|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
Coin Collecting: What To Collect
( Published 1963 )
If you should decide to become a coin collector, the first question that may puzzle you is: “What should I collect?” Fortunately, there is no single answer.
Some collectors may specialize in the coins of ancient Greece. Others stick to the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire. Some collect foreign coins. Still others seek coins of as many different foreign countries as possible.
Most Americans decide to collect United States coins. Since these are the coins a person encounters every day, the choice is easily understandable.
The first choice of any youngster is, quite naturally, the current Lincoln head cents. Two folders, complete with holes into which the cents can be inserted, are available for less than a dollar.
Theoretically, Lincoln cents of every date and every mint are still in circulation. But-and it's a large “but” certain of them are almost impossible to find. Too many persons have been on the lookout for them too long for them to be located easily in change. They are the so-called key dates, and the list includes the 1909-S with the designer's initials, “VDB,” on the reverse, the 1909-S without the initials, the 1909-D and the 1931-S.
Certain collectors periodically go to their local banks and purchase rolls of cents, which they painstakingly search for the valuable key dates. Occasionally they are rewarded. However, unless one is very young, has excellent eyesight and lots of time on his hands, this procedure is not recommended.
If the roll-searcher ever stopped to figure out the hourly cost of such all-too-frequently fruitless searches, he'd be aghast. He's working at worse than coolie wages. If he could compute the eyestrain resulting from searching through thousands of Lincoln cents, he'd soon decide there are better uses to which his eyes could be put. But, as previously noted, for the very young with time on their hands, it's one way of trying to complete a Lincoln cent collection.
Other beginners may start with the Jefferson nickels or even the so-called Buffalo nickels. The latter are increasingly difficult to find in the earlier dates, although Jefferson nickels of almost every date and mint can be encountered in change. A key Jefferson is the 1950-D which can be located in circulation only very occasionally; most of them appear to have been put away in Uncirculated rolls. So the day may be coming when a 1950 Jefferson nickel of the Denver mint which shows some signs of actual circulation may be worth more than an Uncirculated example.
In the quarter division, the Washington 25-cent piece is in current circulation and almost all dates and mints can be located fairly easily. There are some stoppers-such as the 1932 and 1936 of the Denver and San Francisco branch mints-but even they occasionally can be found in pocket change (well worn, of course).
Half dollars of the current Ben Franklin series have not had much favor as yet. In absolutely Uncirculated condition and sharply struck, they are attractive. But that attractiveness disappears to a large extent after only brief circulation.
The earlier half dollars-the Walking Liberty type, minted from 1916 through 1947-are still circulating freely, and a set can be put together almost entirely from circulation. Even the key dates of 1921 and 1921-D can be purchased in Good condition at a still-reasonable figure.
Maybe you don't know what you'd like to collect. In that event, spend your time just accumulating-cents, nickels, dimes and quarters. After getting together an accumulation of this type, look it over some day. Arrange like coins in rows and by dates. Study them. Possibly one series appeals to you more than the others. If so, you've found the denomination or denominations in which you may want to specialize.
Suppose the series is the Washington quarters. You concentrate on getting together as many dates as you can, in the best possible condition. In the course of examining your pocket change, you may encounter a Standing Liberty quarter (1916 through 1930) - Perhaps the design interests you, and you will decide to collect this earlier series. Then you run onto a somewhat worn Barber quarter of the 1892-1916 era and, somewhat hesitantly, you add this series to your specialty. And so on back to the very beginning-the 1796 quarter, the very first 25-cent piece issued by the United States Mint.
But maybe you don't want to start collecting out of current change. Perhaps you find a certain early series to be most attractive and decide to collect that from the very start. In that event, of course, you'll have to buy or trade or have given to you every coin in your collection, because such coins simply aren't to be found in circulation today.
Certain early series haven't yet caught on seriously with the coin-collecting fraternity, and the prices for specimens in excellent condition from these series are relatively low.
For example, half dimes of the period from 1829 through 1873 are not too difficult to acquire at reasonable prices. Of course, if, after having completed the 1829-1873 series, you decide to go back to 1794 through 1805, you're in for same expensive trouble, for coins in merely Good condition in this period start at $50 each and go as high as $100 in Uncirculated.
