By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Company (NGC) ……
In coin collecting, there is no right or wrong decision when it comes to deciding which varieties should be collected.
In the last several months a client of mine has become quite involved collecting Morgan Silver Dollars. This client is quite studious and has spent considerable time learning the series. Every once in a while he will ask a question about collecting Morgan Dollars that may seem obvious to seasoned collectors, but he clearly is not someone new to the hobby. His most recent inquiry was about the subject of Morgan Dollar varieties. The question is a very good one: what are varieties and which coins are part of a complete Morgan Dollar set? This same question could be asked for about every series, and the answer is actually quite complex.
According to the NGC website, the term variety is defined as a coin that differs from its basic design type in some distinctive way and is thus differentiated by collectors. This is a good definition of the term, but does not necessarily give an indication about how to collect them. Collecting by die variety is about as old as the hobby itself in the United States. Many of the most active early collectors of United States coins collected Colonial coinage and Large Cents by die variety. This part of the market is very mature and there are thousands of collectors devoted to owning as many different Large Cent varieties as possible. The standard reference for the series was written by William Sheldon decades ago. Most dates of Large Cents were produced from several different dies, and each is very slightly different. Some were struck in large numbers with a plentiful supply of survivors. Others saw very limited production resulting in great rarities today. The 1793 Wreath Cent is a great example. There are several varieties that would be considered common and two varieties that are now called “Strawberry Leaf.” These are significantly rarer, with just a few known.
Unlike Large Cents, most other series of United States coinage are not collected by die variety to the same extent. There is a very detailed book on Morgan Dollars by die variety by Leroy Van Alan and George Mallis. These coins are collected by so-called “VAM” number. There are lots of collectors for these varieties, but the market is not nearly as active as for early copper coinage. Interestingly, there have been other references for the series that identify the top 100 “VAM” issues, and these are quite popular. Many of the “VAM” varieties display extremely minor differences and are a bit too subtle for most collectors. The top 100 list is for varieties that are more dramatic and have a greater commercial appeal. A couple of examples of these would be the 1888-O Double Die Obverse (pictured above) and the 1901 Double Die Reverse. Both are quite visible with the naked eye and command substantial premiums. They are also both listed in A Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”).
For decades one of the biggest arbiters of what varieties should be collected alongside of regular issues has been the Red Book. Ken Bressett, the current and longtime editor has been scrupulous about which varieties should and should not be listed in the Red Book. He rightly feels an obligation to be careful when adding an issue to the book. Many collectors want to own all of the coins listed in the Red Book for the series they collect. If the Red Book listed every variety for every United States coin known, it would be thousands of pages long. Each year Ken is lobbied by collectors and dealers to include different varieties. New varieties do get listed from time to time, but not without careful consideration of how the market will react.
Another guide for what varieties to collect are those listed in the Greysheet. This price guide lists only the most widely collected varieties, such as the 1879-CC Capped Die Morgan Silver Dollar (pictured on the right) and many others. It would be interesting to assemble a list of all varieties of United States coinage that are listed in both guides. Another interesting exercise would be to look at Red Books or Greysheets from the 1980s or earlier to study which varieties were listed at that time. This would give collectors an idea of which coins have stood the test of time and will most likely be collected in the near future.
Probably the most exciting aspect of collecting coins by variety is the opportunity to purchase a coin that is unattributed as such. For collectors who are willing to spend the time learning a series the rewards can be considerable. Occasionally, CoinWeek, Coin World or Numismatic News will feature an important die variety that has been discovered. Sometimes a well-established rarity will be found or a completely new variety will surface. NGC has been responsible for several of the latter in the last two decades. NGC also offers a great service called VarietyPlus®. This gives submitters the opportunity to have their coin expertly attributed based on the standard reference for the series. This service costs $15 plus the grading tier chosen.
There is no right or wrong as far as which varieties should be collected when assembling a set of rare coins. This is up to the buyer, but understanding them will help rank their relative importance. Anyone who collects Lincoln Cents will probably want the 1922 No D and the 1955 Doubled Die. They may, however, skip the 1944 D/S and 1946 S/D. All are listed in the Red Book. Collecting these interesting issues can be fun but in the long run only you can make the final decision on what should be in your collection. For those who want to really get into the action, Whitman Publishing has recently issued an expanded Red Book that is nearly 500 pages and lists thousands of varieties. Happy hunting!
Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to [email protected].