HomeCollecting StrategiesCoin Rarities & Related Topics: Many Exciting, Classic U.S. coins Are Not...

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Many Exciting, Classic U.S. coins Are Not Expensive

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #162 …..
Collectors or prospective collectors should not get the impression that terrific, classic U.S. coins must be really expensive. People could certainly get such an impression from news reports or published commentary about great coins. To be terrific, though, a coin does not have be rare, of gem quality, have a landmark pedigree, have a special story behind it, or be of tremendous historical importance. Of course, I enjoy analyzing the coins that do have these characteristics. Nevertheless, when I have the time to view a large number of lots in a major coin auction or to see most of the offerings in the bourse area at a major coin convention, many of the classic U.S. coins that really grab my attention and bring a smile to my face are not expensive. Indeed, there are many terrific and exciting, classic U.S. coins for collectors that are not expensive.

Some publications, unfortunately, report on auctions by listing the lots that brought the highest prices. Such lists are very misleading. A coin that brings $20,000 at an auction may not be more appealing to experts than some coins that cost less than $500 each. Additionally, dealers brag about the coins that they have sold for “a lot of money” and collections of very expensive coins are much more likely to receive attention in the media than modest collections.

I hope that people who are interested in terrific, inexpensive coins will refer to my recent series on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $250 each. Further, a large number cost less than $100 each. Some significant, classic U.S. coins even cost less than $10, though these are a topic for another discussion. Certainly for less than $5000, a collector could acquire a really wonderful and important U.S. coin. It is not my purpose here to list terrific coins; it is to put forth criteria that define terrific coins, in accordance with traditions of rare coin collecting in the U.S.. By the end of this discussion, it should be clear that many classic U.S. coins fulfill such criteria.

To follow this discussion, it would help to have a basic knowledge of the types and denominations of U.S. coins minted prior to 1934 or so. I ask absolute beginners to click to read my column on advice for true beginners and to at least glance at my two part series on why 1933/34 is the true dividing line between classic and modern U.S. coinage. I also refer people to my piece on “Choosing Grades, for Beginning & Intermediate Collectors,” which gives advice as relating to the physical characteristics that correspond to specific ranges of grades. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) Another piece aimed at beginning to intermediate collectors is, I hope, helpful to some people.

I. Attractive Natural Toning

The main criterion for a terrific silver coin is not rarity, is not a 67 grade, is not historical importance, is not the fame of the coin’s designer, and is not the pedigree. The main criterion is attractive, natural toning, though this is not enough, as I will explain.

I focus on silver coins at the moment, as the colors of gold coins, copper coins and nickel coins call for additional explanations. When silver coins are properly stored, they usually (though not always) tone some combination of gray, russet, and/or shades of brown colors. Frequently, blue, green, and blue-green colors naturally form as well. Natural apricot, orange-russet, and red hues are not common and most experts find them to be desirable. The artificial toning of coins is a terrible problem, and graders at major services are sometimes deceived into thinking that artificial colors are natural.

There are logical and cultural reasons as to why a coin with natural toning is superior to a coin of the same type, date and certified grade that has been artifically brightened (via dipping or other means) or has been doctored. (I define dipping and doctoring in a past analysis of a relevant dispute.)

Indeed, if doctoring is allowed or ignored in the future to the extent that it was in the recent past, then more and more classic U.S. coins will be artifically colored, surgically altered, chemically transformed or otherwise harmfully modified. To a larger extent, the coin business would become a game centering upon chemistry, not the cultural pursuit that it has been for centuries. A coin’s natural toning is part of the history of the coin and relates to its pedigree. Furthermore, though not doctoring, the dipping of a coin (in a standard acidic solution) involves stripping much of its history and character. The toning that develops on a coin when it is properly stored by collectors or others is part of the ‘life’ and personality of the coin.

While ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ I have found, through interviewing sophisticated collectors and advanced dealers for more than twenty years, that there is usually (not always) widescale agreement on the attractiveness of most coins. I am now referring to sophisticated collectors and to expert dealers who truly care about coins, not to those who just became experts to ‘make money.’

In my three part series on appreciating natural toning in 2009, I cite sophisticated collectors, including Dr. Steven Duckor, Jay Brahin, Stewart Blay and Mark Hagen. Other sophisticated collectors who I know do not wish for their respective names to be mentioned, at least not yet.

