What Do You Collect?

Posted by Jeff Garrett on 8/30/2012

There is no lack of information available to collectors when charting a course in numismatics.

Trying to decide what to collect can be a daunting task for those new to the hobby of numismatics. Many young people begin with the standard penny or quarter boards. These are obvious choices for those trying to find their coins in circulation. That is how I began collecting some forty years ago. I still have my #2 book of Lincolns Cents, 1941–date. Filling those holes will definitely make a collector out of most people. Some, however, quickly move on to more advanced numismatic pursuits. They may have been fascinated by a particular series or denomination earlier in life. Many choose Silver Dollars simply because they like large coins. Whatever the choice, the following information should prove helpful for those new to coin collecting.

Today’s collectors are extremely lucky. There is a specialty book for nearly every series. Now, anyone who wants to know more about a numismatic subject has many places to look. In addition to books, you can research most numismatic subjects on the internet and there are dozens of specialty numismatic clubs one can join to enhance their knowledge. In short, there is no lack of information available to collectors when charting a course in numismatics.

One of the most important aspects of deciding what to collect is your budget. The truly great thing about numismatics is the democratic nature of the hobby. You can enjoy collecting rare coins for $10 per month or $10,000 per month. Some collectors spend millions, yet I doubt they enjoy the hobby any more than those with far more modest budgets. Everyone should find their comfort zone when deciding how much to spend in their numismatic pursuits. Spending more than you can afford will spoil your fun and will put too much emphasis on the monetary returns of your collection. Think long term and try to find a series that you will truly love to collect.

When you find a series that you like, your next objective should be to learn everything you can about those coins. Knowledge is the most useful tool for successful collectors. This applies to any field whether it is Western art or antique lunch buckets. You will not only make wiser purchase decisions, but you will also enjoy the hobby much more. Passionate collectors immerse themselves in the fields they pursue. Knowing the tiny details is what makes collecting such a rich experience. Numismatics is full of small history lessons but it is up to the collector to open the book. Once you have gained the basic knowledge of any series, you will undoubtedly want to know more.

I am often asked what I collect. Many assume that I have a giant collection of United States coins that I started as a kid. I wish this were the case. Unfortunately, I began my professional numismatic career at an early age and most of my energy has been focused on buying and selling United States coinage. I could never really afford to own great coins long term. Buying and selling rare coins requires a great deal of capital and most of mine has been tied up with inventory over the last several decades. Currently, the United States coins that get me excited are way out of my budget! I never would have dreamed years ago that coins would routinely sell for over one million dollars. Also, there might be a conflict of interest issue if I collected coins that my customers might need for their collections.

Even though I cannot afford to collect expensive United States coins, I do collect rare coins and paper money. Like many collectors, I like to seek items which I believe from my research are undervalued and underrated in today’s marketplace. Many years ago, I purchased a group of small size Kentucky National Bank Notes. I was fascinated when I learned that you could buy a note, of which only three or four are known, for less than $3,000. A rare United States coin of similar rarity might cost six figures. I was also drawn to the challenge of trying to find a note from every Kentucky town that issued one. Collecting Kentucky Small Size Nationals became a passion, and the “gotta have it” mentality has set in. I have over 250 different notes and I become extremely excited when I am able to make an addition to my collection.

I also collect world and ancient coins. With these, my primary attraction is to collect quality pieces. I love buying a superb ancient coin or pristine world coin that is hundreds of years old. My theory is that someday collectors from around the world will pay the same premiums for higher grades as collectors of United States coinage do. That is already starting to happen as certified coins become the norm around the world. Look for this trend to continue!

The best advice ever for collectors was given by the dean of numismatics, Dave Bowers, decades ago. He stated, “Buy the book before the coin.” This advice still rings true and is easier than ever. A quick look at the numerous numismatic books on the market will also give you additional ideas about what to collect. There are probably more possibilities than you could have imagined. As I have stated many times before in this column, finding a numismatic mentor can also be very helpful when trying to decide what to collect. Many professional coin dealers have decades of experience and most are more than willing to share their years of knowledge with their current and potential customers.

Finally, I am often asked by collectors what they should collect. After reviewing their interests and budgets, I often suggest collecting by type. Type collecting is like starting a rare coin mutual fund as your investments will be spread over many series and denominations. One collector that I have known for years liked the idea, but took it one step further. He decided to buy one of every major type of United States coinage, but would only buy the rarest coins for the Type. His theory was that as the hobby grew, there would be increased demand for the “key” dates of each series. He was right! This style of collecting has been very successful as he has seen his collection grow substantially in value over the years.

The possibilities are endless, but whatever series you choose, try to become a passionate collector. Study and read up all you can. In the end, you will enjoy the hobby much more and find that your investment of time and money will be well spent!

Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to wmr@ngccoin.com.

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