In Numismatics, Knowledge is Power

Posted on 1/18/2018

Know what you want to acquire, and then keep an eye out for the right price!

As I sat down at my computer this Monday morning, it quickly dawned on me that it was my birthday, one that I am happy to share with Martin Luther King Jr. I recall that when Dr. King’s birthday became officially recognized as a federal holiday, I would sometimes quietly muse and jest that my birthday had been recognized as a national holiday.

Although now being “officially” celebrated on the third Monday of January, it doesn’t often land on his precise birthday, January 15. Regardless, for me and at my age, it’s not as much a celebration but more of a reference, anyway.

I am a man of routine and ritual. So I, of course, had to investigate, and found that prior to this year, the last time the 15th fell on a Monday was 2007, and the next time is 2024. In fact, if I reach the century mark, it will happen then as well. I am a man of routine and ritual.

This is my same mantra when it comes to numismatics, research, analytics history and a bit of eye strain – yet beneath it all is an unyielding excitement. Viewing coins – in many instances, thousands of coins in any given month – has always been a fascinating project for me. The hobby and business is truly compelling: There are so many aspects for the novice or expert to delve into. As 2018 is in its earliest stages, for those of you who are looking for a new and rewarding hobby, this is it!

Where to begin

Veteran collectors, buy a friend a “Red Book” (A Guide Book of Untied States Coins) and steer them to the superb NGC website ( Some research will give the newcomer an appreciation of denomination and design types and, of course, valuations for US and the world! It is all here, my friends, and it is a free reference!

It does take a bit of time to navigate through, but I am sure you will be hooked. That said, for some, there is mild pushback and angst as to what direction to start with, as there are so many options. On several occasions, I also recall being at shows encountering an otherwise-enthusiastic, yet disillusioned, budding hobbyist on a limited budget complaining that “I can never afford the keys and rarities, so why bother?” To that, I reply: Neither can I!

Granted there was a time in my exuberant youth when I envisioned compiling a mammoth collection that Garrett, Bass, Eliasberg or Lilly would envy. Of course, that never happened. Nor did it have to. The joy and satisfaction studying and viewing classic rarities gives one an appreciation equal in some instances to actual ownership.

For each budding numismatist I encounter, I always suggest to go for a type set to start and then decide which coin series is your affordable cup of tea. I mean, minus the Denver Mint mark on 1916 Mercury Dime or a 1927 Double Eagle, you are left with a highly affordable type coin representative of both series!

Do your research

So leaf through your Red Book and scan the NGC Price Guide and Auction Central sections of for guidance. You will be on your way to formulating a plan of acquisition that will be best suited for you. Whether the ultimate choice falls to Braided Hair Large Cents or “Wheat Back” Lincoln cents, you can have fun building your set over time.

This isn’t a race, but for those collectors anxious for instant gratification, as long as the war chest is sufficient, you can definitely speed up the process. However, I don’t recommend this tactic, as it leaves out much of the joy that careful acquisition and research for each date brings to the table. The variety and intricacy within the series that you are collecting is totally removed from the equation. I mean, not all coins from each series are struck with same precision of strike and detail.

One such example is the wildly popular Buffalo nickels: Many of the branch mint deliveries from the 1920s are very weakly struck; in some instances, fully mint state coins, those which have been struck from heavily worn dies, can lack the details of a VF-XF coin! Getting a fully struck (or nearly so) example for many within the series is nearly impossible. This is why Buffalos that exhibit extraordinary delineation of detail deservedly bring substantial premiums at auction! Time and research, my friends!

The just-concluded FUN coin auction held by Heritage in Tampa is a great research exercise to start with. A few points to ponder: While the nearly 6,900 lots realized a powerful $41 million, it is interesting to note 47 lots topped six figures, with the gorgeous 1880 $4 Gold Flowing Hair Stella graded NGC PF 67 Cameo taking top honors, claiming $750,000.

1880 Flowing Hair $4, graded NGC PF 67 Cameo. Realized: $750,000.
Click images to enlarge. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

This 2018 FUN sale produced the largest total of $100,000-plus coins to start off the year since the mammoth 2015 FUN, which realized $70.1 million and included 91 lots eclipsing that $100,000 benchmark. So, are there more higher-echelon coins being consigned? Or are more coins claiming that benchmark? Research!

Coins that don’t get top billing

The 2018 FUN Heritage Signature sale featured 663 lots that claimed $10,000 and up. However, this category and the $100,000 group account for only 10% of the lots sold. Rather impressively, coins selling for $1,000 and under amounted to 30% of the numismatic material sold. I consider many of these coins prime options for the value-conscious collector and those on a strict budget. Take a look at the wealth of top-quality coins in this everyday collector price point.

Still, the lion’s share, just under 60%, achieved low to mid four figures. These are coins that dealers and advanced collectors have been clamoring for, seemingly forever both for investors and serious collectors.

I noted many great coins in Tampa, and among them were a herd of Buffalo nickels: high-grade commoners, and delightfully original semi keys and keys – many sourced to the Pinsky Buffalo Collection.

1916 Double Die Obverse Nickel, graded NGC XF 40. Realized: $13,800.
Click images to enlarge. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

One iconic coin in the Buffalo Nickel series, the ultra-rare 1916 Double Die Obverse, was represented by a solid (and very attractive for the assigned grade) NGC XF 40 example. The coin realized $13,800, and although not in the price range for the average collector, to me this coin was a great bargain, especially if you consider that the same exact coin captured $23,000 at the 2011 CSNS Heritage sale. Coins of this caliber and character infrequently appear, so we will have to see where the true market is after another sale or two.

Another key date Buffalo, the 1920-S, was represented by this exemplary NGC MS 65 that brought $8,100. I am enamored with this coin. The obverse displays a solid strike and such wonderful peripheral rainbow toning. The reverse is nearly as beguiling, with accents of orange and amber encircling the well-struck Buffalo.

1920 Nickel, graded NGC MS 65. Realized: $8,100.
Click images to enlarge. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

It is worth noting that this exact coin has made several recent public appearances: June 2017 at the Heritage Long Beach sale, claiming $8,225, and prior to this at the October 2014 PNG NY Invitational, bringing $8,813. So, here in Tampa at the 2018 FUN, this particular 1920-S maintained 92% of the highest recent sale.

Coins, their history and valuations – part of my routine, ritual and research …

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst, having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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