HomeUS CoinsWhat Makes a Great Coin Rarity?

What Makes a Great Coin Rarity?

What Makes a Great Coin Rarity?

By Greg Reynolds for CoinWeek …..

I wish to focus upon the topic of viewing Great Rarities. This important topic relates to several key concepts:

  1. To understand and appreciate Great Rarities, there is a need to see them.
  2. Viewing Great Rarities is important for coin enthusiasts, especially for those who cannot afford them. At a major art museum, most of the people viewing paintings cannot afford to buy such paintings or commensurable ones. They may still learn a great deal by seeing and interpreting works of art. Coin enthusiasts can and should learn about coins and examining Great Rarities is part of a learning process.
  3. Of course, I realize that many coin enthusiasts do not have the time or the resources to travel to view many Great Rarities. I hope that this is a reason, among other reasons, why coin enthusiasts read my columns and articles. Indeed, I hope that readers care about my interpretations of important coins, as I have devoted innumerable hours to viewing, analyzing, and writing about Great Rarities.
  4. I strongly maintain that, to be qualified to analyze coins, there is a need to carefully examine them. Further, to become an expert, there is a need to direct questions to experts, and I often do so. Certainly, viewing coins and asking questions are not the only criteria to qualify someone to analyze Great Rarities. These activities, though, are crucial to attaining knowledge in the field of rare U.S. coins.
  5. Though digital images of coins are sometimes wonderful, and imaging technology, along with its implementations, continues to improve, there is a great deal about many coins that cannot be seen in pictures. It is necessary to view actual coins to understand them. This will always be true.
  6. My comments below regarding many of the Great Rarities that I have seen are not meant to be boastful. Rather, such discussions relate to my qualifications and I wish to share my enthusiasm for Great Rarities with others.

What Is Meant by ‘Seeing a Rarity’?

There is a tremendous difference between seeing a coin in a display case and actually examining the coin ‘in-hand’. Display cases usually allow for the viewing of only one side of each coin, typically the obverse. At major coin conventions, however, coins are sometimes displayed such that both the obverse and reverse may be viewed. Coins may be mounted vertically in cases with clear panels in the front and back, and sometimes at the sides as well.

When a coin is held in one’s hands, it can be tilted at various angles. A variety of characteristics are apparent at some angles, though not at others. Furthermore, to really appreciate and even begin to understand a specific coin, there is a need to see how light is reflected at different angles. Generally, coins are very much three-dimensional objects. Photographs and digital images are two dimensional.

Coins In Motion image: Stack’s Bowers.

Much additional information about many coins can be gathered by tilting and rotating. The finer points of coin examination cannot be adequately explained; it is a skill must be learned gradually. Moreover, many attributes of coins can never be fully articulated. Consider, though, that a coin that seems at first to have a dull lifeless surface may, when tilted under a light, exhibit amazing luster or very much reflective fields. For many coins, the tilting at some angles will reveal characteristics that are startlingly different from those revealed when the same coin is tilted at other angles, or under different kinds of light sources.

So, when I say that I saw a coin, what do I mean? I would not be referring to having seen a coin while it is in a display case, unless I explicitly say so. Sometimes, though, viewing a coin in a display case can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Certainly, it is usually much better than not having seen the coin at all.

Though an observer usually cannot tilt the coin while it is in a display case, an observer can tilt his (or her) head and thus see the coin from more than one angle. By all means, I recommend viewing Great Rarities and other important coins when these are on display in cases. Such viewings can be fascinating, fun and educational. Even so, I feel that I would be cheating my readers if I wrote only about coins that I saw in display cases. I strongly maintain that, to understand and truly appreciate coins, close examination is necessary.

In earlier eras, before my time, it was routine for collectors and dealers to actually hold unprotected, very rare U.S. coins. When coins were in flips or 2×2[inch] envelopes, collectors and dealer would literally remove the coins and hold them (hopefully) by their edges. In the present, except for heavily circulated coins and/or some early copper coins, such examining of totally raw rare U.S. coins does not occur often, on bourse floors or in auction lot viewing rooms. In regards to colonials and world coins, however, totally raw coins are still handled often.

For rare and/or very valuable coins, I suggest that handling them in a raw and thus totally unprotected form is not a good idea. I have seen expert dealers drop PCGS and NGC holders containing coins, and dropping raw coins would be much more likely to be damaging to the coins. Furthermore, perspiration, saliva, and foreign elements on hands, as well as biological matter on hands or in breath, can be harmful to coins. In many cases, the harm will not be evident for hours, days, or weeks until after the harm is done. I really believe that, except in unusual circumstances, such as examination by those employed by grading services, coins should be viewed while residing in clear plastic holders. Coins not certified by PCGS or NGC may be placed in hard plastic holders of the type made by Capital Plastics, or in other relatively clear encasements that are expertly designed not to harm coins.

