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Finish the set but don

So you’ve decided to take the plunge.  You keep looking at the empty space in your Standing Liberty quarter or Morgan dollar album, and you figure the time is now to purchase that one prize coin that will complete your set. Buying a truly rare coin is a big decision. 

So you’ve decided to take the plunge. You keep looking at the empty space in your Standing Liberty quarter or Morgan dollar album, and you figure the time is now to purchase that one prize coin that will complete your set.


Buying a truly rare coin is a big decision. Besides making sure you can afford your purchase, there are other things to consider. Where will you find this coin? Will you have to bid, maybe more than the coin is worth? What condition do you want? And when the coin set is completed, will you have another collecting objective?

Collectors are always told to buy the key coins in a set first. These coins will always be rare, always be in good demand, and the price won’t ever come down that much. But let’s face it, most collectors do not follow this advice. It’s too tempting to buy a bunch of common coins and fill up the holes in the album. Even if all of your coins are slabbed and not housed in albums, you are still aware of the gaps in your set.

Coins such as the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, 1895 Morgan dollar, 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, are classics that any collector will recognize as being desirable. But there is a difference between finding the Lincoln cent and the Morgan dollar. If you want a rarity from the early days of the United States Mint, the rules are a bit different, maybe a different game entirely.

Let’s say you are a Lincoln cent collector and wish to finish off your set with a nice 1909-S VDB. The odds are that you will find this coin fairly quickly. Although the mintage was 484,000 – very low by modern standards – the demand for this coin is high among Lincoln collectors like you.

Maybe your favorite dealer, whom you have known for years, can find a nice specimen for you. Perhaps he already knows that someday, you will want a nice 1909-S VDB, since you have been purchasing choice Lincolns from him for a long time. He can guess that you want this coin, and he may inform you first when he acquires a nice specimen, just right for your set. Or you can tell him you are seeking this coin during your next visit to his shop.

Perhaps you frequent major coin shows, such as the World’s Fair of Money, Florida United Numismatists, or Central States. Check out the directory of dealers online or in a hobby publication. A Lincoln cent specialist, or one who trades in collector-oriented coins, will have a nice one for sale, in exactly the condition you want.

Condition is always important. Collectors are advised to buy the best coin they can afford. Keep in mind the condition of the other coins in your set. Maybe you can get a deal on a well-worn 1909-S VDB, but it would really stand out among the other high-grade circulated and Mint State pieces in your collection. Sometimes it is more prudent to hold out for a better coin, to be a more even match with the other coins. And when it comes time to sell, an evenly matched set is more desirable.

All right, you’ve purchased your prize Lincoln cent, and it looks great with the other coins, and you’ve found a nice, properly graded specimen. Now your spouse is a collector of half cents. She is fascinated by American history and the early days of the Philadelphia Mint, and is pursuing a basic date set, with a few varieties thrown in for interest. Her goal is to purchase a 1796 half cent, a major rarity.

This is certainly a more difficult goal. The Lincoln cents are in much higher demand; there are many more collectors of Lincoln cents than half cents. But take a look at the mintage figures: 484,000 for the 1909-S VDB Lincoln, and only 1,390 for a copper coin over 200 years old. How many of these coins survive in any grade? You can be sure that her search will be a lot more difficult.

Once she has made the financial commitment to buy this coin, her quest has just begun. Finding this coin takes patience. Perhaps as a half cent collector, she has befriended a few dealers who specialize in early coppers. Odds are the dealers will not have any 1796 half cents in stock. She can inform these dealers that she is looking for a 1796 half cent.


What condition? Perhaps the best she can afford would be a well-worn but identifiable piece. The pride of owning this rare coin would override any considerations of what condition would match the others.
When searching for really rare coins, a devoted collector may be happy to obtain any specimen. This particular numismatist may realize that if a 1796 half cent came up for sale, and she wanted one in a little better state of preservation, it may take years to find just the right one. Maybe she would hold out for a fine coin instead of an about good coin. Maybe she would grab the first one offered, even if it had a few nicks, bumps and scratches along with wear.

A trip to a major convention may produce just the right 1796 half cent, but maybe not. This collector could browse up and down the convention floor, checking out dealers in early copper and choice rarities, and not be able to find one. A 1796 half cent may be offered at an auction in conjunction with the coin show. This half cent collector may have to consider placing a bid on the specimen being offered, and her most generous bid may not be enough. She may have to overbid to get her coin. If she does not obtain the coin at auction, it may be quite some time before another comes up for sale.

