Q. David Bowers: When high-grade items are actually less desirable than worn ones

The Joys of Collecting: Making the right choice
By , Coin World
Published : 10/21/16
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The Joys of Collecting column from the Nov. 7, 2016, monthly issue of Coin World:

As I like to add little-known facts and diversions to my columns, I mention here some numismatic series in which worn pieces are more desirable than Uncirculated examples.

Among the tens of thousands of varieties of paper currency issued by about 3,000 state-chartered banks from 1782 to 1866, there are many Uncirculated bills — as nice as the day they were printed. These were kept in bank vaults and never signed by the cashier and president and paid out.

As a general rule, these are less desirable and valued far below the same varieties if they are signed and in a circulated grade such as Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated.

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Among counterstamped coins, a well-worn example is often more desirable that a counterstamped coin in high grade. The reason is that a coin worn nearly smooth, if counterstamped, displays the advertising lettering much more clearly.

In The Numismatist, February 1921, a letter signed by “An Average Collector” included this:

“While it may be treason from the advanced collector’s standpoint to champion the collection of circulated coins if the unused are at all available, to me there is a mystical suggestion of romance and history surrounding a used coin that is utterly lacking in the virginal perfection of the unblemished specimen. What a story some of these battered coins could relate if they could speak! 

“How many of my humble coins have passed through the hands of George Washington, Lincoln or other great figures of history. How many have sniggled in some soldier’s pocket during the Battle of Gettysburg, the burning of the Capitol, or have been present at innumerable thrilling events of the past. It does not entail an unusual imagination to envision myriads of untold stories in the life of the used coin not possible to the secluded career of his sheltered brother who has been reclining in some cloistered vault since his inception.”

The above brought to mind one of my favorite tokens — a well-worn 10-cent piece issued by W.A. Farr, the sutler or merchant who with his tent traveled with the infantry troops during the Civil War and sold various supplies such as books, medicine, games, stationery, and the like. 

Would I trade this for a Gem Uncirculated example? I don’t think so.

Changing the slant slightly: From day one many have advised, “Buy the best grade you can afford.”

For most collectors this makes sense, at least in the federal series. The “you can afford” part of the sentence is often ignored as some chase the best grades “that have been certified,” which to me is completely different. 

Take the 1921 Peace dollar. The Professional Coin Grading Service Population Report states that PCGS has certified 4,310 as Mint State 64, 1,400 as MS-65, 179 as MS-66, and just seven as MS-67. PCGS’s price guide suggests that an MS-64 example is valued at $775, MS-65 at $2,250, MS-66 $5,900, and MS-67 $65,000. 

I have a complete set of Peace dollars, all certified by PCGS, and assembled for me over a period of two years by Melissa Karstedt. The strategy was to examine a lot of MS-64 coins and pick out “high end” coins that were just as nice as or even nicer than some MS-65s.

If you are endeavoring to complete sets of 20th century coins, if you seek only the finest you had better be a millionaire, else you will end up with not a collection but just a handful of coins. On the other hand, for most sets, hand-picked MS-63 to MS-65 coins will yield a splendid display. 

Under such a program most sets can be 90 percent or so completed, and the remaining key issues can be added in high circulated grades. The result will be a collection that can be contemplated and enjoyed. 

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