunt down a low-grade silver or clad Roosevelt dime, Eisenhower dollar or Susan B. Anthony dollar if you want a little-known challenge. Even a Very Fine Ike or Susie would be quite a “prize” in this competition.

Such a lower-grade set can be expanded to include coins such as the 1882-CC to 1884-CC and 1903-O Morgan dollars, the 1931-S Lincoln cent and the 1950-D Jefferson nickel. Because few examples were released into circulation, these dates routinely grade in the MS-61 to MS-66 range. An 1883-CC Morgan in evenly worn Very Good-8 is vastly scarcer than the many thousands of MS-65 survivors.

Pursue Semi-Keys – Scarce Coins that are Often Overlooked

Speaking of type sets, why don’t more collectors go after semi-key dates? That would make for a challenging project. Fill the Seated Liberty half dime hole with an 1865-S (mintage 120,000, or less than half of the famed 1916-D Mercury dime) instead of the easily found 1872. How about an 1890 Liberty gold $2.50 (mintage 8,720) rather than the ultra-common 1907?

Oddball Coins in Slabs – Profit from Others’ Mistakes

Just about any 21st century numismatist who owns U.S. coins valued at $100 or more is going to have some “slabs” on hand, but not all third-party graded items should have been shipped to PCGS, NGC or ANACS for certification. How did that 1853 Coronet large cent or 1907 Barber quarter in Fine-12 end up in a sonically sealed holder? There are MS-62 1959 Franklin half dollars and 1943-S Mercury dimes in MS-61 that reside in major grading service holders.

It’s obvious that such collectible but lower-value coins should have never been sent in for certification, but it happens on a regular basis. Pursuing these mutts of the slabbed coin field could make for a diverse, inexpensive and unusual collection. If you want to move up the value scale, look for common-date gold $5s, $10s and $20s in VF.

Build Your Own Roll of Circulated Gold Coins

A photograph of a 1924 Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin graded PCGS MS63 CAC.
1924 Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin graded PCGS MS63 CAC.

Small moves sometimes lead to much bigger things, as one man found out when he obtained a circulated $5 Liberty. It was the most affordable way to meet the goal of owning a genuine pre-1933 U.S. gold coin. Like eating potato chips, this numismatist couldn’t stop with just one.

That first purchase led to a few more $5 Libs, and then creativity took over. What would it take to eventually accumulate a 40-piece roll of half eagles? How many different dates could be purchased without paying a premium? Wouldn’t it be nice if a few $5 Indians were added to the roll? At current prices, a roll of $5 gold makes for a very condensed form of wealth in addition to representing a real collecting achievement. Now that’s a coin collecting strategy that has the potential to pay dividends. 

The Guy Who Collected Nothing but 1922-D Cents

Some collectors could care less about diversity. Never mind specializing on one series, as they have narrowed the process down to a certain date or two. One veteran dealer has a long-time customer who has bought almost nothing but 1922-D Lincoln cents (not the “no D” variety) in VF and EF over many years.

Not everyone could be so focused, but there is some logic in the buyer’s thinking. The 1922-D was the only Lincoln cent struck for circulation that year, and the mintage of 7.16 million is modest when compared to the rest of the series. Even with a natural interest in various designs, I could take at least a few steps down such a path. I’m a sucker for 1875-CC to 1877-CC Seated dimes in Fine or better (the goal is to own a roll of these coins) along with any nice-looking 1922 to 1936 George V Canadian 5-cent piece.

You CAN Go Your Own Way

Don’t let someone else tell you how to collect coins. It’s a very personal decision, and those who have an independent mind and a willingness to take the less-traveled road can find great satisfaction in the journey.

Al Doyle
Al Doyle
Al Doyle has written about coins for several different publishers, including the columns "$100 and Under" (2013- ) and "Budget Minded" (2022- ) for The Numismatist. Al has also written for the Chicago Tribune newspaper.

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  1. Al, your advice, to stay away from the herd and make one’s own way for success, rings true for most walks of life, and especially so for activities like collecting things of value. For example, your suggestion to find and collect the Susan B. Anthony dollar is right on spot, it being the first circulating U.S. coin with the portrait of an actual woman rather than a mythical or an allegorical female figure. Isn’t that a ‘separator’ factor for a coin in itself? Also, it is described at many places to be “one of the most unpopular coins in American history” – and that to me should be music to a collector’s ears as they’re not to judge ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about a coin but to look at facts that make it ‘unique’ and collectable.

    Very nice and informative article by you above. Thanks.


  2. I enjoyed this article and agree with Sandy’s comments. I might argue with the slabbed mutts, but only because I think if someone wants to pay the fee, then more power to them if it’s a low-grade coin. If it’s a dumb mistake on their part, they won’t do it again.

    Bob Lemke wrote about a kid who collected pictures of rare coins from newspaper adverts, magazines, etc, and would replace a picture if he found a picture of the same coin in better condition. Brilliant! That just makes me smile.


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