How to determine rarity

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Published : 02/14/14
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The other day I had a discussion with a gentleman regarding the rarity of Coronet gold $20 double eagles in various grades.

Information is plentiful — what with population reports, auction offerings and so on. However, it is somewhat of a puzzle to find out how many different coins there are.

Today, the numbers that many people use in making judgements have two major characteristics that are often overlooked. First, resubmissions are the rule. Someone with a Carson City double eagle graded, say, About Uncirculated 55, often finds it profitable to send it back two or three times to a grading service, hoping that it might come back as AU-58 or MS-60.

In a previous column, I told of a dealer who had a Mint State 1916-D Winged Liberty Head dime that he wanted to have certified as MS-65, but it fell slightly short each time.

Finally, on its 24th submission, it was returned with the grade he wanted. This was a win-win situation. The grading service collected 24 fees instead of just one. The owner of the coin saw the value of his coin jump by thousands of dollars. But its population count increased as well.

As if this were not enough, years ago the concept when acquiring rarities was “buy and hold.” Someone seeking a 1794 Flowing Hair dollar, an 1879 Stella gold $4 pattern coin, or a 1901-S Barber quarter dollar typically sought it to add to a collection. With Wayte Raymond, Whitman, and other holders and folders, you could watch your collection grow.

At long last, that empty hole for the 1877 Indian Head cent was filled! Once purchased, such a coin was apt to stay put for many years — until the collection was sold. As most collections of expensive coins today are housed in slabs and rattle around in plastic boxes, the concept of watching collections grow is lost.

Along the way, some of the magnetic attraction of an 1877 Indian Head cent, 1867 Shield, With Rays 5-cent coin, or other key issue is lost today.

Because many buyers do not “bond” with their purchases, many “trophy coins” crossing the auction block are soon available for sale again.

In conclusion, while rarities are as rare as they ever have been, if population reports and auction appearances are used, rare can seem to be common!

Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached at his private email,,
or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.

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