Therefore, when I say that I have held a coin, I usually mean that I have held it while it is in a relatively clear plastic holder. In another words, I have held the respective holder containing the coin, in my hands, where I have tilted it and rotated it. Exceptions relate to coins in museums and early copper. Well before Walter Husak‘s early large cents were auctioned in February 2008, and before these were submitted to the PCGS, Husak showed many of his large cents to me. It was an exciting experience. Two of his 1794 cents that have been traced to Lord St. Oswald are just phenomenal. I will never forget that I saw them, raw.

Super Great Silver Rarities and the 1913 Nickel

An illustration of rare coin auction catalogs and the 1913 nickel.
The 1913 Liberty Head nickel is an important rarity. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

In regards to Great Rarities that I have held and closely examined, in plastic holders, usually PCGS or NGC holders, there are too many to list. For brevity, I will mention here those silver rarities for which 15 or fewer of the respective coin issue are known to exist, and 1913 Liberty Nickels. Also, I am limiting this discussion to U.S. coins, and excluding patterns, colonials, world coins, and territorials, all of which would require a good deal of additional explanation.

For a coin issue to be a Great Rarity, 25 or fewer must be currently known to exist, including business strikes, Proofs, and all die varieties. There are, though, a substantial number of Great Rarities for which 15 to 25 are known. I am not aiming to list, in this column, every Great Rarity that I have ever seen. I wish to share my enthusiasm and excitement regarding my opportunities to carefully examine the rarest of Great Rarities. Besides, coins for which fewer than 15 are known are often (though not always) more famous than those for which 15 to 25 are known.

Due to fortuitous circumstances, I have closely viewed eight of the nine known 1870-S silver dollars. None are in museums. I have written about most of them, including one that was just auctioned in Boston.

An image of an 1894-S Barber Dime graded NGC PF-65 CAC. Image: Stack's Bowers.
Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Since I avidly collected Barber Dimes as a kid, I have dreamed of 1894-S dimes. I have closely viewed the finest known James A. Stack 1894-S on three occasions. It is PCGS-certified as Proof-66. Including this one, I have closely examined six 1894-S dimes. There are just 10 known in the present. Two others have been widely reported, though may not be genuine.

The Simpson, Norweb-Lovejoy, and Eliasberg 1894-S dimes are all clear in my mind, as is the unnamed one that Stack’s auctioned in October 2007. Plus, I have also seen the 1894-S dime that is PCGS-graded Good-04, and I like it.

As a child, I also dreamed of owning a 1913 Liberty Nickel. While I have only seen the obverse of the Norweb-Smithsonian 1913 Liberty Nickel in a display case, I have held (in plastic holders) and closely examined the other four. I have written about 1913 Liberty Nickels several times, most recently when Heritage auctioned the Olsen-Hawn 1913 in January 2010.

This is an image of the Childs 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar.
Image: PCGS / CoinWeek.

The 1913 Liberty Nickel, the 1894-S dime, and the 1804 silver dollar are probably the most famous coins. I have held at least five 1804 dollars: the Childs, ‘King of Siam‘, Eliasberg, Mickley-Hawn-Queller, and Carter-French coins.

Of the three unique business strike U.S. coins that are not in the Smithsonian, I have seen all three. Unfortunately, I have never actually held the 1870-S Three Dollar gold piece; I just saw it in a display case. For more than a few minutes, I held and carefully examined the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Dime. It is one of my favorite coins.

1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime.
Image: PCGS / CoinWeek

I wish to thank Laura Sperber for enabling me to spend considerable time examining the unique 1870-S half dime at the October 2007 CoinFest event. It is a pleasing coin. I am convinced that the 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Dime and the 1870-S half dime are business strikes.

In contrast to the above-mentioned business strikes, all 1838-O Capped Bust half dollars were struck as Proofs, though a few did circulate. Of the fewer than 15 known, I have seen too many to remember at the moment.

I do remember that I have seen only three 1817/4 halves. New discoveries have recently expanded the list of 1817/4 half dollars, though there still must be less than a dozen known. I carefully studied the three that I have seen, including the finest known Eliasberg 1817/4 on more than one occasion.

Yes, I have seen 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ halves, though I believe there is more to this topic than has been reported.

1866 Liberty Seated Dollar. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
1866 Liberty Seated Dollar. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

Though the status of the 1866 ‘No Motto’ silver dollars is not clear, it is possible that these were minted in late 1865. Only two are known. I have very closely examined one and I saw both the obverse and the reverse of the other in a display case. I also saw an 1866 ‘No Motto’ quarter and half dollar. This quarter is widely believed to be unique. It may be, though, that these Philadelphia Mint 1866 ‘No Motto’ silver coins are fantasy strikings, rather than coins, made much later than 1866.

One of my favorite Great Rarities, which is certainly not as famous as it should be, is the 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Quarter. These are definitely business strikes and there are four to six in existence. I very much like the finest known James A. Stack 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ quarter, which is another of my favorite coins. I am fond of the Eliasberg piece as well.

