US Coins

Beyond grade and price

Which of these is most exciting — a well-worn 1652 Pine Tree shilling or a Mint State 70 1921 Morgan dollar (illustrated here by a lesser-grade piece)?

Images courtesy of the author.

Show a collector or dealer a rare coin, and the questions that 90 percent of people ask or think about are: What is its grade? What is its price? This has been true for a long time. And, I must admit that if at the forthcoming Whitman Coin & Collectibles Expo in Baltimore someone were to show me, say, a brilliant and lustrous 1901-S Barber quarter dollar in an old paper envelope, I would ponder the same thing.

In 1979, I contemplated the price and value syndrome and decided to write a book about the other aspects. Adventures with Rare Coins was the result. I picked several dozen coins that had “stories” and discussed their art, history and romance.

That said, price and grade were important considerations back in 1857 and 1858 when numismatics became a popular hobby almost overnight, and that is still true today. It is endemic.

However, if you were to attend an art exhibit you would enjoy the paintings and probably not wonder what they were worth. If you were invited to take a ride in a Gar Wood classic inboard wooden boat, you would not ask its value. A group of music box collectors can spend an afternoon enjoying the old-time melodies played by these instruments without ever thinking to ask about market

Returning to numismatics, a reasonable way to look at coins, tokens, medals and paper money is to contemplate their grade and value, and then go beyond that to enjoy other aspects — the art, history and romance I mentioned.

These aspects seem to be doing nicely, if the number of new books in print is any indication. A lot of these do not treat price, but concentrate on the other features just mentioned. Examples that come to mind as I write this are Fred Reed’s Abraham Lincoln: The Image of His Greatness; John Kleeberg’s study of coin finds and treasures; and David T. Alexander’s magnificent study of issues of the Circle of Friends of the Medallion and the Society of Medalists. This is just a short list. I could mention a dozen more published in recent years. In Coin World I always read research articles. I sometimes read articles about prices.

I suspect that noncommercial aspects are inherent with most collectors. Take this test: Given a choice to see two coins at a convention, which of these would you pick?

? The only 1921 Morgan dollar (the commonest date) to be certified as Mint State 70?

? A worn 1652 Massachusetts Pine Tree shilling recently found under the floor of an old mill?

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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