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First Read: 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins, Third Edition

First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature…

Essay by Louis Golino for CoinWeek….

100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins, Third Edition by Scott Schechter and Jeff Garrett

For a number of years now Whitman Publishing has issued various books that identify and discuss the 100 greatest coins and other collectibles in a wide range of areas from ancient coins to classic U.S. coins, stamps, and so forth.  One of the most popular books is its 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins, which was just released in a new, third edition.  This book has played a role in shaping modern U.S. numismatics and in educating collectors about the best-selling, most talked about, and most coveted modern U.S. coins.  And a couple of years ago NGC began to offer special “100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coin” grading labels, which are popular with some collectors.

100modernModern coins, as the authors note in the introduction, “are those struck from 1964 to date.” That is the simplest and most widely used definition of what constitute modern U.S. coins.  It is not the only way modern coins could be defined, as they explain, but it is the one most people use, and that has a lot to do with the fact that it zeroes in on the last year 90% silver coins were issued by the U.S. Mint.  Other numismatists would argue modern should begin in 1965, the first year clad, or cupro-nickel coins were issued, but that would have the result of forcing the authors to leave out a number of important coins from 1964 such as the accented hair variety of proof 1964 Kennedy Half Dollars.

The book’s authors do not just list and discuss the most important coins of the modern era.  They also rank them.  And as they explain, the inclusion of these specific coins and their rankings are the product of four main criteria: their own experience as professional numismatists; the views of other experts in the field and feedback from readers and collectors, which they continue to consult for each new edition; a survey of the numismatic literature; and market factors, such as changes in values and how often the coins are sold at auction.

Because modern U.S. coins like all modern coins is a constantly changing field each new edition of the book has resulted in ranking changes and in the deletion and inclusion of certain coins.  As they explain in a brief appendix on the changes in rankings, this new edition includes two new coins, the 2013-w Buffalo gold $50 Reverse Proof and the 2013-W Enhanced Uncirculated Silver Eagle.  In addition, the 1971 Eisenhower Dollar was delisted because dealers said it is too common except in the highest grades, and the 1964-D/D Kennedy Half Dollar was also removed because interest in the coin has declined in recent years.

It is also worth noting that 63 of 100 coins held their ranking from the second edition, and that the changes in rankings in the new edition continue to reflect the preference of modern U.S. coin collectors for American Eagle and Buffalo coinage over commemoratives, America the Beautiful quarters, and First Spouse $10 gold coins.

The 1975 “No S” dime took the top spot…

After a brief introduction that provides an overview on modern U.S. coins such as the three main types (circulating, numismatic, and bullion), the various types of finishes, and the difference between varieties and errors, virtually the entire book consists of one-page overviews of each coin plus a photo and information on NGC and PCGS populations and retail values.  There are also forewords by Ken Bressett and David Bowers and a brief overview on grading essential by Mark Salzberg.  The discussion of each coin focuses mainly on how the coin came about, what was happening at the time that made it sell well or not sell well, and what long-term potential it has.

I personally would have liked to see more about how the issue has performed since issued and why, for example, coins that are real stand-outs in terms of low mintage plateaued in value quickly and have been stagnant since then.  An example is the 2008-W uncirculated American Platinum Eagle, which with only 2,253 examples in existence, is the single lowest mintage modern U.S. coin minted, although some First Spouse issues many end up overtaking that one as lowest.

I noticed right away that the book includes a significant number of error and variety coins.  For example, six of the ten highest-rank coins fall into that category.  The rest of the coins discussed tend to be stand-out issues because they are the lowest mintage in various series, or were the first of a kind through the use of a new finish, or are especially popular to this day like the 2001 Buffalo Silver Dollar.

I would be pleased to see some new additions to the next edition such as the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame coins due to their status as the first curved American issues; the 2014 Kennedy gold Half and silver Reverse Proof Half Dollars, also the first of their kind; and either the inclusion of, or at least some discussion of the uncirculated 2013-W Five Star General $5 gold and Half Dollar coins, which are the second-lowest and lowest in their respective series.

modernbooksacEvery collector and dealer naturally has their own ideas about which coins are the greatest and why.  For example, in 2012 Kruase published Eric Jordan and John Maben’s Top 50 Most Popular Modern Coins, and their list, which is not ranked, includes only one error coin.  Although there are quite a lot of differences in their selections compared to the 100 greatest, there is also a good deal of overlap such as the key-date, low mintage American Gold, Silver, and Platinum issues and the Liberty subset of First Spouse gold coins.

One merit of the authors’ approach in this book is they went beyond personal preferences and added a degree of objectivity and rigor to the list and rankings by consulting a variety of experts and collectors as well as the numismatic literature and coin market data.

Mintages are not easy to pin down with many recent modern issues, and as often discussed in my Coin Analyst column, there has been a tendency in recent years for a coin that was previously the lowest to be replaced by a newer low mintage coin, which reflects the general trend of declining sales of recent modern issues with certain exceptions.

I was surprised that in the discussion of the 2008-W Buffalo gold proof coin the authors did not mention that based on unaudited sales data the 2013-W Buffalo gold proof is actually a slightly lower mintage coin unless that changes later when the audited data is released.  That is especially the case since when discussing several other low mintage issues, they do refer to mintages that are not yet final.

Overall, the book is an interesting and engaging overview of some of the most important modern U.S. coins of the past half century.  I would view the discussion of each coin as a starting point that can be supplemented with additional research and reading for those coins of particular interest.

The book’s main impact, in my view, is that it has helped educate collectors and stimulate greater interest in the field, which is the fastest-growing segment of American numismatics.  As the authors note at the end, with each successive year modern coins “represent a larger and more important segment of the coin market.”


100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins, Third Edition
by Scott Schechter and Jeff Garrett
112 Pages. Whitman Publishing, LLC. $29.95 MSRP.

Louis Golino
Louis Golino
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern U.S. and world coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern numismatic issues and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s (NLG) award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst.” He is also a contributor to Coin World, where he wrote a bimonthly feature and weekly blog, and The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins. He is also a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum sponsored by Modern Coin Mart. He previously served as a congressional relations specialist and policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and as a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international politics and national security for a wide variety of publications. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s when he began writing op-ed articles and news analyses.

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