Jeff Garrett: Planning for Success When Collecting

Posted on 2/15/2024

Setting realistic goals that match your resources can lead to success when collecting a complete series.

When I began collecting decades ago, my first goal was to complete a set of 1941-to-date Lincoln Cents. I lived in Florida at the time and locating the early San Francisco Mint issues in circulation was very difficult. After several months of searching in vain, I made my first numismatic purchase. For just 25 cents or so each, Littleton Coin Company helped me complete my first set of numismatic coins.

I knew that with my limited resources, completing the 1909-1940 set of Lincoln Cents would be nearly impossible. The 1909-S VDB and 1914-D would be my "stoppers." Given my compulsive nature, an attribute of many collectors, I decided to pursue a series that could be completed with my resources. I think Jefferson Nickels were my next passion.

LEFT: 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent
RIGHT: 1854-S Half Eagle
Click images to enlarge.

The above scenario is one that nearly every collector faces when deciding what to collect. Some collectors are happy to start a set that they know can never be finished, but for most this is unacceptable. Starting a set of 1839-1907 Liberty Half Eagles is a good example. For somewhat reasonable money, a collector can purchase dozens of circulated examples with many dates and mintmarks.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few "stoppers" for even the most affluent collectors. Only a few 1854-S Half Eagles are known in any grade and the last one that crossed the auction block sold for over $2 million. There are several others that will cost six figures for a nice example, including the 1875 and 1887 issues.

For this reason, many collectors choose to collect subsets of different series. Using the Liberty Half Eagles as an example, assembling a circulated set of Dahlonega Half Eagles (1839-1861) is an expensive but doable task for some collectors. The 1861-D is the most expensive coin, costing around $45,000 for a Very Fine example.

Many collectors also collect the same series from the Charlotte and New Orleans mints. Collecting Southern gold coins has become very popular in recent years. If the above sets contained a single issue that cost $1 million or more, many would be discouraged from even starting the task.

There are several series of classic US coinage that can be completed without the proverbial "stopper" issue. Remember, "stoppers" are relative to one’s budget. Many years ago, the 1909-S VDB Cent was a "stopper" for me, but for the average adult collector, completing a nice set of Lincoln Cents is completely possible. This series is one of the most popular with collectors.

Indian Cents (1859-1909) are very popular as well. Interestingly, the 1856-1858 Flying Eagle set is an example that would give many collectors pause. The key date of the short series is from 1856 and it starts at $10,000 or more. An average collector can purchase a large number of the dates in the Large Cent series, but many never make the attempt because of the 1793, 1799 and 1804 issues. Nice examples of these cost many thousands of dollars.

LEFT: 1856 Flying Eagle Cent
RIGHT: 1799 Large Cent
Click images to enlarge.

Some of the classic series that can be collected in circulated condition without brutal "stoppers" include:

  • Two Cent Pieces 1864-1873
  • Three Cent Nickels 1865-1889
  • Three Cent Silvers 1851-1873
  • Shield Nickels 1866-1883
  • Liberty Nickels 1883-1912
  • Buffalo Nickels 1913-1938
  • Jefferson Nickels 1938-date
  • Barber Dimes 1892-1916
  • Mercury Dimes 1916-1945
  • Roosevelt Dimes 1946-date
  • Barber Quarters 1892-1916
  • Washington Quarters 1932-date
  • Barber Half Dollars 1892-1915
  • Walking Liberty Half Dollars 1916-1947
  • Franklin Half Dollars 1948-1963
  • Kennedy Half Dollars 1964-date

Morgan Silver Dollars (1878-1921) are one of the most collected series in US coinage, even though the set has many expensive dates and mintmarks. Most collectors try to choose a grade that they would consider affordable and then purchase as many as possible over a long period of time.

I have purchased dozens of Mint State Morgan Dollar sets over the years that were missing examples of the 1892-S, 1893-S, 1895 Proof and 1895-O. Considering that these coins all range from $15,000 to $100,000-plus, it is not surprising that they would be absent from most sets. The interesting thing is that so many collectors start the set knowing they will never finish them.

LEFT: 1893-S Morgan Dollar
RIGHT: 1895 Proof Morgan Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

For the above reasons, many collectors have turned to modern coins as an alternative. A complete set of NGC MS 69 Silver Eagles (1986-to-date) can be purchased for less than $3,000. Many other modern issue sets can be started and completed for a fraction of the cost of the classic early issues. The State Quarter series that began in 1999 is a great example. Millions of individuals started coin collecting trying to assemble a complete set of these as they were issued.

Many other modern issue collectors are also drawn to the competition of completing set registry collections. These collectors desire completeness and quality. The combination of the two, combined with the competitive aspect, has been a boon to the hobby. There are thousands of collectors trying to assemble complete sets of dozens of series. Collectors are encouraged to find out more about the NGC Registry at

US gold coins (1795-1933) are one of my specialties as a numismatic professional. Nearly every series has what would be considered a "stopper" for the average or above-average collector. Gold Dollars (1849-1889) have many affordable issues, but the 1849-C Open Wreath is hundreds of thousands of dollars in any condition.

LEFT: 1849-C Open Wreath Gold Dollar
RIGHT: 1911-D Quarter Eagle
Click images to enlarge.

The same can be said for nearly every series. One gold series that is quite popular and affordable is the Indian Quarter Eagles (1908-1929). The 1911-D is the most expensive but can be purchased for less than $10,000 in Mint condition. The other 14 coins in the series are under $600 in Mint condition.

Another set of gold coins that is possible for many collectors to complete is the classic gold commemoratives struck from 1903 to 1926. These are currently selling at multi-decade lows and should be considered by any value collector.

Every new collector is faced with the dilemma of what to collect. For most, it is very important to be able to complete the set in the grades chosen. Whether your "stopper" is the 1909-S VDB Cent or the 1933 Double Eagle, try to avoid numismatic failure by choosing your series wisely. The thrill of victory once your set is complete will be a great reward!

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