HomeCollecting StrategiesPatience and Strategy Are Needed to Build a First-Rate Coin Collection

Patience and Strategy Are Needed to Build a First-Rate Coin Collection

By Mark Ferguson for PCGS ……
Building a collection that you’ll be proud to show off takes work – and time. Whether you collect mid-grade circulated coins or “top-pop” Set Registry specimens, a little planning at the outset can pay valuable dividends, when and if you finally sell your holdings. Determining an acquisition strategy should also be a part of your plan.

Focus and Consistency Win

Of course, what you decide to collect is up to you. However, I recommend building a collection or set that is consistent in grade, grading service, and eye appeal.

Still, there will be circumstances in which you might not be able to collect the same grade for every coin, especially when going after top-pop coins – i.e., the highest grade certified for a specific coin issue. For instance, early gold coins might top out at VF35, AU58, or MS62 for specific coin issues. While the grades in that type of collection may not be numerically consistent, collecting top pops accomplishes consistency in your plan.

Condition Rarity 1919 Walking Liberty Half Dollar Offered by GreatCollections
PQ Condition Rarity 1919 Walking Liberty Half Dollar Sold by GreatCollections

As another example, several years ago I sold a complete collection of Walking Liberty Half Dollars for the family of a lifelong collector. Even though the collector could afford more, he had a cost limit of $1,500 per coin. When he completed the set, some of the coins were MS64, MS65, or MS66, and several were only VF, XF, or AU. That particular set composition didn’t lend itself well for an auction, nor did it appeal to many other collectors as, say, an all-AU58 or all-MS66 set might. Therefore, the set had to be sold to a dealer at a discounted wholesale price. In the end, I offered it to several dealers on a closed-bid basis, so we did the best we could to get the set sold at a fair price.

Patience and Strategy Are Needed to Build a First-Rate Coin Collection

I firmly believe that collectors who put thought, research, and strategy into their collections at the outset will derive more personal enjoyment and financial rewards from it than someone who is merely buying “hole-fillers” by way of purchasing the first example they run across for a needed issue. Over the years, I’ve seen and purchased lots of collections that are really helter-skelter accumulations of various U.S. and world collector coins, bullion coins, Proof and Mint Sets, incomplete albums, and the like. “Focus” was obviously not part of the plan for those collectors.

Do You Have an Acquisition Strategy?

How and where are you going to find the coins you’ve decided to collect? That really depends on what you’re collecting.

On one hand, VF-grade Indian Cents are not likely to appear in auctions. You’ll primarily find them at coin shows, shops, or online in dealer inventories.

On the other hand, coins like the caliber of MS66 and MS67 Liberty Seated and Barber Half Dollars are most likely to be found in major auctions. During the past 20 years, those kinds of coins and sets have turned up much less frequently with dealers, because sellers have come to favor auctions for selling high-end coins.

Two Well-Toned Morgan Silver Dollars in Stack's Bowers Dec. 2020 Showcase Auction - Coin Collection

You may be a collector who enjoys searching for coins, working with dealers, and bidding in auctions, but that process is too time-consuming and mistake-prone for others. Therefore, especially if you collect coins that are a challenge to find, I recommend partnering with a dealer or agent who can also serve as your guide and mentor. Dealers who specialize know where lots of great coins are and who owns them. If you find a dealer you believe in, trust, and get along with, please be loyal to him or her. A mentor or an agent can be a valuable resource, and you can have a lot of fun together in the process for years to come.

Speaking of years, that’s how long it will take to build most collections.

Availability of the coins you want to collect is of prime importance. Some top rarities may come on the market literally once in a lifetime. But I want to focus on more ordinary coins in the next section. I’m going to select seemingly common coins for a series to illustrate how infrequently some of them tend to appear at auction.

Seemingly Common Coins that Scarcely Come to Market

As a member of the PCGS Price Guide team, I review auction prices realized and make countless data-based decisions every day while updating coin prices. Knowing the rarity, characteristics, and significance of each coin issue is part of the process. My numismatic research and reference library, which I’ve been building since I was a teenager, gets used for this purpose on nearly a daily basis.

To obtain auction prices realized data, the Price Guide team uses information provided by Certified Coin Exchange (CCE), which is owned by Collectors. Hundreds of coin dealers across the U.S. have the exact same information available to them through CCE. This data is similar to that you can access on your own, for free, through the PCGS Auction Prices archive. Sales data from more than 5.5 million auction lots is available from most of the major auction houses, with a sales value of more than $8 billion.

While thoroughly reviewing auction prices realized for a given series, a growing trend stands out: high-grade coins for many common to scarce coin issues are being held off the market for long periods of time. “Trophy Rarities” are easy to research and write about for this topic, but I thought I’d focus on more common coin issues that are more meaningful to mainstream collectors.

The availability of coins is an important consideration when planning out a collection. Some first-rate collections can be built and completed in a couple of years; others may require five to 10 years, and still others may take some 10 to 20 years to complete. A few collections, with major rarities as a part, may go uncompleted for several generations or a lifetime, depending on whether the coins ever become available.

The following random examples of a lack of auction appearances over time are for PCGS-graded coins only, and only from auction prices realized data available on CCE, which incorporates data from most but not all major auction companies.

The first example illustrates two high-mintage, high-population coins: Liberty Seated Dimes from 1876 and 1883. Many coins of this era have “top pops” of just one or two coins. These two have top pops of six in MS67 for the 1876 and four in MS68 for the 1883. The last auction appearances for these coins were in October 2008 and July 2014, respectively.

The 1936 and 1938 Walking Liberty Half Dollars are common-date coins with mid-level PCGS populations. The top pop for each issue is MS68. With an MS68 population of four, only two MS68 1936 Walkers have ever come up for sale at public auction… way back in 1990. That was 32 years ago when they both appeared in RARCOA Auction ‘90. The MS68 1938 half – pop one – was sold once at auction more than a decade ago in November 2011.