“As a collector becomes more sophisticated, if he does, he develops a greater appreciation for natural toning and originality, along with an understanding of the harm done by dipping or doctoring,” Richard Burdick has found over his career as a coin expert, which has spanned nearly four decades. Burdick has participated in most of the epic auctions that have occurred since the late 1960s, especially the Garrett and Pittman sales. He has been very much involved in building landmark collections, including the “Foxfire Type Set,” one of the all-time greatest type sets of U.S. copper and silver coins.

Generally, the deceased collectors who built some of the greatest collections of all time favored attractive coins with natural toning and choice surfaces: Louis Eliasberg, the Norweb family, the Garrett family, Thomas Cleneay, George Earle, John J. Pittman, and others. Many of the scarce or rare coins in the James A. Stack, Sr. and Floyd Starr collections are, too, known for excellent natural toning and for never having been dipped or doctored.

Richard Burdick is “often able to identify Garrett silver coins, even in recent years, because many of them have similar toning characteristics. Many Garrett coins are great examples of natural toning. They were in standard coin cabinets for decades upon decades. A large number of Garrett coins are terrific.” Richard is also enthusiastic about many of the coins that were in the Norweb and Eliasberg Collections, especially Eliasberg coins that were previously in the Clapp Collection. Richard, I, and many other enthusiasts are generally in agreement in regards to which coins are terrific.

Indeed, coins pedigreed to the Eliasberg, Norweb or Garrett Collections are frequently prime examples of coins with attractive, natural toning. Quite a few of the coins that were previously in the James A. Stack, Sr. Collection showcase natural toning as well. When Pittman’s U.S. coins were auctioned in 1997 and 1998, a very large percentage of the pre-1860 silver coins featured excellent, natural toning. I have viewed many of these pedigreed coins myself and I have extensively interviewed experts about the respective qualities of specific coins. I find that there is a great deal of agreement on the quality and attractiveness of most of the classic U.S. coins from the just named collections. Agreement in this regard far outweighs differences of opinion.

I have been involved in the coin collecting community, broadly defined, since I was five years old. I am convinced that ninety percent of the dealers who assert that grading is “subjective” or that “grading is just an opinion” are usually those who do not know how to grade coins and/or who are selling overgraded or otherwise misrepresented coins. It is true, of course, that there are legitimate differences of opinion among true experts regarding grades of specific coins, though the range of these differences is generally bounded. Besides, the extent to which grading experts are in agreement regarding minimum and maximum grades for specific coins should be emphasized.

I am referring here to the widescale agreement regarding natural toning and the criteria for terrific coins. I am not implying that there is widescale agreement regarding the numerical grade of every terrific coin.

My general points here about terrific coins are not merely my opinions. They are reflective of a concensus of experts, though no perspective will ever be unanimous. In regards to opinions and logic, I refer people to my the third part series on appreciating naturally toned coins. In that series, I demonstrate the importance of natural toning. The current point here is to emphasize that terrific coins are usually not very expensive.

There is no need to buy coins with great pedigrees to appreciate natural toning. Indeed, “some pedigrees are negatives,” John Albanese declares. “Some famous collectors were not top level graders or received poor advice. Of course, the Parmelee, Eliasberg, Norweb and Garrett coins are usually top notch. I do not view the Bass pedigree as a positive. I do not like it when the names of active dealers are put on PCGS or NGC holders and I am usually not impressed by these,” Albanese adds.

Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC. John has owned or otherwise traded many of the rarest U.S. coins and a wide variety of appealing, not so rare coins. John points out that some coins with recognized pedigrees are not terrific, or even appealing.

Albanese “would be proud to have Duckor coins. Another living collector that comes to mind is Stewart Blay. [He and Dr. Duckor] are two collectors who are true expert graders,” John states.

Hours after I talked to John, I called Richard Burdick. Without knowing that Albanese mentioned Blay and Dr. Duckor, or that I had cited them in my series in 2009, Richard Burdick, too, “refers to Duckor and Blay as sophisticated collectors who have developed an understanding of originality and of great coins in general.”

I am sometimes horrified when I come across coins from the Norweb and Eliasberg Collections have been dipped or doctored since their appearances in epic auctions. Also, it should be emphasized that there are thousands of coins without stated pedigrees that are exciting.

Coins stored in standard kinds of envelopes and albums for significant periods of time will often develop, excellent natural toning, though some toning episodes are upsetting. There are literally tens of thousands of attractive, naturally toned, classic U.S. coins available to collectors.

