Quality Matters Most

Posted on 3/8/2018

Collectors are driving the market, and they prefer coins with eye appeal.

The rare coin market evolves over time, and many series come and go out of fashion.

In the 1960s, BU Rolls and Proof Sets were all the rage. In the 1980s, generic gold coins dominated the interests of many collectors and dealers. The 1990s and onward seemed to focus progressively more toward rarity. This has culminated in an extreme explosion in price of the very top end of the market. Multi-million-dollar coin sales are not the headline-grabbing news they once were.

This has left nearly everyone wondering what the next predominant trend will be in the rare coin market. This has been a confusing prospect lately, as the market seems to be sending a barrage of mixed messages. When a classic, old-time collection of fresh material is offered to the market, the chances are there will be new auction records set. This is contrasted sharply by the disappointing sales results seen for many coins in just about any sale held in recent months.

Many of my fellow professionals discuss the market for rare coins on a regular basis. It’s our jobs and in our best interest to understand what is in demand. If we buy coins offered solely on price without regard for demand, our working capital will be quickly depleted. This is not as unusual as you may think. There are plenty of dealers and collectors holding coins which would be hard to sell and would only be saleable at sharp discounts.

What’s going on, you may ask. Most professionals in the know can tell you that the current market is focused on one thing: quality. The market has become nearly obsessed with eye-appeal and quality. You can have a dozen Proof Morgan Dollars in your showcase, and if the coins are unattractive, they will sit there with little interest from dealers or collectors. A coin with great color and crisp surfaces will fly off the shelf. There is much more emphasis on quality than on price.

This phenomenon is probably the result of a collector-based market that seems to be in control at the moment. Collectors in general are much more discriminating than investors. Investors do not understand the subtle differences in coins of the same grade. They are more interested in whatever seems to be hot or will flood into the market based on what large marketing companies are promoting.

In my opinion, collectors in the last few years have become much more sophisticated and demand quality with less regard to price. This can be seen in many of the auction results reported lately.

The drive for quality has been unfolding for several years. NGC recognized the need to note extraordinary quality when they introduced the “Star” (★) designation for coins with exceptional eye-appeal. Later, “Plus” (+) grading was introduced for coins that were above average for the grade, but not quite at the next level. A coin that has been Plus-graded with the Star designation is probably the ultimate premium quality coin. (To read more about NGC's Plus and Star designations, click here.)

These coins are currently in high demand, and prices collectors are willing to pay for them usually exceed most expectations.

1884 Liberty Nickel graded NGC PF 67+★ Cameo. Realized: $3,120 in February 2018
Click images to enlarge.

For years, most numismatic professionals have preached the virtues of buying the best quality you can afford. This advice has paid off handsomely for those who choose to be a fussy collector. Currently, however, the price premium for above-average coins are historically high. I still think collectors should pay careful attention to quality, but avoid paying astronomical premiums that some coins seem to be selling for at the moment. There are many bargains to be had for nice coins that others have not deemed to be extraordinary.

The hardest thing for most collectors to understand is what great eye appeal really means. This is truly subjective, and what seems great to one person may seem average to another. Add the additional complication that some prefer frosty white coins while others insist on original toning.

If you are a serious collector, you owe it to yourself to understand the subtleties of eye appeal. You should examine auction lots and dealer inventories. You may also consider taking one of the advanced grading class offered by the American Numismatic Association.

Numismatic education has also been an important part of being a successful collector. The market’s emphasis on quality now demands that you learn as much as possible about the series you collect. In the long, run you will be well rewarded.

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Jeff Garrett bio

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