The 1842 ‘Small Date’ Quarter is a Proof-only issue and I have certainly examined four of them. There are probably six in existence. These are attractive and have not received much attention.

Great Gold Rarities

1822 Classic Head Half Eagle graded PCGS AU-50. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1822 Classic Head Half Eagle graded PCGS AU-50. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

While I did not dream about gold rarities when I was a kid, I became very interested in them as an adult. I have never seen the two rarest, privately owned gold rarities, both of which are Half Eagles ($5 gold coins): the 1854-S and the Eliasberg 1822. There are also representatives of these two dates in the Smithsonian. In general, there are just too many Great Rarities in gold–which I have seen–to even mention indirectly in a column. Even if the list is limited to rarities for which 15 or fewer are known, there are still too many to mention.

Indeed, I have seen countless Great Rarities in the Capped Head Half Eagle series, including several of dates for which fewer than 15 are known. Unlike most Great Rarities, these are not famous, at least not currently. A hundred years ago, the 1815 and 1822 Half Eagles, along with 1804 dollars, were perhaps the most famous of all U.S. coins. Traditions change.

Among all U.S. coin types, the series of Capped Head Half Eagles is the most difficult to even 80% complete. The combination of the difficulty involved of collecting this series and the fact that the design is not among the most attractive of all U.S. coin issues has resulted in Capped Head Half Eagles being overlooked by most coin enthusiasts, even by those who could afford to collect many of them.

1798 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle
1798 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek

Bust Half Eagles are more avidly collected than Capped Head Half Eagles. The 1798 ‘small eagle’ issue is the rarest early Half Eagle that has the status of a distinct date, which collectors can own. There are varieties of other dates that are rarer and there are a couple of unique major varieties of 1797 Half Eagles in the Smithsonian. The whole series of Bust Half Eagles would require a separate discussion. The complexity of the series has limited the fame of rare Bust Half Eagles.

1854-S Liberty Head Quarter Eagle. Image: Heritage Auctions (visit www.ha.com).
1854-S Liberty Head Quarter Eagle. Image: Heritage Auctions (visit www.ha.com).

A few Quarter Eagles are very famous. Unfortunately, I have yet to write an article about 1854-S Quarter Eagles ($2½ coins), which are among my favorite gold coins. At the moment, I remember holding and viewing seven of them, most recently one that Heritage auctioned in Boston. Moreover, I have a crisp recollection of the finest known Bass-Parrino 1854-S, which stands above the others. Overall, though, my favorite 1854-S is the coin that Heritage auctioned in July 2009. Though it has wear, it scores very high in the category of originality and it has a neat look overall.

The Proof-only 1863 Quarter Eagle is not nearly as famous as the 1854-S, and the extent of its rarity is not clear, at least not to me. There is a chance that fewer than 15 exist. The best one that comes to my mind is the Richmond 1863 that David Lawrence Rare Coins (DLRC) auctioned in July 2004. I remember it as being a very appealing coin. I have seen others, including one with disheartening problems. Along with a particular widely recognized variety of 1804 Quarter Eagle, the 1854-S and the 1863 are the rarest Quarter Eagles.

Which is the rarest Double Eagle? It seems clear that there exist only two 1861 Philadelphia Mint Double Eagles with the new reverse that was designed by Anthony Paquet. The status of this issue is debatable. If it is to be considered a separate date in the Type One Double Eagle series, then these two are among the rarest of all U.S. gold coins, in or out of the Smithsonian. Both pieces are privately owned. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to hold, and closely examine, each. Curiously, these two are very different from each other, in terms of finish and luster.

MAcDonell's 1927-D Saint Gardens Double Eagle and coin envelopes from James Kelly and Paramount's Auction '84 Section. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
MAcDonell’s 1927-D Saint Gardens Double Eagle and coin envelopes from James Kelly and Paramount’s Auction ’84 Section. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles are the most popular and widely recognized U.S. gold coins. Certainly, there are fewer than 15 known 1927-Denver Mint Double Eagles. I have closely examined all those 1927-D Saints that have been PCGS- or NGC-certified, except the PCGS-graded MS-66 Eliasberg piece. Though the Duckor 1927-D is not one of the two finest known, it has a wonderful look. I will remember it forever. The finest known Charlotte-Parrino-Morse 1927-D is nearly flawless, but is not as exciting as at least a couple of the others.

There exist Proof and business strike 1875 Eagles, and there are probably more than 15 in total. This date is the rarest Eagle that is needed to complete a set. Proof 1804 Eagles, of which I have closely examined two, are in their own distinct category.

Are there are other dates in U.S. coin series that I have forgotten at the moment, for which 15 or fewer exist? In columns during the summer, I discussed 1795 Reeded Edge cents, and I consider these to be experimental pieces rather than regular issues.

* * *

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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