“When I twirl a coin clockwise under an incandescent light at different angles,” Burdick reveals, “I look for human caused impairments and get an impression of the personality of the coin. Any classic U.S. coin that has beautiful natural toning, choice surfaces and no serious imperfections can be a terrific coin,” Richard asserts.

II. Backstories

I am skeptical of coins with backstories.The concept of a backstory, however, is different from that of a famous pedigree. An Eliasberg pedigree is not a backstory; it is a ‘front story.’ The concept of a backstory refers to a story relating to a person or a family who used to own a particular coin, in a situation where the former owner did not form a great collection.

Recently, Doug Winter remarked about the “small red presentation boxes which people used to give gold coins in as Christmas gifts.” According to Doug, these “were reasonably common” in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century. Winter emphasized that he is prone to buy coins that come with such presentation boxes and “sell the peripherals alongside the coins to add to the wow factor.”

If a coin is terrific, it will be so regardless of whether it was ever in a presentation box or was ever a gift. I fully understand that a coin may have tremendous sentimental value to an individual who receives it as a gift.

I am sad that, when I was in college, I sold the 1914-D Lincoln Cent that my mother gave to me for my tenth birthday. I would not, though, expect others to value this 1914-D above other 1914-D cents because it has sentimental value to me. Moreover, there are many coins that I owned as a kid or a teenager that I wish I had never sold. Sometimes, I see these in my dreams. I sort of want them back. Most, though, are not terrific coins.

These are important in my mind because they relate to my personal history as a collector and coin enthusiast. No one, however, would recommend that others pay a substantial premium for the coins that I owned as a kid.

“A lot of stories you hear about individual coins may not be true or are impossible to verify,” John Albanese remarks. “A coin can always be paired with an old case. Most classic U.S. coins have stories. We just don’t know them. Many were handled by famous people or just hardworking ordinary folks,” John says.

A collector-friend of mine bought a coin that, reportedly, went to the moon as part of the one of the Apollo missions. Could a buyer be sure that the coin purchased is really the coin that traveled to the moon? Was it offered with photo documentation, several signed affidavits and a video history? I doubt it. Even if there was some accompanying evidence, would there be room for considerable doubts? Besides, suppose that this specific coin did truly travel to the moon, would such a journey really turn an unremarkable coin into a terrific coin?

III. General Historical Importance

The concept of general historical importance is dramatically apart from the idea of a backstory relating to a specific coin. All genuine 1796 quarters date from the first year that quarters were struck in the U.S. and are of a one-year type. Genuine U.S. coins dating from 1862 to 1864 were minted during the period of the Civil War. All Carson City Mint coins from the 1870s were struck during the period of the so called Wild West, a significant era in the history of the U.S.

Thousands of 1857-S Double Eagles and many other coins were found in the shipwreck of the S.S. Central America, the loss of which had considerable historical impact. Because coins have such historical connections, does it really follow that all of these are terrific or are much more important than other coins do not have quite as noteworthy historical ties?

Many 1796 quarters, CC Mint coins, coins from the Central America wreck, and Civil Era coins are unpleasant. Indeed, some have been so terribly treated that they exhibit horrid colors or are barely recognizable. Are these still great coins because of their roles in history? Besides, is an 1863 quarter really that much more important than an 1857 quarter? Each collector can and should answer this kind of question in his or her own way.

I am fascinated by the fact that, while the Civil War was raging, many coin collectors attended a large number of coin auctions in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Curiously, during a period in the 1990s, original catalogs from these auctions were available via the Internet for extremely low prices. I bought many of them from Charles Davis. Prices for these have since risen. While the idea of such auctions occurring is exciting and it is fun to imagine how they unfolded, I grew tired of inspecting the actual catalogs, which were poorly written and awkwardly printed on problematic paper.

In general, when I read an auction catalog featuring rare and important paper items, including pieces of great historical importance, I become excited. If and when I view such auction lots, I am saddened. Though I am not disappointed in an intellectual sense, at an emotional level, I always hope that the old paper items will appear cooler or more interesting than they really appear in actuality. Items of great historical importance, such as documents signed by Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, are often more enjoyable to read (and write) about than to examine.

While the historical aspects of specific coins are sometimes very exciting, the respective coins are not necessarily exciting themselves, in my view. If a coin has been over-dipped, holed, doctored, very improperly cleaned, or accidentally damaged in the environment, it still may be very interesting or even fascinating, though not terrific and exciting. I understand and appreciate the historical importance of certain items. Even so, the quality of an item is very much a part of its excitement as a collectible.

