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From the January 2003 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:


Are High Priced Rare Varieties Worth It?

By Mike Nourse  

    The short answer is 'Yes, they are worth it', but sometimes it may be worth looking at the alternatives. Some varieties, while they are quite scarce and popular, seem to be priced at outrageous levels, especially compared to what the same quantity of money will purchase in the way of regular issue coinage. Lets take a look at several examples.

     I actually got the idea for this article while I was looking at the Indian Head cents section of Coin World's "Trends", a popularly used retail price guide. One listing that really stood out to me was the 1888/7 variety, due to its enormous price. I took a look at a picture of one of these overdates, and while it is somewhat clear you are unlikely to be able to see the remnants of the seven under the eight without some kind of magnification. I can't imagine how it would be visible at all under any circumstances on a coin worn down below Fine condition, as it seems that the remnants of the underdate would be worn away or obliterated by that point. But, be that as it may, it is the price on this coin that stood out to me. In the Trends listing, the 1888/7 Indian Head Cent lists for $1200 in Good condition, $4500 in Fine condition, and $12000 in Extra Fine. Those are big numbers, implying that this is a very scarce variety.

     If a collector wants one of these coins, and this theoretical collector has the funds available, then by all means he or she should look into acquiring one. But what are some alternatives for these funds? Certainly one option would be to look at the traditional date and mint set, in which a collector endeavors to acquire one specimen from each date and mint that a series of coins was produced. A typical Indian cent collection will include 51 Philadelphia coins, 2 San Francisco coins, an 1864 specimen with the letter L on the ribbon, and three Flying Eagle cents, for a total collection containing 57 pieces. Adding up the trends values for these 57 coins in Fine condition, we come up to a total of $2900, which means that for the price of one of those 1888/7 cents in Fine condition ($4500), a collector can build the complete 57 piece set and still have enough money left over to purchase two extra key date 1877's, also in Fine condition. Jumping up to Extra Fine condition, a complete 57 piece set costs exactly half as much as an Extra Fine 1888/7 piece. In other words, for the same amount of money you can either get the overdate or two complete sets! Which would you rather have for the same amount of money?

     If you find overdates to be really intriguing, there are plenty around to fill the void left by not having one of those very expensive 1888/7 Indian Head cents. A good substitute might be something along the lines of an 1808/7 Capped Bust half dollar. In this case you are getting a silver coin that is 80 years older and large enough that you can see the overdate without any magnification at all, though you will want to have your reading glasses on. This old coin has a trends value of a mere $80 in Fine or $435 in Extra Fine, only a tiny fraction of the cost of the 1888/7 cent, though certainly not as rare.

     How about another example. The 1916 double die obverse Buffalo nickel is a popular and expensive error coin. However, are they impressive enough to justify such huge prices as $3000 in Very Good, $7250 in Very Fine, or $12000 in Extra Fine? Again lets look at the alternative of building a traditional date and mint set. In the case of the Buffalo nickels, the set consists of 64 pieces. Believe it or not, in Very Good condition, for the cost of a single 1916 doubled die nickel, you can build four complete date and mint sets, and still have enough money left over to buy a spare 1913-S type two key date as well as an example of the popular 1937-D three legged buffalo! The gap narrows a bit in upper grades, but you can still get three complete sets in Very Fine for the cost of a single 1916 doubled die in the same grade, or in Extra Fine you can get two sets for the same price as one 1916 doubled die. Once again, alternatives can be found in other series. How about the most famous doubled die of them all - the 1955 doubled die obverse Lincoln Cent? These are not as rare as the 1916 Buffalo nickel, but they are even more spectacular as the entire obverse is widely doubled instead of just the date, as is the case on the nickel. The 1955 cent is by no means cheap at $400 in Very Good, $550 in Very Fine, and $650 in Extra Fine, but these numbers are mere fractions of the prices encountered with the 1916 Buffalo.

     Let's look at one final example: the 1892-O micro O Barber half dollar. Because of the nature of this variety, it is collectable in almost any grade, compared to the first two examples, which will be pretty well obliterated in lower grades. One of these micro O half dollars would make an interesting display when placed next to an 1892-O half with a regular sized mintmark. However, the price seems excessive, even though it is a scarce variety. The price in Good is $1750; in Very Good it is $2500; and in Fine it is $3250. This means that in either Good or Very Good, one can build the entire 73 piece date an mintmark set and still have enough money left over to get half way through building another complete set! Barber half dollars jump up in price between Very Good and Fine condition, but for the cost of just one 1892-O micro O you can still get three quarters of the way through building a date and mint mark set. As always, there are alternatives. In this case the very popular and readily available 1945-S Mercury dime is available with a regular sized S and a micro S. While the Mercury dime option is not nearly as scarce as the 1892-O half dollar, you can purchase both the regular and micro S Mercury dimes for under $40 in MS-63 or under $50 in MS-64 for the pair.

     What it amounts to is that before you purchase one of these super expensive varieties, you need to decide if owning that coin is worth more to you than owning the entire date and mintmark set. Which will hold their value better? Nobody knows for certain, but remember that error and variety collecting will go through hot and cold cycles while date and mintmark collections have been quite consistently popular among numismatists since 1893 and appears to be here to stay. Just be aware that there are reasonable alternatives to the super expensive varieties.

     One quick note of warning before I go. I am not an expert in the error and variety field. I am just looking at these things from my perspective as a person with limited funds that must endeavor to make the best use of each and every dollar.

Happy collecting!

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