A common question: How rare is it?
In a world where a relic was valued simply for its historical
importance, rarity would be a secondary or tertiary consideration.
Alas, since a goodly number of people endeavor to actually own a
finite number of things, rarity becomes primary. As long as supply and
demand are the sole determinants of an object’s price, rarity will
remain a question on the tip of the tongue of every collector.
Rarity can be assessed in lots of ways. A lot of the stars of
Colonial numismatics are sufficiently rare to actually compose a
census of all the known examples. We know how many Brasher doubloons
there are, plus or minus one or two. The same goes for the number of
examples of plenty of rare die varieties, famous early American medal
rarities, and more.
For things that are more common, with dozens or even hundreds of
known pieces, rarity figures tend to be rounded guesses. In these
cases, rarity ratings tend to be based more on tradition than anything
that can be claimed as scientific.
Of course, it is easier to be accurate with Colonial coins, a
field where a “common” piece might number 200 known pieces, than in
some other numismatic field from the era of massive mintages.
When collectors come to me for advice on how rare something is, I
tend to offer a rarity metric that has little to do with either
received wisdom or census numbers. The metric I prefer is one I call
“market velocity,” or, how often a piece becomes available for purchase.
At one end of the market velocity scale are pieces that can always
be purchased, at any coin show, or any decent auction, or from a
dealer’s inventory within a phone call or two. At the other end of the
market velocity scale are items that seemingly never turn up, perhaps
are seen at auction once every five years, or 10 years, or once in a generation.
While some scholars pursue the academic question of figuring how
just how many of a certain coin exist, most collectors really don’t
want to know the answer to that question — they want to know how hard
it’s going to be to find a piece for their collection! Among early
American coins, plenty of relatively “common” pieces rarely turn up
for sale, perhaps because Colonial enthusiasts tend to collect for
decades, not to mention the many longstanding institutional
collections that keep pieces off the market.
Of course, some “rare” coins seem to be offered in every major
auction. For these reasons and others, market velocity seems a more
relevant measurement for most collectors of Colonial coins than the
number of pieces extant.
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.