IV. Quality Apart from Numerical Grade

I am NOT asserting that a coin has to grade 65 or higher to be exciting. Indeed, many circulated coins are exciting. Generally, for rare and non-rare classic U.S. coins, there is a need to distinguish the level of detail from other aspects of a coin’s quality.

I am now referring to sub-60 grade coins. Usually, an Extremely Fine-40 grade coin has more surviving detail than a Very Fine-30 grade coin of the same date and type that has been certified by the same service. I contend, though, that, in many cases, the VF-30 coin may be terrific and the EF-40 grade coin may be unpleasant. Originality, nice surfaces, and pleasant natural toning are exciting.

A VF-20 grade coin may sometimes have much fewer contact marks and hairline scratches than an EF-40 grade coin of the same type and date. Scratches and other contact marks are primary components of the technical aspect of a coin’s grade if the coin grades above 60. For coins that grade below 60, technical aspects, surface quality and eye appeal must be considered by the viewer as these will not be completely factored into the numerical grade. Indeed, they may not be factored at all, as it would be awkward and difficult in logical terms for a grading service to assign an EF-40 grade to a coin that has the details of a VF-20 coin because of its superior eye appeal, originality, mark free surfaces and toning.

It is true, however, that a major grading service may award a VF-25 grade to coin that the respective graders figure has the detail of a VF-20 grade if such a coin has excellent surfaces or even assign an AU-58 grade to coin that has the details of an AU-55 or -53 grade. Typically, though, a certified, numerical grade below 55 refers to the amount of wear and the detail that survives, and not to technical factors, surface quality or eye appeal.

Sub-60 grade coins should really receive three grades, one relating to the level of detail (and wear), one relating to originality, and one relating to eye appeal. The technical aspects can be incorporated into the level of eye appeal. Pleasant, natural toning would contribute to both the originality and eye appeal scores.

Albanese has repeatedly emphasized the appeal of “Very Fine grade coins, as they usually have more character and history than MS-61 to MS-63 grade coins.” He is referring to silver coins with natural toning, to gold coins with relatively original color, and to copper coins with natural brown, healthy surfaces.

The classic U.S. coins that are terrific are those that score highly in the categories of originality and eye appeal, regardless of their assigned numerical grades. Furthermore, a coin must be at least moderately scarce to be terrific. There is little excitement in collecting coins that are extremely common, as there is no challenge in obtaining them. It would not be fun for adults to collect sand at the beach, grass in Pennsylvania, lake water in Minnesota, or snow in Buffalo, New York.

My overall thesis here is besides a definition of scarcity or condition rarity. I am talking about the originality and eye appeal of coins at all grade levels. A Barber Half that legitimately grades VF-20 may be much more exciting than one of the same date that legitimately grades AU-50. A moderately dipped Barber Half, with a few hairlines, could be accurately and fairly graded AU-50, according to widely accepted grading standards. Yet, such a coin would not be exciting. A VF-20 Barber Half that is naturally toned russet and rich gray, with subtle touches of blue, may be terrific.

Even in AG-03 grade coin may be exciting. It is hard, though, to find exciting silver coins that grade below Fine-12, as these tend to have taken a beating in commerce and/or been substantially subjected to harmful liquids during their lifetimes.

Albanese points out that relatively “original, nice Liberty Head Half Eagles and Eagles, in EF-40 to AU-50 grades, may be obtained for moderate prices, not much over gold bullion levels.” I add that many dates in the series of Liberty Head Quarter Eagles are not expensive. Most of these are much scarcer than Indian Head Quarter Eagles, which are common.

Terrific, scarce coins of the following classic series, in Fine-12 to EF-40 grades, may be found, at very modest prices. Here is a list of classic types, which is not complete, just a group of series that I recommend to a wide range of buyers, including beginning and intermediate level collectors: Matron Head Large Cents (1816-35), Braided Hair Large Cents (1839-57),Two Cent Pieces, Three Cent Nickels, Liberty Nickels, Capped Bust Half Dimes, Liberty Seated Half Dimes, Liberty Seated Dimes, Barber Dimes, Liberty Seated Quarters, Barber Quarters, Standing Liberty Quarters, Capped Bust Half Dollars, Liberty Seated Half Dollars, Barber Half Dollars and Liberty Seated Silver Dollars.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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  1. Probably if you are not eyeing gem grade coins, most of the U.S. coins are within most budgets. Also, try to keep from falling into the marketing gimmicks of shady coin dealers out there.


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