Posted on 10/8/2019
Q: My collection of Morgan dollars is nearing completion, and I've accumulated a number of duplicates. Most times, I can decide which one I like better, but I'm stuck on a few. How do I decide which coin to keep, when they each look nice in their own way? Is it best to just keep the higher graded one, or should I be looking at something else?
A: There's a pop song from the 1960s that has the lines "Did you ever have to make up your mind, and pick up on one and leave the other behind?" The singer was talking about two women he knew, but the same difficulty can arise in deciding which of two similar coins to keep. Some of the greatest coin collections were assembled by numismatists who couldn't make up their minds, too. When their coins went to auction, there were numerous duplicates that typically appeared as part of group lots toward the end of the catalog.
Some collectors simply go with the higher graded of two coins having the same date and mint, and this is particularly true of those participating in the online collection registries maintained by the two major grading services. While most collectors are not going to have top-scoring sets, every little point helps them in overall scoring. Of course, if both specimens have the same grade, then it comes down to some other attributes when determining which to keep.
One of the most fundamental questions to ask yourself is which coin goes better with the others in your collection. When the majority of collectors displayed their sets in albums, the rule of thumb was that a matching set of coins was more pleasing to the eye than a random range of grades and color. That still applies today, when most nice coins are certified and encapsulated. If you're a collector who prefers "white" silver coins, then the more toned example may not be the best fit. For example, the illustrated Morgan dollars are both 1878(P) with eight tail-feather reverses in roughly similar grades, yet they look very different overall. The first is entirely untoned, with bright, frosty luster throughout, while the second has light, golden toning over prooflike surfaces. Asking 100 collectors which they prefer would likely produce a nearly 50/50 split, but it's your collection that matters to you.
In the class I teach at the ANA's Summer Seminar, I try to impart to students what qualities make for an ideal coin to represent each design type. When it comes to certified grading, the sharpness of a coin's strike is a secondary player in determining the grade. There are a number of coins carrying high grades that were struck from worn dies lacking in fine details, yet their overall eye appeal carries the day. While this is enough to satisfy most collectors, I believe it's important to have a coin representing as much of the artist's original work as possible, and that requires a specimen that was well struck from fresh dies not showing any signs of erosion. Since one of the components of bright luster is mild die erosion, the collector may have to sacrifice a bit of luster (and, perhaps, a grade point) in acquiring a coin showing full details.
Keep this concept in mind when struggling to "pick up on one and leave the other behind."