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Understanding Classic U.S. Coins and Building Excellent Coin Collections, Part 1: General Concepts

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #185

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

Although this series relates to costly, classic U.S. coins, many of the points put forth herein apply to collecting inexpensive coins as well, and there are many exciting, classic U.S. coins that are not expensive. Earlier this year, I wrote a two part series on coins that cost less than $250 each and a seven part series on coins that cost less than $500 each. (Clickable links are in blue.) This, though, is the first part of a series on buying excellent classic U.S. coins and building meaningful collections of them, with the idea that many such coins are priced from $500 to $5000 each. The purpose of this first part is to explain that there are objective criteria for such pursuits.

classic_us_thumbI would not wish for collectors to be harmed or to waste their time following advice from people who are not qualified to give such advice. Moreover, in this series, I will include quoted statements and other input from sophisticated collectors and expert dealers, as I have in many discussions in the past. I have never suggested that collectors should only consider my views. John Albanese, Richard Burdick, Dr. Steven Duckor, long-time PCGS grader Charlie Browne, Jay Brahin, early coin expert Jim McGuigan, leading collector Mark Hagen, leading researcher Saul Teichman, and others will be cited.

Recommendations to come later will primarily relate to collecting classic, U.S. coins that cost from $500 to $5000 each, though much of the same criteria applies to many coins that cost less than $500 or more than $5000. Boundaries are needed, however, for specific recommendations in subsequent parts in this series. It is not practical for a series of articles or even a moderate size book to cover all classic U.S. coins. Coin types, individual coins, and collecting plans will be covered in future discussions.

185-aThese discussions are aimed, in large part, at people who already have some understanding of coin types and grading criteria. Those who know almost nothing about classic U.S. coins may wish to click to read a column on advice for true beginners and at least skim my two part series on why 1933/34 is the true dividing line between classic and modern U.S. coinage. Also, I wrote a piece on “Choosing Grades, for Beginning & Intermediate Collectors,” which gives advice relating to the physical characteristics that correspond to specific ranges of grades. (Please remember that clickable links are in blue.)

How does a buyer distinguish excellent, classic U.S. coins from those that are relatively less desirable? In the culture of coin collecting in the U.S., there are evolved traditions and rules. Logic plays a role as well.

The people who say that all preferences are just matters of opinion are wrong. Put differently, an assertion that all values are subjective is objectively wrong. To build a collection that is considered meaningful by experts, given the values and traditions in the culture of coin collecting, there is a need to abide by some rules and to consider the views of those sophisticated experts who really care about coins.


Before embarking upon a collecting endeavor, it is important to have an objective, a goal. Buying coins randomly or in a whimsical fashion is not sensible. The theme of this series of discussions is how to build a collection that is considered meaningful and appealing, given the culture and traditions of collecting classic U.S. coins.

What are the alternatives to building a collection that is meaningful? Would it make sense to hoard extremely common coins, like 1926 Eagles ($10 gold coins), 1881-S Morgan Dollars, 1930 Lincoln Cents, or 1911 Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins)? A hoard of common coins would certainly not qualify as a great collection. It is important to carefully select coins, to include at least some coins that are truly scarce, and to work towards assembling sets of some sort that have meaning among sophisticated collectors in the coin collecting community.

185-cExcellent, classic U.S. coins generally withstand the tests of time and have been central to the culture of coin collecting in the U.S. for more than 150 years. Certainly, this does not mean that all collectors demand them or that alternative paths should not be considered. I maintain, however, that it is not a good idea for a non-expert to buy any coins he happens to like or to think whatever he wants about coins. If someone unknowingly buys coins that are common and/or have substantial problems, he or she is likely to be upset or discouraged at a later time.

This series is aimed, in large part, at collectors who are not sure how to build an excellent collection of classic U.S. coins. For someone who has not formulated a plan, or is considering changing paths, it is logical to acquire coins that many sophisticated collectors in the U.S. have strongly demanded for more than a half a century, or even for more than 150 years, and to assemble sets that most sophisticated collectors (and most relevant experts overall) find to be meaningful, sets that command respect.

The building of type sets is a relatively recent tradition that has certainly become widely accepted by experts and non-experts in the coin collecting community. Not all type sets are sensible, however, so a future discussion will be devoted to type sets. Collecting specific series ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location) is more traditional, though there was a time when U.S. Mint locations were ignored by collectors assembling sets of particular series of classic U.S. coins.

185-eA future discussion will focus on series of classic U.S. coins that may be collected ‘by date’ without spending a vast fortune, and how to choose such series. Factors involved in choosing and evaluating sets to collect are not secrets, though some explanation may be helpful to many collectors.

The criteria for identifying excellent, classic U.S. coins are not based upon my personal opinions. The criteria evolved over a period of more than 125 years. The notion that the Eliasberg, Norweb, Garrett, Pittman, Cleneay, Earle, Stickney, J. A. Stack, Parmelee, and Starr Collections are all among the fifteen all-time best collections of U.S. coins ever to be auctioned, with Eliasberg’s collection being the best, is not merely an opinion, and is consistent with widely held conclusions. Indeed, this notion is a reality.

