Missed Opportunities

Posted on 12/20/2018

A common numismatic regret: 'If I knew then what I know now'

Having been in the rare coin business now for over 40 years, I often have thoughts about the classic saying, “if I knew then what I know now.”

The market for rare coins has changed a great deal over the decades, with nearly every series of coinage becoming more fully developed and researched. The base of buyers has also increased many times over, with some areas of the market seeing intense competition for the very finest.

One of my biggest regrets for a missed opportunity was understanding the possibility that future collectors would go crazy for superb modern issues, such as Lincoln Cents, Jefferson Nickels, Roosevelt Dimes, Washington Quarters and Franklin Half Dollars. Forty years ago, if you had told me that someday a Franklin Half Dollar would sell for over $100,000, I would have been certain that you were crazy. Unfortunately, about the only time I handled the above-mentioned coins, they were of average quality, and in a blue album. I shudder to think of the amazing coins I have sold over the years for virtually nothing.

Proof Coins

Another huge opportunity that I missed was realizing the future potential and demand for Proof Cameo and Ultra Cameo coinage. Forty years ago, very few dealers or collectors assigned much of a premium for coins designated as such. When NGC and PCGS started in the late 1980s, neither service designated coins as Proof Cameo or Ultra Cameo. It was not until sometime later that dealers and collectors began to recognize and assign premiums to these coins. The market premium slowly began to rise as the true rarity of these coins was revealed by population information.

Cameo and Ultra Cameo Proof coins were created by fresh dies with heavily frosted devices. The fields are deeply polished and the coins are struck with polished dies. The US Mint has produced Proof coins with Ultra Cameo devices since the 1820s. Some of the gold coins from the 1820s in the Smithsonian collection are amazing and look like modern Mint products. The care and attention to detail are quite apparent by the stellar quality of early US Mint Proof coins.

Click images to enlarge.

Even though the US Mint was capable of producing Proof coins with Ultra Cameo devices as early as the 1820s, the method of production that created them was not always followed. During the next 200 years, the US Mint would randomly produce Proof coins with NO cameo devices, moderate cameo devices, and coins that were deeply frosted and amazing. It was not until third-party grading services began to designate coins as such, and then publish population information, that the true rarity of these coins was revealed. With these modern research tools, collectors can now see what issues were produced to the highest standards and deserving of the Ultra Cameo designation.

The desirability and price premium for Cameo and Ultra Cameo coins varies depending on the rarity and popularity of the series. For starters, for nearly all US Proof coins produced before 1915, Ultra Cameos are rare and highly desirable. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that production of coins with Ultra Cameo devices became routine. All modern Proof US coins have Ultra Cameo surfaces unless the coin is a special production issue.

Proof Morgan Dollars

To illustrate the various rarity of Proof Morgan Silver Dollars, consider the NGC population information of the following issues:

  • Proof: 258 coins
  • Proof Cameo: 102 coins
  • Proof Ultra Cameo: 16 coins

    1898 (one of the best-produced Morgan years ever)
  • Proof: 147 coins
  • Proof Cameo: 52 coins
  • Proof Ultra Cameo: 61 coins

    1901 (extremely rare Ultra Cameo)
  • Proof: 253 coins
  • Proof Cameo: 27 coins
  • Proof Ultra Cameo: 1 coins

An NGC-certified Morgan Dollar with the PF Cameo designation
Click images to enlarge.

From the above information, you can easily see why an example of the extremely rare 1901 Proof Morgan Silver Dollar would bring an astronomical premium.

Other Series

Other series, such as Liberty Seated and Barber coinage, are usually collected by Type and are found quite often with Ultra Cameo devices. They often sell for multiples of the price for coins with no cameo designation. These coins are highly desired by collectors because of rarity and eye appeal. Not many numismatic items look more dazzling than an early Proof United States coins with Ultra Cameo devices.

A few series of Proof United States coins are virtually unknown with Cameo or Ultra Cameo devices. NGC has graded over 17,000 Proof Walking Liberty Half Dollars 1936 to 1942. Only 10 coins have been designated with Cameo devices and NONE as Ultra Cameo. There has also been NO Proof Mercury Dimes designated as Ultra Cameo. The quality of production was high for the series, but for some reason, the US Mint choose not to frost the devices when the coins were struck.

1938 Walking Liberty Half Dollar, Graded NGC PF 66 Cameo. Click images to enlarge.

There are a few things to remember about Proof coins when trying for Cameo or Ultra Cameo devices. For starters, both sides must display the cameo feature to be designated as such. It is not uncommon to see coins with one side lacking frost, and falling short of the requirement for designation.

Another is that deep toning on silver coins sometimes obscure the depth of frost visible. Highly-skilled professionals will sometimes dip deeply toned silver Type coins praying for Ultra Cameo devices to appear. This works sometimes, but I have seen many coins ruined over the years by the attempt, and I would not recommend it.

Proof United States Gold Coins

No article about Proof coins would be complete without mentioning Proof United States gold coins. These are in my opinion, the caviar of numismatics. In most cases they are rare and highly desirable in all grades regardless of designation. There are few coins, however, more beautiful than a Liberty gold coin with Ultra Cameo devices.

If you are one the collectors who like the strategy of “a few great coins,” then this is one of the issues I would highly recommend. In general, the prices for these start with gold dollars and sharply increases based on denomination. A Proof Ultra Cameo Double Eagle is spectacular to behold, and a gem example costs about the same as a small family home.

Most of us missed the chance to buy these interesting coins when they sold for small premiums decades ago. Now, with modern research tools, we can at least accurately analyze rarity, past auction history, and price guides to make an educated decision when making a purchase.

Maybe someone will give you one for the holidays. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

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Jeff Garrett bio

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