By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
From time to time, we find ourselves revisiting articles we’ve published to add in that one last argument we didn’t think of or that intriguing tidbit we left on the cutting room floor. We might have come across new information or just plain changed our minds, so we also make sure the piece still reflects our current thinking. We’ll point out and correct our mistakes, and, need be, maybe even apologize. This week, we follow up on a few recent posts and hopefully settle a minor controversy.
PCGS and the Plus Grade
Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) changed their grading culture in a major way by normalizing the application of the plus grade. We’ve seen an enormous uptick in the number of coins coming back from PCGS with plus grades and for modern coins, especially coins near the top of the grading curve, the value of the plus grade necessitates a closer look at its possible effect on the market.
As a cash generator, the plus grade makes sense for PCGS. Assuming a clearly defined grading culture exists between grades, the plus should encompass a sizeable minority of coins slabbed within any given grade. Series specialists and dealers should be able to spot nice for the grade coins already in holders, and if they want, resubmit them in hopes of getting a plus grade – and reaping higher returns on the market.
The 1972-D Eisenhower dollar is a US$10,000 coin in MS-67, with five examples. It is a $190 coin in MS-66 with 400+ examples. As we’ve seen so far, none of the MS-67s have received a CAC sticker, which means the coins are either weak for the grade or overgraded. Then what to do with the two MS-66+’s that just entered the market? The two coins were offered on eBay for $450 each (a staggeringly low price, we believe) and sold immediately.
We talked to one of the buyers, who also happens to own one of the five MS-67s. He says that the 66+ has a few hits on it, but that the coin has a sharper strike than his 67. His 67 didn’t get a sticker and isn’t the strongest 67 (as the series goes), but it is a better coin overall than the 66+. Keep in mind that this collector has every incentive to dump his 67 should he want to. He has a buyer and can get market price for it. If we could channel Q. David Bowers, we’d ask, “What is the optimum collecting grade in this situation?” The $450 coin that is slightly worse or the $10,000 coin that is slightly better? We don’t think the answer is all that easy, at least not yet.
There’s something to be said about having the best coin – if that’s your thing – and the 66+ this collector bought isn’t quite as nice. Give credit to PCGS for consistency in this case. But the fact remains, one day there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of 66+ coins from that issue, and some of them will likely be better than his 67. What effect these half-step down coins have on the few top pops will be interesting.
(Article Published Sept. 11, 2012)
I had the good fortune of talking to PCGS’s Michael “Miles” Standish and the 12th Chief Engraver of the United States Mint John Mercanti as the two were preparing for the release of their forthcoming comprehensive guide to the American Silver Eagle Program entitled American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program, to be published by Whitman in November of this year.
One of the subjects I brought up was related to our recent work defining the Modern and Postmodern coinage eras. To my surprise, Miles was thinking along similar lines, but reasoned that postmodern coinage could be defined as coins that reproduce classical motifs but in a modern context. Such coins would include the American silver and gold bullion programs, the Buffalo silver dollar, Laura Gardin Fraser’s gold Washington five-dollar coin (derived from her winning design for the Washington quarter), and the recently proposed commemorative honoring the Panama-Pacific coin program of 1915.
We agree with Miles that these are fine examples of postmodern coins, but we still feel that the Postmodern Era is not limited to the bullion program, and extends to virtually everything the Mint has produced from 1982 onwards. We should also mention the artistic impact of Elizabeth Jones, the 11th Chief Engraver of the United States mint who, as a sculptor, had decidedly postmodernist tendencies (check out the 1983 Olympics dollar design to see what we mean).
For his part, John Mercanti argued that every period is a modern period. Fair enough. But we still argue that major aspects of our coinage changed after 1982. Not merely tinkering with the relief or creating new designs, but changes of a much more fundamental nature: the shift to the electronic economy; the adoption of the zinc cent; the Mint becoming a Public Enterprise; the irrelevance of a wide swath of the Mint’s yearly output; the modern commemorative program; and the Mint’s switch to computer-driven coin production, which led to the diminishment and elimination of the position of Chief Engraver. According to John, Frank Gasparro grew despondent in his final years at the Mint as he watched many of his powers being scaled back.
