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Some Ideas on Collecting

Written by Q. David Bowers, Chairman Emeritus

Author: Stack's Bowers Galleries / Wednesday, March 13, 2013 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers
One of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “What should I collect? Can you give me some ideas?” I usually ask if the person has any particular preferences -- such as gold or silver, early American history or whatever. Usually my inquirer is someone who has already collected. I am rarely contacted at the beginning when someone has not yet made a start. After a year or two, with modern Proof sets complete, perhaps modern commemoratives too, plus scattered series, it is time to become more serious. Two of my favorites, and I mention these on occasion, are classic silver commemorative coins from 1892 to 1954, which today in Mint State-65 are cheaper than they were in 1989! Check out the low mintage figures of certain issues as posted in the Guide Book of United States Coins, and you will be amazed at how inexpensive they are.

Another favorite specialty, also offering many values in comparison to historic prices, is the field of Morgan silver dollars from 1878 to 1921. The Guide Book lists nearly 100 basic varieties of dates and mintmarks. Amazingly, more than half of these can be purchased in Mint State for a few hundred dollars or less, some of them even below $100. This is because of the great Treasury Hoard released from 1962 to 1964, in which hundreds of millions of long hidden Morgan and Peace (1921-1935) dollars came to light.

Beyond that, why not consider forming a type set of United States gold coins. Start with 1834, the year in which the Coinage Act of June 28, 1834, reduced the authorized gold content, after which gold coins were produced in larger quantities. In earlier times, the bullion value of gold coins often exceeded the face value, and such pieces did not circulate. Instead, they traded as bullion (much as today American eagles with a face value of $50 don’t trade for that sum, but are valued for their gold content).

A type set is interesting to form and offers many opportunities. A good way to start is to look in the Guide Book and consider the values involved. For some issues such as those in the 20th century I recommend at least Mint State-63. For some of the earlier issues, depending on your budget, you may want to collect EF-40 or better, not necessarily Mint State.

A representative type set includes the following:

Gold dollars
* Type I 1849-1854, Small Liberty Head
* Type II 1854-1856, Large diameter, Indian Princess motif. Of the three types, this is the hardest to find. Also, nearly all examples are weakly struck in one area or another, which prompted the redesign of the denomination in 1856. Accordingly, do not expect sharp details.
* Type III 1856-1889, Indian Princess motif, modified obverse

Quarter eagles, $2.50
* 1834-1839 Classic Head. Scarcest of the types discussed here, but many examples are in the marketplace. Selected with care, attractive pieces from EF upward are nice additions to a collection.
* 1840-1907 Liberty Head. This design, by Christian Gobrecht, represents the longest uninterrupted span of any coinage motif in American history, without any significant change. Generally early issues can be found in grades from EF to low Mint State, whereas those dated from the 1890s through 1907 are easily found in Mint State.
* 1908-1929 Indian Head. Design by Bela Lyon Pratt. Easy to find in just about any grade desired, although Choice and Gem pieces are necessarily expensive due to the demand.

$3 Gold pieces
* 1854-1889. Somewhat scarce as a denomination. Mint State examples can be found easily enough of the first year, 1854, and from 1878 onward, including the low-mintage issues toward the end of the series. All are of one basic type except for those dated 1854 have the word DOLLARS on the reverse in smaller letters.

Half Eagles $5
* 1834-1838 Classic Head. Readily available in the marketplace in grades from EF upward. Relatively scarce in Choice and Gem Mint State.
* 1839-1866 Liberty Head, No Motto. Design by Christian Gobrecht. Examples are usually seen in grades from VF through low Mint State. Choice and Gem Mint State examples range from scarce to rare.
* 1866-1908 Liberty Head, Motto. Readily available in all grades with late 19th century and early 20th century types easily enough found in Mint State.
* 1908-1929 Indian Head. Design by Bela Lyon Pratt. Available in all grades, although Choice and Gem Mint State pieces are quite elusive.

Eagles $10
* 1838-1866 Liberty Head, No Motto. Design by Christian Gobrecht. Typically seen in VF to AU grades, elusive in Mint State and, with a few exceptions, very rare in Choice Mint State or higher.
* 1866-1901 Liberty Head, Motto. Generally seen in grades from EF to Mint State, readily available in Mint State for late 19th century and early 20th century issues. For all types there are scarce dates and mintmarks that are exceptions to the general rule.
* 1907-1908 Indian Head, No Motto. Design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Generally found in AU or Mint State grades, with Mint State being easily enough obtainable. A short type used only from autumn 1907 through late summer 1908. However, many were minted.
* 1908-1933 Indian Head, Motto. Available in all grades. Choice Mint State examples are often dated 1926 or 1932.

Double Eagles $20
* 1850-1866 Liberty Head, No Motto. Design by James B. Longacre. Typical grades range from VF to low Mint State, except for certain varieties that were recovered from sunken treasure, most notably the S.S. Central America.Accordingly, selected varieties are readily available in Mint State, 1857-S being the prime example.
* 1866-1876 Liberty Head, Motto, denomination spelled as TWENTY D. Fairly scarce in Choice Mint State or finer; in lower grades easily enough obtained.
* 1877-1907 Liberty Head, Motto, denomination spelled as TWENTY DOLLARS. Available in all grades desired, with Mint State pieces being common from the late 19th century through the early 20th.
* MCMVII (1907) High Relief, Roman Numerals. Design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. From a mintage of slightly more than 12,000, probably 6,000 or so exist today, as these were widely sought when this beautiful design reached circulation. However, the demand for such makes them necessarily expensive. Many consider this to be the ultimate in motif for a circulating coin.
* 1907-1908 Saint-Gaudens design, Arabic Numerals, No Motto. Available in AU and Mint State grades. This design was short lived, from December 1907 until late summer 1908, but many were struck. Often seen is the 1908 Philadelphia, of which a hoard of nearly 20,000 pieces was distributed in the late 20th century.
* 1908-1933 Saint Gaudens design, Arabic Numerals, Motto. Available in any grade desired.

There you have it -- some possibly interesting ideas.