Many rare coins are sold at auction throughout the year, and this may be a collector’s only chance to own a dream coin. If the coin is in high demand, or a famous rarity, many collectors who dream big will want your coin, too. One example of a dream coin in high demand is the 1895 Morgan dollar, the big coin in probably the most popular coin set.

Only 880 coins were struck, in proof only. No one knows with certainty how many still exist. The thousands of Morgan dollar collectors will see a number of these coins offered, at auctions and major conventions, and most likely will have to open up the checkbook for a really fancy bid. Most of the 1895 Morgans I have seen are brilliant proof, but a few show evidence of cleaning. Some even entered circulation. I recall seeing a specimen in Proof-15 offered for sale. That worn coin may fit your pocketbook better than a flashy Proof-66 coin. And when it comes to owning the “King of the Morgan dollars,” you may be happy to locate any specimen, as long as it’s genuine.

Buy your precious rare coin from a dealer you know and trust. Likely, the coin will be professionally graded and slabbed; then you know, and any future buyers will know, the coin is genuine. Buy from a dealer who has handled these rare coins before, who has experience in buying and selling key coins.

If you are an advanced collector, looking to buy a rarity, you probably know a dealer or two already, who has worked with you over the years, helping you to build your set and obtain some of the semi-key coins in your set. Do not buy rarities “sight-unseen.” Inspect your coin carefully before you buy; after all, you are investing a lot of cash in your dream coin. Make sure the coin is exactly what you want.

Be aware that many counterfeits exist for certain dates of rare coins, and many reproductions have been manufactured over the years. Some of these pieces are obvious phonies at a glance. Others are very skillfully done. Even the most astute collector can be fooled by some counterfeits.


The purchase of a rare coin, the key coin to a favorite set, is a great moment for any numismatist. It may take months, a few calls, visits to a convention, but the end result is the ownership of a dream coin.
Now your set is complete. The pursuit of Morgan dollars, Lincoln cents, whatever your collecting goal, has been reached and surpassed. Once the glow of ownership has worn off, what then?

Building a beautiful set of your favorite series of coins is a goal that could take some time to reach, but once you have completed your set, is your collecting career finished? What other sets or series could you pursue that would keep you busy and interested? Or do you just want to sell your complete set and go on to other pursuits?

Maybe you would consider building another set of the same series. You could hold on to the first set and try again, to see how long it takes to complete a second set. I heard of one collector who became interested in matte proof Lincoln cents – a specialized area – and took his time to build a complete set of these coins. There were only nine coins to this set, but it was indeed a challenge. And when he completed this set, he decided to build a second set of matte proof Lincolns.

You could sell your completed set and try to build another collection, perhaps an entirely different series, perhaps the same denomination but an earlier series. After collecting Lincoln cents, you may want to try building a choice set of Indian cents. It will be a different experience building this set, but it will be fun, and maybe even more challenging than the Lincoln set. You can buy a number of books pertaining to this series, meet dealers and collectors who like Indian cents, and enjoy another new collecting experience.

Maybe during your trips to the coin shop or the convention, you spotted a few Buffalo nickels, and decided to try collecting them. While you were building your set of Lincoln cents, you noted a few choice Buffaloes from the same era, and thought it would be fun to pursue this set. Maybe you will be attracted to classic commemoratives, with their different and historical designs, or tiny half dimes, or Barber coinage. Your next collecting objective can be anything you want.

Once you have a feel for what it’s like to build a set, you may graduate to building more challenging sets, for the thrill of the chase, for the accomplishment, or for a desire to own some truly rare coins. Your new series may not be the most popular or well-known coins, but some collectors who like to go against the crowd can have a good time pursuing these coins, and have the satisfaction of owning coins that are genuinely scarce. Certain gold sets, such as quarter eagles, fall into this category.

One collecting pursuit can lead to another, and hopefully, keep you busy and involved in collecting for many years to come. It can be said that a real collector, a true numismatist, will not give up after completing one set, but will keep on collecting. Does that sound like you?


Building a complete set of your favorite coins is a pursuit known to every collector. It’s fun to watch your set grow, but there is no feeling like buying the one rare coin that completes the set. If you haven’t done it yet, do it. If you have done it already, plan another set and do it again.

Collecting as a hobby is something that can last a lifetime. When you finish a set, don’t let it finish you.