Now, coins, like film, have gone digital. Errors like repunched mint marks (RPMs) are no longer possible and would have to be artificially and self-consciously created. Digital artifacts are scrubbed from hubs now, not circular artifacts left behind by the Janvier lathe. Hand engraving is a thing of the past. These are all postmodern developments.
The 2011-D Army Half Dollar
(Article Published May 7, 2012)
We ignited a bit of a firestorm with our piece on the 2011-D Army half dollar. Some people said the tone of our piece was anti-military, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Charles served in the Army for five years (1997-2002) as a Russian linguist [Not a bad job, if you can do it. –C] The reality is, we’ve seen a number of military-themed commemorative coins as of late and we feel that the public, while generally supportive of the military’s proud history and vital role in all of our lives, is starting to get burned out by the constancy of these type of coins being released.
When we wrote our piece, we were saying that the price increases on the secondary market were artificial when it came to the 2011-D Army half dollar, and the result of market-making (read: price gouging). Not only that, but the unabashed promotion of the coin as the “key-date” of the modern commemorative half dollar program was and still is a scam. In less than six months, the coin has slipped in value by 25% or more as collectors who weren’t interested in buying it at $19.95 are showing similar disinterest in buying it at $80+.
Market-making dealer sources we talked to informed us that they’ve moved most of their inventory already, effectively dumping it for what they could get and holding a couple of pieces back for sale at “retail” pricing. We’ve seen a few lots of five to ten pieces sell on eBay from coin shops that saw the writing on the wall as the “key date’ bubble burst in July/August. The last lot of raw coins sold for an average of $46.82 per coin. More than a dozen eBay offerings since August have gone unsold, with asking prices ranging from $49.99 to $74.95 per coin. 
It could take years, decades even, for the 2011-D Army half dollar to reach prices like it was selling for in the first quarter of this year. For those that follow coin markets, this is the latest example of an unending pattern of market manipulations in the “not-so-rare” coin market, and yet more fodder for those who hold the entire moderns market in contempt.
FLIP OF THE COIN:
Three coins of different types: the 1921 Morgan dollar, the 1921 High Relief Peace dollar, and the 1999 Susan B. Anthony. Commonly collected as part of their larger sets, none of these three coins were struck from the same hubs as the other coins in their series.
Commemoration of Church and State: The only U.S. coins to have the image of a church on the obverse? The Delaware Tercentenary commemorative (1936) and the West Point Bicentennial (2002). The only U.S. coin to have the image of a church on the reverse? The California Pacific International Exposition commemorative (1935-1936). The only U.S. coin whose proceeds went to a religious group for the construction of a church? The Huguenot-Walloon Tercentenary (1924).
A rare golden Martha Washington pattern dated 1759 but struck in 1999 on a Sacagawea planchet was offered for sale Sunday by Teletrade. The coin, graded MS-65 by NGC did not sell. The opening asking price was $3,220.
Charles Morgan is a member of the Ike Group and is working with Rob Ezerman on GradeView™: Eisenhower Dollars and with longtime collaborator Hubert Walker on a number of other projects, including the Registry Set Collector’s Guide to US Coinage, which will be published sometime next year.
Hubert Walker’s background is in the classics. A nationally-recognized Latin scholar when younger, Hubert’s interest in history and symbology connects him to modern coins as well as ancients. He also likes the movies, among other things.
Charles and Hubert’s writing has been published in The Numismatist, by CAC, and by PCGS. Their informative columns appear weekly at CoinWeek.com.
 eBay search conducted 9/8/2012. “2011-D Army half dollar” filter: Prices Realized.
 Phone Interview 9/3/2012.