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What Does It Mean When a Coin Is “Rare”?

By Ron DrzewuckiModern Coin Wholesale …..
Whether you’re an old pro or just starting out, if you collect coins then you’ve thought about rarity.

But what is it? What does it mean for a coin to be “rare”?

us_coins_group_allLots of people have a vague idea of what a rare coin is. They might picture something old and worn. They might imagine something silver or gold, straight out of a pirate’s treasure chest. Others might think only an expert with esoteric knowledge and exhaustive experience could tell the difference. They might even believe that all the good stuff’s already been gobbled up and locked away, so why bother?

And above all else, if it’s rare, then it might be–no, it must be–very expensive.

While all of that can be true, it doesn’t define rarity.

Yet it is an important measure of a coin’s value, and being rare definitely adds to a coin’s appeal. Even though it’s hard to pin down, it’s still somehow self-evident.

I look at it as this way: how many coins of a certain type are still around? There are two factors that determine this.

The first factor is mintage. Mintage is simply how many coins the Mint produced for a given issue. Some coins have more issues and types than others, so it can look intimidating and chaotic. But of all the numbers out there, mintage is on the most solid footing. Sometimes we have to revise the data, but the U. S. Mint is a fairly reliable source of information.

The second is survival rate. Survival rate is necessary because a lot can happen to a coin over the years. Everyday use–the very use it was intended for–is a process of attrition. A coin can get lost, damaged, burnt, buried, forgotten, cleaned, tampered with, mutilated, recalled, you name it… not to mention all of the coins that were melted by the government, either because they went unsold and unused or because of special circumstances (like war) that require all the resources a country can muster.

After that, only so many coins are bound to survive. A simple ratio of survivors to mintage gives you a rough idea of a coin’s rarity. We’re still a long way from assigning a coin’s value, but is it rare? We can be content with the answer this way.

Now that that’s covered, it’s worthwhile to take another look at those misconceptions.

Old and worn? Sure. Some of the oldest coins in America are going to be in less than Mint State. The older (and rarer) a coin, the “worse” its condition can be and still be valuable. Then again, thanks to low mintages some recent issues are very rare indeed. And in the age of third-party grading, most contemporary releases can be had in perfect (MS70) condition, with no reason to settle for less.

Silver and gold? Precious metals make coins more valuable but not necessarily rarer. Gold and silver coinage is subject to the same rules of mintage and survival as any other kind.

Only an expert knows for sure? The great thing about experts is that they do the work for you! Maybe you’ve heard it before: “Buy the book before the coin”? If you’re serious about a coin or a series, then by definition you’ve done exactly that.

As for the last two points? They’re not true! Rare coins still hit the market, and a good value can be had if you’ve done your homework.


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  1. So, I found an error dime in the 2018 S reverse silver proof set. NGC validated the error type and they graded it.

    As far as I can tell, as no one else has reported an error dime from that set, I have the only one. But, that’s still speculation right? I figure if there is one error found, the likelihood of two in error is increased. Or, is that a silly assumption on my part.

    at any rate – there are 200,000 sets minted, which makes 200,000 dimes produced. It is from a set that has never been produced before. On ebay we find the only error(s) reported are the half dollar “light finish” from that set, which are in abundance. but, again, no dimes. One person has a sealed set which does have multiple errors across multiple coins, and he claims the dime looks to be in error too, but he has not sent it in to NGC yet to validate the error – he is stating there is a DDD error on the dime, while mine is a Reverse High Wire Rim error – my coin in the holder, when viewed straight on, hides the error pretty well. The dime’s grade is PF69

    Any thoughts on rarity / value

    • Probably a rare error. The mint usually does not send out errors on Proof coins, at least not in quantity. The value of the error really depends on whether collectors find it to be dramatic and unusual. Send us a high quality photo of your coin and we will put it up on our Facebook channel to see if anybody else has seen one.


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