Some collectors, when they start to specialize, are not happy until they have acquired every single date of that series. If one has unlimited funds with which to purchase coins, it's quite all right to have that attitude. But there are hundreds who specialize in various series and have occasional gaps. Perhaps they'd be happier if they could fill those gaps without too-great strain, but they decline to mortgage the old homestead. Instead, they learn to live with those blank spaces.
Another series which has been neglected for many years is the half cent, the smallest United States denomination. First issued in 1793, the coin continued in use (although not continuously minted) through 1857.
Because they have not had the popularity of, for example, the early large copper cents, the more common dates are still reasonably priced. But there are certain dates in this thus-far neglected series which command high prices. So the half-cent collector must not be too unhappy if there are some blank spaces in his collection. (Unless, of course, he is equipped with the proverbial “money to burn,” in which case he needn't have started on a neglected series in the first place.)
The bust-type half dollars, dating from 1807 through 1836, were scorned by collectors for many years. They were relatively common even in Fine or better condition, because they saw very little actual circulation. With the disappearance of the United States silver dollar during the period from 1804 to 1840, those half dollars were the largest silver coin available for exchange purposes. These bust-type halves would be put into bags at one bank and transferred intact to another bank. Seldom did they reach actual person - toperson circulation; they spent most of their lives in the darkness of canvas bags.
When the United States finally resumed coinage of silver dollars in i84o, the bust half dollars were released from their roles of interbank medium of exchange. By that time, however, a new type of half dollar was in use and those which went into circulation were before long put away by their owners as “different” (and possibly valuable) half dollars.
Mint records show that these early halves were never issued in unusually large quantities. The smallest coinage was in 1815, with a total of 47,150; in 1820 the next smallest coinage was 751,122. The highest yearly mintage of this early bust-type half was in 1834-fewer than 6 1/2 million.
While these bust halves were the poor cousins of the numismatic world for many years, recently they have started to come into their own. In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to locate Uncirculated examples, and prices have gone up accordingly. But specimens in Fine condition still can be purchased at relatively low prices.
The bust-type half is a series which contains no less than 37 distinct “overdates,” wherein a die from a previous year was used for the current year, the new year numeral having been punched over that of the preceding year. Such overdates exist in almost all of the early coin series and usually command a special premium among collectors.
Repunching last year's die to bring it up to date was an essential labor-saving device in the days when each die of any United States coin was practically handmade. In the early days, mass production of working dies from a master die was unknown. When new dies were needed, workmen had to punch into the blank the various symbols which were to appear on the finished coin.
Using the bust-type half as an example, the workman first may have punched in the bust of Liberty. Then he punched in the 13 stars around the obverse. Finally he punched in the current date. These various punches, even though apparently alike, differed widely: one numeral “2,” for example, might have a curled base, another a straight base, and so on.
It was impossible for the early workman to punch those stars in exactly the some positions relative to the bust. On the reverse, punches far the letters in “United States of America” varied frequently, some being without a single flaw, others having a serif or two missing, still others being bifurcated.
So those early half dollars might be said to be as close to handmade as any coins ever minted by the United States. Today, the novice coin collector may be conned into paying a fancy price for a “small date” 1960 Lincoln cent. He's buying a “rarity” that isn't rare-only a minor deviation in a die from which millions of such small-date cents were struck.
Die variations-real and unmistakable and that can be seen with the naked eye-abound in the early United States coins and, if you specialize, they're really worth collecting. The specialist in early United States coinage often pays a good premium for a special die variety which may be lacking in his particular collection.
So there can be said to be at least 3 answers to the problem as to what to collect.
1. Collect the obvious. Buy a coin folder and select your nickels or dimes or cents from those you get in change every day.
2. Accumulate until you can decide. Try several different series (get them as close to Uncirculated as possible). Before long you'll find one or more that really appeals to you.
3. Read about coins and study as much as you can, then specialize from the start. This is the more expensive way to collect coins, but it's generally agreed to be the most satisfying and (if you're at all interested) rewarding in a monetary way.