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What to Collect?

Written by Q. David Bowers, Chairman Emeritus

Author: Stack's Bowers Galleries / Monday, February 25, 2013 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers
Once you have finished a specialty or have neared completion, it may be time to look for another challenge. In my experience, very few collectors begin in a series and stay with it forever. Instead, they tend to branch out. If you have been collecting more than a year or two or three, this probably includes you.

In reading a recent publicity item for the forthcoming Guide Book of United States Coins, I noted the comment that classic United States commemorative coins have been very quiet in the marketplace. This is not a secret and in my own articles and columns I have mentioned this many times. Remarkably, in high grades, such as MS-65, classic silver commemorative coins of the 1892-1954 era are cheaper now than they were in 1989! This was 24 years ago, slightly more than a generation. What $10,000 cost to buy back then can, in some instances, be bought for not much more than half that figure. And yet, the coins are the same -- including low-mintage issues, pieces with interesting stories, and more.

No one has quite figured out why commemoratives have been in a slump for such a long time. Perhaps it is because there are so many moderncommemoratives -- those issued from 1982 to date -- that the classic pieces have take a back seat. Another reason may be that many commemoratives are fairly scarce in high grades, and few if any dealers have had a sufficient supply to promote them. On the other hand, modern Mint commemoratives, modern Proof sets, and the like can be bought by the unlimited thousands and offer speculative and promotional opportunities. Still another thought is that the doldrums may be part of a long-time market cycle. In a related instance, colonial and early American coins were a hot ticket in the first decade of the 20th century, after which they were quite quiet until the 1950s when the number of enthusiasts multiplied and prices did likewise. Today in 2013, colonial and early American coins are a hot ticket.

Returning to commemoratives, the best place to quickly learn about them is toward the back of the Guide Book. There they are listed in chronological order from the first, the 1892 Columbian Exposition half dollar, down to the latest of the classics, the 1954 Carver-Washington set of three half dollars. Incidentally, from 1936 through the early 1950s, the Stack’s firm was among the official distributors, the very first issue being the 1936 Robinson-Arkansas coin.

Each commemorative has a story to tell. For expanded information my Whitman book, A Guide Book to United States Commemorative Coins, available in bookstores everywhere, will take an evening or two to read, but will make you an expert on history if you absorb what you read. It also has the dangerous prospect of making commemoratives so enticing that you will want to run out tomorrow and add to your collection.

It stands to reason if a given commemorative or other coin is basically scarce -- and there are many commemoratives that are inexpensive in high grade but have mintages fewer than 5,000 pieces -- but are out of favor, some time they will regain favor. This has always happened. However, if and when they regain favor and prices jump up, collectors will rush to buy as many as they can, perhaps paying record prices. It is quite curious that when commemoratives or any other numismatic issues are in a slump or in a quiet period, buyers are relatively few.

Many years ago noted financier Bernard Baruch, who made a fortune in the stock market, stated his secret for success: When people were dumping good stocks he was a buyer. When people were rushing to pay record prices, he was a seller. This philosophy may well be worth contemplating when you review your collecting objectives.