Changing Trends in Numismatics-A Brief History

Posted on 3/27/2014

The market for modern coins has exploded in the last decade.

Coin collecting habits in the United States have continued to evolve since the hobby became popular in the late 1850s. Large cents became sought-after when the large format was discontinued. Many great collections were formed by collectors who started to search for one of every year large cent struck from 1793 to 1857—many were undoubtedly surprised to find out that none had been produced in 1815 due to a copper shortage. Early numismatists were also very interested in Colonial coinage and anything related to George Washington. A study of early rare coin auction catalogues can give today’s collectors an interesting glimpse of what was considered important to collect. Perhaps some day in the future collectors will find the habits of present-day collectors to be both interesting and amusing.

Many collectors today are also astounded that collecting coins by different mints did not become popular until the early 20th century. It was not until George Heaton published A Treatise on Coinage of the United States Branch Mints in 1893 that collectors took notice of Branch Mint coinage. This seems almost impossible to modern collectors who would pay $1,500,000 for a 1927-D Double Eagle and only $1,500 for a 1927 Double Eagle. That tiny mintmark is worth a fortune! Evidence that early collectors did not understand the value of coins from Branch Mints can be seen in the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) in the Smithsonian. The core collection of the NNC came from the United States Mint collection which was started around 1838 by Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt. The collection is extremely strong in early and later date Proof coinage, but is lacking in most coins from the Branch Mints. The addition of the Lilly collection in the 1960s filled a tremendous gap in the completeness of the gold coin collection of the NNC.

Other major collecting trends have developed over the years in American numismatics. In the 1960s, when silver was dropped from our circulating coinage, collectors became enamored by rolls of coinage and Proof sets. These were wildly popular in the 1960s, and a review of Coin World or The Numismatist from the time period is filled with ads selling these items. Many collectors of the time started out as speculators in brilliant uncirculated (BU) rolls and Proof sets. It is interesting to note that during the 1960s the hobby boomed and many publications and organizations had their highest ever circulation and memberships. In the 1960s ANA membership peaked at nearly 50,000 versus around 25,000 today.

When I first became a professional rare coin dealer in the late 1970s, gold and silver bullion became the driving force in numismatics. By the mid-1980s common-date gold coins dominated much of the action on the bourse floor. In 1984 a common date $5 Indian would sell for over $1,000 if it was even close to Mint State. Rare coins were virtually ignored by the majority of collectors at the time. Many of today’s numismatic fortunes that have been acquired by professional coin dealers were started by selling generic gold coins to collectors and investors.

The development of third-party grading changed the numismatic landscape dramatically in the mid-1980s. Rare coins now had a degree of liquidity that had only been dreamed of before. Also, collectors could now have an idea of exactly how rare a coin is by examining the population reports. New investors’ money flooded the market and prices spiked going into the 1990s. A bubble soon formed and prices would soon drop drastically. Eventually, the market recovered and today rare coin prices are primarily driven by collector demand. The advent of the Internet has created huge numbers of serious collectors around the globe. The market for rare coins is now more transparent and liquid than ever before.

Because of several important factors such as third-party grading and the Internet, many new collecting trends have developed in the United States. Collectors seemed more focused than ever before on completing sets of different series. Many take this to extremes by paying “whatever it takes” to acquire coins that will make their sets the best of its kind. Prices realized at auction for coins that were once considered only appropriate to punch into a cardboard holder are truly astounding. Registry Set collecting has fundamentally changed the landscape of numismatics.

Many consider the fascination with modern coins (those struck after 1965) to be perplexing. My interest in the subject of modern coins was slow to develop as well. Ten or fifteen years ago I considered modern coins to be a silly subcategory of numismatics. I remember looking on with amusement at the showcases full of modern coins displayed by the late, great Bob Lecce, a pioneer in the field. Only a few years earlier he been one the country's most important gold coin dealers. He basically sold his inventory of vintage coinage and jumped into the modern market with both feet. His wisdom and vision is only now apparent as the market for modern coins has exploded in the last decade.

My more recent experience with the popularity of modern coins has been formed by several collectors who have asked me to assemble sets for them. One client has been trying for several years to purchase a complete set of United States Gold Eagles in NGC MS 70. I had no idea how difficult the task would be. Despite incredible effort, we still need nearly two dozen coins to complete the set! Another milestone in my journey learning about modern coins was co-authoring the book 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins with NGC Vice President and grader Scott Schechter. The book has been modeled after my extremely popular book, 100 Greatest United States Coins, produced by Whitman Publishing. Upon close inspection there are dozens of very interesting and valuable coins struck after 1965. Many of these issues have great stories, many of which would rival coins from an earlier era. The most appealing aspect for many of these coins is the affordability factor. Most of the coins in the 100 Greatest United States Coins are worth six figures if not millions. Many of the modern coins, however, are very affordable to the average collector. To further illustrate the popularity of modern coins, Scott and I are now putting the finishing touches on the 4th edition!

My son Ben Garrett specializes in US Silver Eagles. I am amazed at the crowds he draws when he puts a few pre-2000, NGC MS 70, Silver Eagles in his showcase. Collectors and dealers snap them up as soon as he offers them for sale. I wish the showcases of vintage coins that I have for sale disappeared half as fast! I would estimate that more individuals now collect silver eagles than just about any other series. Many of the largest rare coin marketing firms in the country sell current issues of these in astounding numbers. Silver Eagles are considered to be the ideal “gateway” coin for introducing new collectors to numismatics. The coins are large, have high bullion content and are relatively inexpensive. Thousands of new collectors are brought into the hobby each month by purchasing silver eagles.

Whatever your tastes are in numismatics, it is important to understand the history of this fascinating hobby. The next time you see a showcase of amazing vintage coins right next to a case of modern issues you will have a better understanding of why collectors have such varied interests. As always, the best advice is to find a series you enjoy and try to learn as much as possible. This advice will serve you well whether you collect St. Gaudens double eagles or state quarters!

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Jeff Garrett bio

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