Collecting Circulated Coinage

Posted on 3/26/2015

Collecting circulated coinage is an appealing option for many numismatists who cannot afford the soaring costs of high grade coins.

The most common advice any experienced numismatist will dispense is “buy the best you can afford.” I have shared this particular nugget of wisdom many times myself. This usually means trying to decide if you can afford MS 63, MS 64, MS 65 or higher quality coins. The market for rare coins is extremely skewed towards higher quality specimens. The price difference for the upper grade echelons can be astounding. The emergence of the Registry Set concept has further expanded the demand for the highest quality coins. The prices realized for superb examples can sometimes boggle the mind.

Most collectors generally identify a series of interest and then decide the best grade to collect. This usually means taking a look at the average prices for a particular grade and trying to decide if the project is feasible. Morgan Silver Dollars are a great example. Many of the dates in the series can be purchased for relatively modest prices in MS 63. The prices jump considerably in MS 64, and MS 65 coins are out of reach for all but the wealthiest collectors. For example, consider the 1880-O Silver Dollar. The coin can be purchased for around $400 in MS 63, $1,500 in MS 64 and the price soars to over $20,000 in MS 65. The same pricing pattern is applicable to several of the “key” dates for the series.

This brings up the subject of this article — collecting circulated coinage. Even the most advanced Morgan Silver Dollar collectors often choose to locate an attractive, circulated example of the 1892-S and 1893-S Silver Dollars to complete their sets. These dates are usually considered “stoppers” for anyone trying to assemble a complete set of Morgan Silver Dollars in Mint State. The 1893-S Silver Dollars start at over $100,000 in MS 60, if you can find one. Gem examples can reach half a million. A circulated example in XF 40 can be purchased for about $10,000. Many collectors are quite satisfied to assemble a Mint State set with the exception of a few dates that will always be out of reach financially.

Another less traveled road many Morgan Silver Dollar collectors choose is to assemble an evenly matched, circulated set. This can be much more challenging than one would think. Trying to find problem-free coins with attractive coloration that are solid for the grade can be tough. The project would probably take years to accomplish, regardless of your finances. Several of the dates are actually much rarer in circulated condition than Mint State. The 1903-O and 1904-O Silver Dollars did not enter circulation in large numbers. Most were stored in Treasury vaults, and were unknown to the numismatic world. This all changed when the coins were distributed at face value in the 1960s. The 1903-O Silver Dollar went from being one of the rarest in the series to being available for less than $20. Today, finding a Mint State example would only take a few clicks of the mouse. Try finding one in NGC XF 45 — good luck! A few old timers can still relate stories of attempting to complete a set of Morgan Silver Dollars from circulation. Those days are long gone. Even those folks probably had to purchase many of the rare dates.

Morgan Silver Dollar collectors can choose which grade most suits their taste and budget. Some may try assembling a complete set in Mint State with a few circulated coins for the key issues. For many series however, it is virtually impossible to collect the coins in Mint State condition. The average collector chooses to collect them in the highest circulated grade possible. Collecting Bust Half Dollars from 1794-1839 are an excellent example. This series is especially appealing for the average collector because the majority of the dates can be purchased for a modest sum in circulated condition. There are only a few really tough dates and no real stoppers. Many can be found for around $200 in Extremely Fine condition.

Trying to assemble a matched set of attractive coins in Extremely Fine condition is the real challenge. Circulated coins by nature are not usually found without some sort of problem. Another dealer recently sent me a hoard of around 400 uncertified Bust Half Dollars in circulated condition for possible purchase. I was not able to consummate the deal because of quality. Only around 25% of the coins would have met the NGC standards without having the “Details” designation being added. Most of the coins had too many scratches, rim nicks, stains, cleaning or some other kind of problem. This is why NGC-graded coins are important even for collectors of circulated coins. Many with less expertise may not notice a grading flaw that will be costly down the road when selling a collection.

Collectors of circulated coins can be just as discriminating as those seeking only the finest known. Most are very choosy about surfaces and vastly prefer coins that are original and uncleaned. Interestingly, a circulated coin with excellent surfaces can sell for substantial premiums, not unlike its Mint State counterpart. A 1795 Bust Half Dollar graded NGC Fine 15 sold at a recent auction for $3,172. The coin displays peripheral rainbow toning on the obverse that is similar to that usually only found on Mint State coinage. It was probably stored for years in a Wayte Raymond or similar album. The price is considerably higher than that of an average coin for the grade.

Many other series are usually collected in circulated condition as well. Most Seated Liberty collectors choose circulated coins for their collection. The same can be said for nearly all collectors of United States gold coins struck before 1907. For many issues this is not even a choice, some coins are not known in mint condition. Regardless of the series, the theme is usually the same. The coin may be circulated, but collectors want a coin with good eye-appeal. Coins with problems sell for less and those with perfect surfaces sell for substantial premiums. Buying the best you can afford is still great advice, but remember, this also includes circulated coinage!

Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to

Jeff Garrett bio

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