Why are “early release” coins worth more than others? I am sure there are obvious and predictable market-driven factors that can be readily identified including but not limited to practical availability, literal scarcity, perceived investment potential, cyclical demand patterns and, perhaps, prestige. While these are undeniably factors, I personally think something much deeper and more significant is at work behind the scenes: a uniquely American need to be first, to compete, to have something distinctive before anyone else. In order to satiate that desire, the U.S. Mint capitalizes on American human nature and our rational desire to categorize, assign worth and socially construct “value.”
What is the qualitative difference between a Proof 70 early release coin and another Proof 70 coin that is not early release? Perhaps nothing, qualitatively. Assuming that grading practices are fair and reasonably consistent and that a coin is not an outright rarity, the designation “early release” arguably means absolutely nothing at all. In other words, these two coins without the grading capsules and early release designation are essentially identical coins.
With that said, I continue as a collector to pursue and “value” coins designated as early release. Without contradicting what I’ve already said, I think there are a number of important reasons to do so that are not temporal factors, but probably reflective of more deeply held American personality traits.
First and foremost, the coin market is driven not only by supply and demand, but also by the idea of the extraordinary. Even common coins in extraordinary grades draw premiums in the market because they are outstanding, aesthetically attractive and eye-catching, even though they may not be rare. Many businesses of all types are driven by eye appeal and the challenge of matching the right buyer up with the right product. But certain products aim at being the extraordinary. Early release has a natural constituency, regardless of the total production numbers, simply because they are extraordinary in a time-oriented sense. While the Mint has proven that a golden goose can be killed, demand more often exceeds supply of early release coins because they are extraordinary.
Second is the power of firsts. We are a pioneering species, and Americans in particular a pioneering culture, which is why we argue so vociferously about who discovered America, or mark the election of the first African-American president. I was the first collector in my circle of collecting friends to obtain a 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent, and while many of them now have an example (most much nicer than mine), my example remains a curiosity with a pioneer coin status, still.
Early release also plays to the novelty-seeking nature of Americans. We still can find out that Franklin Roosevelt received the first Antietam commemorative half dollar in 1937 (extra credit: Where is that coin now?), and a general lore is associated with the first coin that comes off the press. Early release is just accessible enough to seem available to everyone, and just exclusive enough to remain relatively restricted. It allows a sizable cross-section of collectors to buy in as novelty-seekers, but keeps the vast majority of less interested collectors out.
Similar to the novelty effect, early release also plays to the possibility of the unexpected. While die failures and inadvertent errors seem increasingly less likely with the technology of the 21st century, they still occur often enough that early strikes can become quite distinctive in substance as well as in form. In some cases, the natural tendency might be for errors to occur early, before they get noticed. One never knows what might happen in the early production/release phase, and to have that before anyone else, or exclusively — that is mystique and intrigue.
In summary, I believe that a number of very good reasons exist why early release is more than just a quantitative, time-oriented difference — I think it is a difference that matters, allowing some coins to remain distinctive, appealing and perhaps even more valuable. Stamp collectors who collect postal history have long sought examples of the “earliest known use” on covers, or first day covers, and this is a kind of analog for coin collectors that will probably be around for the foreseeable future.
One simply hopes that the Mint will stay as far away from the golden goose as possible.
Jack Trammell is a collector and writer who works at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.