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Jeff Garrett: Changing Trends in Numismatics

Jeff Garrett: Changing Trends in Numismatics

Looking at the most popular coins to collect over the years shows how collectors’ goals and aspirations continue to evolve


By Jeff Garrett for NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation) ……
Jeff GarrettIn recent years, the demand for rare coins at the top end of the marketplace has soared. Multi-million-dollar hammer prices have become commonplace. The most recent collecting trend that continues to amaze me has been the emergence of mega-rich collectors battling for the finest and rarest. There are at least four to six billionaires actively collecting coins, each of which has invested at least $200 million in their collection.

The buying activity of these mega-buyers has impacted prices for the finest known and important rarities. How long this trend continues is anyone’s guess. These buyers seem to be immune to the economic challenges facing average collectors — higher interest rates, inflation, and falling equity markets. The entry of mega-collectors is just the most recent changing trend in numismatics.

Coin collecting habits in the United States have evolved since the hobby became popular in the late 1850s. Large Cents became sought after when the large format was discontinued. Many great collections were formed by collectors who started to search for one of every year Large Cent struck from 1793 to 1857. Many were surprised to find out that none had been produced in 1815 due to a copper shortage. Early numismatists were also very interested in Colonial coinage and anything related to George Washington. A study of early rare coin auction catalogues can give today’s collectors an interesting glimpse of what was considered important to collect. Perhaps someday in the future collectors will find the habits of present-day collectors to be both interesting and amusing.

A. G. Heaton

Many collectors today are also astounded that collecting coins by different mints did not become popular until the early 20th century. It was not until George Heaton published A Treatise on Coinage of the United States Branch Mints in 1893 that collectors took notice of branch mint coinage. This seems almost impossible to modern collectors who would pay $2 million for a 1927-D Double Eagle and only $2,000 for a 1927 Double Eagle. That tiny mintmark is worth a fortune!

Evidence that early collectors did not understand the value of coins from branch mints can be seen in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian. The core collection of the NNC came from the United States Mint collection, which was started around 1838 by Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt. The collection is extremely strong in early and later date Proof coinage, but it is lacking in most coins from the branch mints. The addition of the Lilly Collection in the 1960s filled a tremendous gap in completing the gold coin collection of the NNC.

Other major collecting trends have developed over the years in American numismatics.

In the 1960s, when silver was dropped from our circulating coinage, collectors became enamored by rolls of coinage and Proof sets. These were wildly popular in the 1960s, and a review of Coin World or The Numismatist from the time period is filled with ads selling these items. Many collectors of the time started out as speculators in BU rolls and Proof sets. It is interesting to note that during the 1960s the hobby boomed, and many publications and organizations had their highest-ever circulation and memberships. In the 1960s, ANA membership peaked at nearly 50,000 (versus around 25,000 today).

1909-D $5 Gold Coin graded NGC MS63.

When I first became a professional rare coin dealer in the late 1970s, gold and silver bullion became the driving force in numismatics. By the mid-1980s, common date gold coins dominated much of the action on the bourse floor. In 1984, a common date $5 Indian would sell for over $1,000 (around $2,500 in today’s dollars) if it was even close to Mint State. Rare coins were virtually ignored by most collectors at the time. Many of today’s numismatic fortunes that have been acquired by professional coin dealers have their roots in selling generic gold coins to collectors and investors.

The development of third-party grading changed the numismatic landscape dramatically in the mid-1980s. Rare coins had a degree of liquidity that had only been dreamed of before. Also, collectors could now have an idea of exactly how rare a coin is by examining the population reports. New investors’ money flooded the market and prices spiked going into the 1990s. As with any market that is fueled primarily by investors’ money, a bubble formed, and prices dropped drastically. Eventually, the market recovered, and today, rare coin prices are primarily driven by collector demand. The advent of the internet has created huge numbers of serious collectors around the globe. The market for rare coins is now more transparent and liquid than ever before.

Because of such factors, many new collecting trends have developed in the US. Collectors seem more focused on completing sets of different series. Many take this to extremes by paying “whatever it takes” to acquire coins that will make their sets the best of its kind. Prices realized at auction for coins that were once considered only appropriate to punch into a cardboard holder are truly astounding. Set registry collecting has fundamentally changed the landscape of numismatics.

My more recent experience with the popularity of modern coins has been formed by several collectors who have asked me to assemble sets for them. Another milestone in my journey of learning about modern coins was co-authoring the book 100 Greatest Modern Coins with NGC Senior Grader Scott Schechter. The book has been modeled after my extremely popular book, 100 Greatest United States Coins, produced by Whitman Publishing. Upon close inspection, there are dozens of very interesting and valuable coins struck after 1965. Many of these issues have great stories, which rival coins from an earlier era. The most appealing aspect of many of these coins is the affordability factor. Most of the coins in 100 Greatest United States Coins are worth six figures, if not millions. Many of the modern coins, however, are very affordable to the average collector.

I would estimate that more individuals now collect Silver Eagles than just about any other series. Many of the largest rare coin marketing firms in the country sell current issues of these in astounding numbers. Silver Eagles are considered to be the ideal “gateway” coin for introducing new collectors to numismatics. The coins are large, have a high bullion content, and are relatively inexpensive. Thousands of new collectors are brought into the hobby each month by purchasing Silver Eagles.

Whatever your tastes are in numismatics, it is important to understand the history of this fascinating hobby. The next time you see a showcase of amazing vintage coins right next to a case of modern issues you will have a better understanding of why collectors have such varied interests.

The rare coin market will continue to evolve, and savvy collectors should try to avoid red-hot markets and look for emerging trends and opportunities.

As always, the best advice is to find a series you enjoy and try to learn as much as possible. This advice will serve you well whether you collect Morgan Silver Dollars or American Silver Eagles.

