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Specializing – The Key to Longevity in Numismatics

By Q. David Bowers, Co-Founder

Author: Q. David Bowers / Monday, January 01, 0001 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers

As I have written earlier, the key to longevity in numismatics is specializing. This involves forming a basic working library, reading about areas of interest, and collecting slowly and carefully. This can take a lot of money or very little, depending on what you choose.

At the grand end of the scale Louis E. Eliasberg sought to acquire one of each federal coin listed in the Guide Book, from the 1793 half cent to the 1933 double eagle. He finally accomplished this in 1950 when he bought the unique 1873-CC dime without arrows at the date. What a specialty! He also acquired many colonial and early American coins, territorial and private gold coins, and patterns. Also at the grand end was Harry W. Bass, Jr., who collected widely but specialized in early American gold coins 1795 to 1834 by die varieties—and formed a holding unequalled by any other. D. Brent Pogue sought superb federal coins from half cents to eagles, from 1793 to the late 1830s.

On a more modest and much wider scale in terms of those involved is collecting early federal coins by die varieties—such as one each of the early large cents from 1793 to 1814, or Capped Bust dimes 1809 to 1837, or Liberty Seated silver coins – to mention just a few specialties. The world of specialization is much different than many think. The goal is to get one each of the different varieties. Coins in grades such as Good-4, VG-8, and Fine-12 are perfectly acceptable to insiders (while a newcomer to numismatic might sniff at any coin that was not Gem Mint State). Members of the Liberty Seated Coin Club and the Barber Coin Collectors Society nearly always select circulated coins. Their inventories are regularly published, with the vast majority of coins grading from Fine to About Uncirculated.

Obsolete notes of state-chartered banks 1782 to 1866 are mostly very inexpensive. If you were to seek one of each major variety from the State of New York, the cost for many would be well below $100 each. A curious aspect is that a circulated note with the inked signatures of the bank cashier and president is often worth more than an Uncirculated, unsigned, unused note!

I have very nice collection, probably the finest, of nickel-size tokens that were used in coin-operated pianos and related devices. Most say GOOD FOR ONE TUNE or similar. Most cost me less than $10 each, and probably only 5% cost me more than $50. I have been collecting them for decades. In 1975 the Token and Medal Society published my study, A Tune for a Token, which was highly acclaimed and earned me an award medal. My entire collection at that time was probably worth less than $1,000, but I had years of fun assembling it. A few weeks ago at the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Expo in Baltimore, David Schenkman gave me one I didn’t have from West Virginia.

Specializing in numismatic books can be fun—such as trying to complete a full run of Stack’s catalogs, or those of B. Max Mehl or of the Numismatic Gallery. This is an inexpensive pursuit that provides a lot of enjoyment.

Going to modern coins, some years ago I decided to form a collection of dollar coins from the 1971 Eisenhower to the latest Native American pieces. Most cost less than $50, sometimes far less, for a nice MS-65 (the grade I selected). Most Proofs automatically come in grades higher than that—and those of recent years are nearly all perfect. I formed this in parallel with writing what became a best-selling Whitman book, A Guide Book of Modern U.S. Dollar Coins. Why don’t you track down a copy, read it, and see how interesting these can be?

Specialize and you will really enjoy numismatics! Guaranteed!