The top PCGS pop is six for the non-Full Bell Lines (FBL) 1949-D Franklin Half Dollar. If you want one of these six coins, you’ll most likely have to wait many, many years. There has only been one auction sale of this issue and grade, which was back in 2006. The 1953-S Franklin Half Dollar with Full Bell Lines is the key to collecting this series, but it’s a Franklin Half Dollar — not a challenging type piece like a rare early gold coin. Just 49 of the 1953-S halves have been designated by PCGS as displaying Full Bell Lines. The top pop for this issue is just one specimen graded MS67 that has never appeared at auction, as reported by CCE. In MS66FBL, the population is two. There have been two auction sales reported in this grade — both in 2001. That’s over two decades ago!

The 1857-S $20 Liberty has the highest PCGS population of any Type I Double Eagle, at 7,365. This is the coin issue that was recovered in quantity from the SS Central America shipwreck. The highest graded has a pop of only one in MS67+, which has never appeared at auction, according to CCE sales data. However, 15 of these coins have been graded MS67 by PCGS, but just one auction sale is noted: in 2000, just as the coins recovered from that shipwreck were starting to be released. The 1861 Type 1 Liberty Head Double Eagle has, by far, the highest mintage of any Type 1 Double Eagle, at 2,976,387. A total of 12 of the 1861 Double Eagles have been graded MS64 by PCGS, with seven coins grading higher – the top being MS67.

The last time an MS64 example was auctioned was in 2006!

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Mark Ferguson
Mark Fergusonhttps://www.mfrarecoins.com/
Mark Ferguson was a coin grader for PCGS, a market analyst for Coin Values, and has been a coin dealer for more than 40 years. He has written for Coin Dealer Newsletter, Coin World, Numismatic News, Coin Values, and The Numismatist.

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  1. I’m not sure I understand the point of this article. You’re basically suggesting that a coin collection is worthless, and should be deservedly sold at a steep discount to some shyster coin dealer upon one’s death, if the collector didn’t manage to obtain one of the few examples of the “top of the pop” for a specific type. So the goal here is to wait one’s entire life for say, one of the MS68 1938 Walking Libertys to come on sale, bid likely far above what the coin is worth, and then still get outbid by some billionaire who can easily afford to pay $100k or even $500k for a $20k-$40k coin? I’m not begrudging that billionaire his money, but you are insinuating that if one does not have the billionaire’s purchasing power then your coin collection will inevitably suck and be worth far less than its true value. That seems wrong, and a real way to kill the hobby once and for all.

  2. I concur with JCC. Not all of us can afford during our lifetimes to assemble say all the WLB in AU-58, never mind MS64 – 66. Personally, I enjoy numismatics but I also would like to take a vacation, invest in other areas of my life outside coins and contribute to my retirement savings.

    In addition, a coin collection in a small grade range of one particular series with few varieties or changes in design can become quite boring and impede one’s education of assessing condition and roughly grade of coin. I purchased a 1940S Uncirculated WLB about a year ago. I didn’t break the bank to get one with decent eye appeal but I knew it would have been foolhardy to try and spend over 500 or 1,000 to find one with a clear strike which this date and Mint is notorious for NOT having. In my case, I wanted to have an example of a coin in uncirculated condition with weak die strike for education purposes and that such a coin can still be fascinating and hold some attraction – the soft strike in uncirculated condition has its appeal and you learn much having such a coin alongside a common date with strong strike.

    I agree having a focus can benefit a collection — you can save resources for particular series and gain a deeper knowledge of a little niche of numismatics. However, as another commentator wrote, not everyone collects American coins.

    Finally JCC makes a final point that may explain how coin dealers end up killing numismatics by demeaning a collection of someone who actually did a decent job sticking within their budget. Would you Jeff, encourage a collector to forgo paying their kid’s semester tuition for the sake of getting that “top pop” coin?????? I do like that you point to an area which has potential to be more affordable scarcities found in “common” series such as Franklin halves. But this can also to apply to collecting current numismatic products offered by the US Mint such as American Innovation and Native American dollars, American Women Quarters, and Kennedy halves since about 2002. Yet often dealers and a few in the coin community demean those who have collections of these by telling them to spend them even though the collector may have gotten a few uncirculated rolls and took time to find one with few blemishes and nice strike. I think the high end dealers should spend some time searching these rolls as they would be surprised the time it takes to find one in grades from MS 65 and higher. By demeaning such collectors you are saying their efforts are worthless and thereby helping to diminish interest in numismatics. And, today, numismatics’ renewed interest is due partly to an interest in bullion collectors (stackers). I would ask dealers to take a hard look at their monthly counter sales and see how much of it is derived from bullion purchases rather than numismatic coins. It may provide a more sober view of the state of coin collecting (which to me is that it is doing better than it has in years and its predicted death was grossly premature but it isn’t bustling as much as the present investment bubble in the high end market paints).

  3. And the other issue here is, even if the collector has the ultimate “top pop” coin, what’s to stop a coin dealer from simply cherry picking that coin out of the collection and telling the coin collector’s family to shop the rest of the collection elsewhere? There’s also something to be said for keeping a sense of perspective. I recently had the opportunity to see a 1921 Peace Dollar in MS-66 w/ CAC which was being sold for almost 40k. It seemed like a decent enough strike and the price was reasonable for what it was, but there’s a lot of things one could buy for 40k, even in the numismatic world. If owning the nicest 1921 Peace Dollar is one’s goal in life, then by all means do it, but if the goal is to see a dramatic return on investment or simply to own a beautiful Peace Dollar collection, there may be smarter ways to accomplish that.


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