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Rare Coin Gallery


Jeff Garrett
Jeff Garrett
Jeff Garrett, founder of Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, is considered one of the nation’s top experts in U.S. coinage — and knowledge lies at the foundation of Jeff’s numismatic career. With more than 35 years of experience, he is one of the top experts in numismatics. The “experts’ expert,” Jeff has personally bought and sold nearly every U.S. coin ever issued. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t call on Jeff Garrett for numismatic advice. This includes many of the nation’s largest coin dealers, publishers, museums, and institutions. In addition to owning and operating Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, Jeff Garrett is a major shareholder in Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries. His combined annual sales in rare coins and precious metals — between Mid-American in Kentucky and Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries in Florida — total more than $25 million. Jeff Garrett has authored many of today’s most popular numismatic books, including Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795–1933: Circulating, Proof, Commemorative, and Pattern Issues; 100 Greatest U.S. Coins; and United States Coinage: A Study By Type. He is also the price editor for The Official Redbook: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Jeff was also one of the original coin graders for the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). He is today considered one of the country’s best coin graders and was the winner of the 2005 PCGS World Series of Grading. Today, he serves as a consultant to Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), the world’s largest coin grading company. Jeff plays an important role at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Department and serves as a consultant to the museum on funding, exhibits, conservation, and research. Thanks to the efforts of Jeff and many others, rare U.S. coins are once again on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. Jeff has been a member of the Professional Numismatic Guild (PNG) since 1982 and has recently served as president of the organization. He has also served as the ANA President and as a member of the ANA Board of Governors.

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  1. Actual historical price analysis of numismatic coins is somewhat limited. Even though we have a decent database, the time period is less than 50 years when dealing with the end of price-controlled gold bullion.

    In that 50 years, you have a huge rise in the price of gold (1973-80) and two bubbles or price spikes in 1989 and 2000-11. All of this means that numismatic coins have never traded for long periods of time on their own merits….they’ve been dragged up or down by the price of gold bullion OR they were dragged up by a general coin bubble.

    End result, that 1984 $5 Indian was about $375/oz… the coin had just under $100 in gold. Which means it sold for a 900% premium to spot, a figure which gradually dissipated over the years. I am not familiar with non-Double Eagle pricing over the years, but I am sure the premium over the last 38 years and recent pricing is much less than 900%, right ?

  2. On mintmarks, it wasn’t that collectors didn’t understand. They didn’t care, just as prior collectors didn’t care about common coins in expensive plastic.

    Much of the rest of the article is just describing financially motivated buying. Prior collectors weren’t less “sophisticated”, they didn’t care about attributes which make so many coins more valuable because there was no market for it. Most of these coins aren’t really that numismatically interesting as collectibles, having little if any actual distinction. The change is primarily a combination of marketing and financialization.

    This should be evident in that collecting in most of the rest of the world today still resembles US collecting prior to 1986 (when PCGS was established) and especially the 70’s, when coins were first widely bought as “investments” in the US.

    In much of the rest of the world such as in Europe, their collecting is not driven by marketing and financialization, though I have seen modest changes in this direction with the most expensive highest profile coinage. There is no need to pay inflated prices for actually common coins because most European coins are a lot more affordable, they have over 2000 years of coinage from which to choose, and minor quality differences aren’t very important to them since they prefer lower quality coins with better numismatic credentials.

  3. Just delete my latest correction — I mistyped AGAIN and called the $5 Indian a 1984 coin. That’s when JG was buying/selling them.

    Just let my original post stand with minimal damage and confusion.

  4. I would like to add as a somewhat recent collector (started in 2019) but one who is at an intermediate level, this article’s title promises much less specificity than I had hoped. But it aims to cover large time periods and space is limited, so this apparent short-coming is completely understandable.

    As one relatively new to collecting I may offer some areas of collecting that are growing in popularity:

    a) Dollar coins since the Susan B Anthony’s are growing much more popular due in part to the old adage “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Finding uncirculated or high AU golden dollars and Susan B’s is becoming less common to find since the US Mint stopped producing them for general circulation after about 2011. The American Innovation dollar coins as I have a written in prior opinion articles features some strong designs but are produced for collectors – finding them in circulation is very uncommon (scarce even which may someday have such coins in an attractive AU condition sell for more than uncirculated due to this). There are sufficient errors to satisfy many collectors too and the design changes of the past should keep future numismatists on their toes.

    b) Type I ASE’s with comparatively modest mintages have already begun to attain a modest numismatic premium — generally the period from about 1989 – 1996 featured mintages below 10 million which is modest for a bullion coin that has features mintages well over 20 million for some years.

    c) Jefferson nickels have undergone enough changes in design, composition and variances in quality of strike to now be considered an especially attractive coin series to seriously assemble. The price points are broad enough to make it reasonable to collect for a budget collector (as long as they do not try to aim with all Full Step nickels).

    d) The clad Eisenhower dollar coins are much more attractive to budget collectors as wellas those advanced collector with sizable pockets. It was a short-lived series (with only the Susan B and 20 cent piece I believe running for a shorter time if we look at coinage after 1850.

    e) Collectors as they become advanced do find the bargains there with world coinage – just one example are Peruvian Solas from the late 19th century run far cheaper than US Morgans produced at that time.

    f) World gold coins produced by the Franklin Mint for other countries is popular with budget-minded collectors seeking to add gold without paying too high a premium and with mintages that are very, very modest (for example Belize $100 gold coins containing about $200 in gold bullion value (as of 1/31/2023)). At the time of their initial introduction they may have been overpriced but with gold bullion at its present spot price, it has become a reasonable option to buying high grade uncirculated small denomination gold coins made prior to 1933.


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