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Finest Known – What It Does and Doesn’t Mean in the Coin Market

Two coins that are the finest known. Image: CoinWeek.
Two coins that are the finest known. Image: CoinWeek.

(n.)

A coin described as the “finest known” is a coin of such a condition that no other example of the same issue is known to exist in a superior state of preservation.

The distinction between this and another commonly used term, “top pop“, is that top pop can describe one of a group of coins in the same grade, while finest known implies that the coin has no equal or better.

Finest Known as a Marketing Term and a Caveat Regarding Classic and Modern Coins

The term “finest known” is often used to market coins.

Such usage may correctly state that a coin has been encapsulated and certified with the highest given grade but it overlooks the possibility that the coin’s particular qualities make it less desirable than other high-end examples. In some instances, finest known coins are overgraded. In other instances, series specialists have not formed a consensus regarding which example even is the finest. Knowledgable experts can disagree.

Another largely ignored aspect of the concept is the implication of the word “known”. In a stable market, it is unusual for a newly discovered coin to be in such a state of preservation that it is finer than all previously known pieces, but it can and does happen.

1866-S Liberty Head Double Eagle, No Motto. Image: PCGS.
The finest known 1866-S Liberty Head Double Eagle, No Motto. Image: PCGS.

A recent example is the dozen or more gold coins discovered in Northern California as part of the Saddle Ridge Hoard that were either the finest known or tied for the finest known. One of these coins, the 1866 Liberty Head No Motto Double Eagle, has an estimated value of over $1,000,000.

As it pertains to modern coins, where the volume of coins submitted is extremely low compared to the available material, sellers may market high-end, top pop coins as the finest known – often at highly inflated prices. These claims are often dubious, and the asking price may be unsupported by prior sales data. For buyers, speculating on these types of coins is extremely risky.

What usually happens is that additional coins are added to the pop report, and coins that were once elusive in top pop grades become ordinary when joined by many, many others. To learn more about this phenomena, read our article about Condition Rarity and check out this article about once rare “finest known” American Silver Eagles, which have since lost over 90% of their value.

One final consideration for collectors pursuing these coins is gradeflation. Gradeflation (a portmanteau of “grade” and “inflation”) is a phenomenon where grading services purposefully or inadvertently adjust their grading standards over time so that coins certified more recently receive higher grades. The business model of the rare coin industry incentivizes gradeflation as it allows sellers to achieve higher profits.

This is detrimental to collectors, of course, in two key ways: coins that were once considered the finest known may lose this status to potentially inferior coins, and population data provided by the grading services is made less reliable by crossovers, crack-outs, and upgrades. It is not unusual to find that high-grade coins, even finest known coins, have upgraded between auction appearances.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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