Cherry Picking

Posted by Jeff Garrett on 5/9/2013

Nearly every series offers something for the cherry picking specialist.

There are few things in coin collecting as exciting as making a numismatic discovery. I started to think about this subject last week when I purchased a collection of Large Cents dated 1793-1857. The coins are in an old numismatic album, and have not been certified or identified by Sheldon varieties. Everyone dreams of finding an extremely rare variety when purchasing a group of coins that have not been searched. Large Cents were one of the first American numismatic series to be collected extensively by die variety. Collecting Large Cents by variety goes back to the early 19th Century. Collectors of this series are almost fanatical about their pursuit. Because Large Cents have been studied so carefully and for so long, it is very difficult to find something rare and unusual. Even a set such as the one just purchased, probably is composed of the most common varieties for each date. You never know, however, and that is why the coins will be sent to NGC for certification with a request for variety attribution. Wish me luck!

Large Cents are not the only series collected by die variety. Decades ago there were relatively few collectors of die varieties for anything but the copper series. Bust Half Dollars slowly became quite popular, and later other areas of the market developed for varieties. One of the reasons for the popularity of some series, including Half Cents, Large Cents and Bust Half Dollars, is that there are excellent reference books for the series. For many years most collectors of other series confined their interests in varieties to those listed in A Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”). The Red Book was first published in 1946 and listed only major varieties for most issues. Over the years new varieties were added, but at a slow pace. There are now probably a few hundred different varieties of United States coinage listed in the Red Book, and these are mostly limited to early coinage. The editor of the Red Book, Ken Bressett, guards the addition of new Red Book varieties quite closely. He understands that if the Red Book lists a variety, many collectors will feel compelled to obtain one to maintain a complete set of the series they collect. A few years ago, Whitman publishing created the Professional Edition of the Red Book. This book lists many varieties of US coins and has become quite popular. It is a great cherry picking tool for dedicated coin hounds.

As mentioned earlier, it is very difficult to find a rare and unattributed Large Cent. The series is extremely well studied and finds are few and far between. This does not discourage the serious collectors of early copper coinage, as occasionally there will be headline news about a fantastic discovery. A rare variety Large Cent can easily fetch six figures. It is easy to see why students of the series try so hard to make new discoveries. Many other series offer much more fruitful searching. Thanks to modern research and dozens of new numismatic books, nearly every series offers something for the cherry picking specialist. One of my best all time finds was a high grade 1873 Double Liberty Indian Cent. The coin was part of set and I did not realize my good fortune until days later. I later called the person who I had bought the set from and offered to share our numismatic find. Guess that’s one of the reasons he still sells me coins on a regular basis.

Varieties are not the only part of the numismatic field ripe for cherry picking. On more than one occasion I have been able to purchase a coin that had been misidentified as a business strike. For many coins, the Proof version of an issue is much more rare and valuable. Just a few of the coins I have found over the years that turned out to be Proof include a 1909 VDB Cent, many Buffalo Nickels dated 1913-1916, several 1921 Zerbe Proof Morgan Dollars and quite a few 1907 High Relief Double Eagles. A friend of mine specializes in early Proof Bust coinage and over the years has made some amazing discoveries. During my years of conducting research at the Smithsonian I made one remarkable discovery. The collection contains an unreported example of an unquestionable Roman Finish Proof 1915-S Panama-Pacific Quarter Eagle. The coin had been in the tray for decades with other circulation strike Pan-Pac coinage. Its amazing how something so significant could be hiding in plain sight for so long.

Would be numismatic cherry pickers have many tools to use when looking for new discoveries. There are dozens of great books and on almost every series of United States coinage. One of my favorite books for this pursuit is the Cherrypickers' Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins by Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton. The books come in different volumes and cover many different series. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins is another rich source of information about obscure die varieties and can be quite helpful even though the book has been out of print for years. Finally, one of the best sources for variety information can be found on the NGC website. NGC offers a service known as VarietyPlus in which they will attribute just about every significant variety of United States coinage. Their website is a great research tool for finding a listing of the major and somewhat minor varieties that can be found for a given series. VarietyPlus is a great value added service that is offered by NGC. Some varieties can be difficult to identify and the small fee NGC charges is well worth the investment.

It is impossible to completely cover such a vast subject as numismatic varieties in a short article. Hopefully, this article will inspire you to consider the multitude of numismatic possibilities when looking at coins. There are still many great numismatic discoveries to be found. With some research, a magnifying glass and plenty of patience, maybe you will be the one I read about in the next numismatic publication. Happy hunting!!

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

Articles List