US Coins

Study the market

Rare coins such as high-grade Colonial Pine Tree shillings tend to have a strong market and trade at close margins. Countless other coins trade in the marketplace in a similar manner.

Images courtesy of Q. David Bowers.

Just before writing this column I sat down and read the latest issue of The American Philatelist, journal of the American Philatelic Association. The story goes back to when I was a student at Penn State from 1957 to 1960. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner each day at a popular restaurant adjacent to the campus. I ran a tab, including tips, and at the end of each month settled my account — usually about $90 to $110.

In the same era, a room in the Park Sheraton Hotel on Sixth Avenue in New York City cost $16 or with “free parking,” $20.

At the Corner House, H. Clay Musser, secretary of the American Philatelic Association based in the same town, had breakfast each day. We became friends, and I visited his home. One of his activities was tearing the corners off of stamped envelopes, soaking them, retrieving the loose wet stamps, drying them, tying them into little “bundles” with white thread, and selling them to some stamp company. I could not help but think this was a waste of time — at least from a coin dealer’s viewpoint. On the other hand, I suppose some dealer spent evenings looking through change hoping to find something scarce.

Mr. Musser persuaded me as a teenager to become a life member of APS, which I did. I don’t imagine I was a very good investment for the society — as here it is 55 years later!

Anyway, in reading the latest issue of the APS magazine I noticed a letter and discussion about stamp market values versus catalog values. When selling a general stamp collection it seems that a philatelist is lucky to get 20 percent of catalog value.

It seems that markups must be very high or else the catalog is wrong. I do know that as a longtime collector of autographs, prints, old books and maps, if I pay $10,000 for a rarity on Saturday and decide that I don’t want it, and try to sell it on Monday, I will get answers such as, “I will give $5,000,” or “I will take it on consignment to offer, but will not buy,” etc. Not so with rare coins.

I suggest that if someone buys a 1652 Pine Tree shilling certified by Professional Coin Grading Service or Numismatic Guaranty Corp. for $18,000 on Saturday, that any number of dealers would be happy to buy it at $14,000 on Monday. If you buy an American Eagle gold bullion coin and decided to sell it the same day, you would lose only a few tens of dollars.

The caveat is that you must be educated and buy carefully, for many coins are overgraded and overpriced. How lucky you are if you are a careful, smart buyer.

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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