While people may disagree with prevailing values and rules in any cultural realm, it is a fact that some values and rules prevail, not an opinion. It is a fact, for example, that tens of thousands of people seek to complete sets of large cents and, ever since the 1850s, large cents of 1799 have been recognized as being rare and are highly coveted. It is a fact that many serious collectors now, and in the past, wish to complete sets of Liberty Seated Silver Dollars. It is also a fact that the 1870-S Liberty Seated Dollar is the key to this series and is the rarest business strike silver dollar. If someone said that his 1881-S silver dollar is more important than an 1870-S silver dollar, such a statement would be objectively wrong; such a matter is not one of opinion.

How would I know the criteria for identifying, interpreting and evaluating, rare U.S. coins and meaningful collections? I have been collecting coins, on and off, since I was five years old. I have been reading about truly rare coins since I was seven years old. I have been analyzing individual rare coins and auctions of rare U.S. coins for more than twenty years. I have personally examined a large percentage of the classic, very rare U.S. coins in existence, including quite a number of Great Rarities.

Indeed, I am the only person who has closely examined thousands of rarities in all series of classic U.S. coins (usually with a magnifying glass), has extensively reviewed dozens of major coin auctions for leading publications (including epic sales), has learned about the physical characteristics of coins from foremost experts like David Akers and John Albanese (among others), AND has researched the history of coin collecting in the U.S.

For example, I have examined eight of the nine known 1870-S Liberty Seated Dollars. I have seen four of the five known 1885 Trade Dollars, and held three of these four. In a recent condition ranking of 1894-S dimes, I explain that I have examined six of these.

185-gI viewed auction lots before and attended the Eliasberg 1996 and 1997 sales, the Pittman 1997 and 1998 sales, two of the J.A. Stack sales, the three auctions of the Richmond Collection, the sale of Floyd Starr’s Proof silver and gold coins, the 2005 and 2013 Cardinal Collection sales, innumerable Heritage Platinum Night and SBG Rarities Night events, and a countless number of other major auctions of rare U.S. coins. In addition, I have examined a large number of rare U.S. coins at coin shows. I am not referring to glances at coins in display cases. I carefully study coins, tilt them under a lamp, and often write notes about their respective physical characteristics.

I have interviewed and/or conversed with a large number of leading collectors and expert dealers. In my articles, I have cited John Albanese on many occasions. John is, undoubtedly, the foremost expert regarding rare U.S. gold coins. Furthermore, many top grading experts are cited in my articles. I know a majority of them. After so many years, I believe that I am able to distinguish true expert graders from pretenders. I am also able to distinguish experts who truly care about coins and are interested in collecting traditions from those experts who are only interested in ‘making money,’ and I take their respective objectives into consideration when I gather information from them. Moreover, regarding rare U.S. coins, I wrote more than two hundred relevant articles for Numismatic News newspaper, more than two hundred for CoinWeek or its predecessor, plus some published elsewhere. Is there anyone who is better qualified than I am to write about the criteria for identifying excellent, classic U.S. coins and for building meaningful collections?

Regarding meaningful collections, please consider the following guidelines, which will be discussed in detail in installments of this series.

A). Classic U.S. Coins Must Really Be Classic.

185-hGenerally, pre-1934 U.S. coins are classic U.S. coins, though there are exceptions. There are post-1934 coins that need to be included in certain kinds of classic sets and there are some pre-1934 coins that should be avoided in most cases. Indeed, some pre-1934 coin issues are so common that there are far more such coins than there are collectors who desire them.

B). Each collector must figure a budget.

There is a need to take quality and rarity into consideration when deciding on specific coins and when deciding upon the kinds of sets to be assembled. Importantly, current prices, relative prices, and a collector’s own budget must be considered as well. I will provide examples.

C). Collectors should assemble sets that are widely accepted as meaningful.

Most date sets and type sets of pre-1934 U.S. coins are meaningful, given the values and traditions of coin collecting in the U.S. There are, though, exceptions, and there is more than one way of planning each such set.

D). All collections should include at least two 19th century coins.

The core of the field of classic U.S. coins is constituted by 19th century types. For reasons that are not easy to explain, a collection of only 20th century coins tends to lack ingredients that would make it especially meaningful to a substantial number of sophisticated collectors. A relevant point is that grading standards for high quality coins tend to change over time and, while there are many condition rarities in 20th century coin series, there are few absolute rarities. Usually, true classic U.S. coins are coveted in all time periods, not desired just because of a current certification. In any event, I look forward to explaining this point near the end of this series of articles. Besides, great collections of classic U.S. coins tend to be characterized by at least a little diversity, rather than being all of one time period.

E). All collections should include at least one truly rare coin.

The field of classic U.S. coins is often called “rare U.S. coins.” The concept of rarity is central to the concept of coin collecting. A discussion of this point will come later, along mentions of specific coins. There are many truly rare, classic U.S. coins that are not very expensive.

F). Weigh originality heavily and focus on quality apart from numerical grade.

This is the most important point that I put forth. To an extent, I discuss it in my article on the concept that many exciting, classic U.S. coins are not expensive. The fact that sophisticated collectors tend to weigh originality more heavily than do experts at the two leading grading services, and than do most dealers, is central to the culture of coin collecting in the U.S.

©2013 Greg Reynolds


Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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