Collector’s Edge

Posted on 12/10/2019

A few reasons to still love the Red Book.

Q: I've been following the message boards of the two big coin grading services, where a lot of collectors seem to be saying that they haven't bought a Red Book in years. They complain that its prices are not current when they're updated only once a year. What's your take on this?

A: I always get the latest Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins, by R. S. Yeoman) when it's released, usually in the early spring. So do many of my co-workers at NGC, where the company buys perhaps two cases of the book annually. Regarding the claim of message board contributors that it's not the best price guide, I have to admit that I rarely use it for this purpose.

There are many price guides, some of them updated weekly, while others are edited monthly. NGC’s Price Guide is an excellent resource. In addition, auction company archives reveal prices realized for particular specimens of many issues. Values in the Red Book are used today primarily as a long-term record of the hobby's progression since 1946, when the first edition was published. But that's certainly not the reason why I have a copy within arm's reach at all times while I'm working. There's so much to this classic reference that's not easily replaced with mere price guides.

The real value of the Red Book is as a pocket-size encyclopedia of United States and related coinage. When I open my copy, it's to look up a mintage figure, see a photo of the more popular varieties or quickly find the weight and composition of the coin type. All of this information may be found elsewhere, particularly on the internet. But the key word here is quickly. NGC's own Coin Explorer online encyclopedia has all this same information, along with much more that is of use to the collector or dealer, including upcoming auctions of a particular coin. I refer to this resource throughout my workday and contribute to it as well. Still, each entry in it is for a single date/mint/variety.

When I want a quick overview of a coin series to find out, for instance, which issues have a mintage under a million pieces, I flip open my Red Book. More often than not, this is already on my desk from using it earlier. It takes just two pages to display the Barber Dime series fully, and it takes me only moments to determine that there are 14 coins in this series that have fewer than a million examples coined. Among these is the famed 1894-S, the fact that its mintage is just 24 pieces almost jumps off the page.

Another quick fact that I often seek in the Red Book is a coin's weight specification. Again, this information can be gleaned from the internet, including from the NGC Coin Explorer. But to quickly compare differing weight standards over the course of a series, I turn to the Red Book.

It's interesting to note that early editions of the Red Book scarcely mentioned weights, except within the general introduction to United States coinage. These figures were added later to each denomination's brief introductory remarks, always expressed in grains, as was the US Mint's standard for many years. Starting with the 1972, 25th Anniversary, edition, the Red Book has expressed weights in grams to make the book more universally accepted around the world.

Over the past 20 years, it has been my pleasure to serve as a contributor to this venerable reference book, and I reach out to its editors several times a year. While it may not be necessary for every hobbyist to buy the very latest edition, all should have at least one recent copy on hand. It remains a valuable tool for any student or collector of US coins.

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