US Coins

7 lessons in collecting: Quality, rarity don't go out of style

Editor's note: The following post is part of Coin World's "7 lessons in collecting" series. Find links to the other posts at the bottom of this page. 

Investing in rare coins is not easy. It takes dedication to learn various aspects of coin collecting that are always changing: supply, demand, rarity, grading, and understanding how to maximize value when buying and selling. These are skills that take years, if not a lifetime, to master. 

Thankfully plenty of helpful resources exist in the coin field to help collectors willing to put in the legwork to maximize the investment return on their collection, including a new book by Robert W. Shippee recently published by Whitman, titled Pleasure and Profit. In it, Shippee discusses his pursuit over the course of more than a decade to put together a type set of each major design type from copper half cents to gold $20 double eagles, from 1793 to the present day. It’s a frank, candid tome filled with anecdotes that collectors can learn from. 

Lesson No. 4: Quality, rarity don’t go out of style

If there is any piece of collecting advice that is repeated in every piece of writing on the subject, it’s to buy quality coins. Each time a collector buys and sells a coin, there’s a transaction cost. In other words, a cost of doing business that allows a dealer to make a profit. 

With copper coins, Shippee suggests “you may want to seek an example with a little more surviving detail by compromising on surface quality. However, never, under any circumstances, should you compromise on eye appeal.” For his 1793 Liberty Cap half cent, he acknowledged that it was “darkish, moderately worn, and modestly corroded,” but he made a decision that this piece was acceptable for what he was willing to spend, and he purchased the coin to add to his collection. For a 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent, Shippee said the cent’s cost in 2002 — $9,775 — gave him pause. However, the cent proved to be one of his strongest investments, selling for $34,500. While it’s graded Very Fine 25, he says that it’s probably better in terms of detail, but was assigned a market grade deducting points for corrosion. He added, “I wasn’t deterred by the thought that this cent might have spent some time in the dirt — I just thought its appearance was very attractive.” 

He advises collectors that when they have an opportunity to choose among several similar coins, look for one that has something special to set it apart from the others. Specifically, “If money is no object, then go for it: buy the best and most unusual coins. There will always be a market for these. For the rest of us, buy something that appeals to you. It will likely appeal to someone else when the time comes to sell.”

However, genuinely rare coins will always be expensive. Shippee advises, “When you find one that fits the set you’re building (in terms of grade and eye appeal) you should stretch to buy it.” For those with a long-term investment horizon, you’ll own something you’ll be happy to own, and that most other collectors want but can’t have. 

More from the "7 lessons in collecting" series:

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