Poor-1 (PO-1) is the lowest grade a coin can be, where the coin is little more than a metal disk. So why are collectors going after these badly worn coins?
Greg Allen, owner of Greg Allen Coins, St. Paul, Minn., said that collectors enjoy the challenge of finding PO-1 coins.
“I tell people to try collecting it yourself,” he said. “If you think it’s so easy, you try it. It’s really difficult to find PO-1 coins.”
Not just any well-worn coin can grade PO-1, he said.
“They’re not easy to grade,” he said. “A lot can happen to make it not grade. If it has excessive scratches, it won’t grade. If it has rim dings, it won’t grade.
“I have a PO-1 1793 Chain cent. The coin, for the grade, is perfect. It has perfect color, perfect surfaces, perfect eye appeal. It even has enough detail to see the full chain on the reverse.
“If you compare them to a damaged coin, I’d rather have a PO-1 coin as opposed to a scratched or off-color coin.”
It’s the quest of finding the best PO-1 coin that keeps collectors going and the market moving for these coins, he said.
“Collectors will study the coins and even ‘upgrade’ within the grade of PO-1,” Allen said. “They’ll get one with a better color and eye appeal.
“There’s a level of sophistication to this. Collectors will look for a coin that’s good for the grade.”
Michael Hoyman of Palmer, Alaska, says that he’s always upgrading his many registry sets of lowball Morgan dollars. His lowball basic Morgan dollar set, End of the Trail VII Collection, was exhibited at the 2014 American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money and can be viewed online here: http://www.pcgs.com/setregistry/alltimeset.aspx?s=82663.
“The first step is setting realistic goals,” he said. “Then improve wherever possible along the way.
“This is more of a journey into searching and grading coins than just a bunch of coins. Your collection speaks for you. If you are half-hearted in your efforts then your set will reflect that.
“I was not always number one in the lowball Morgan dollar series but I was always looking to improve.
“Allen sold me the first 1884-S PO-1 for $450 and now there are four examples. The value is still there but to me the coin’s grade only matters if it can help improve the collection it’s in.”
Well-worn coins can always be found, but finding PO-1 coins requires effort and knowledge, he said.
“I try to purchase raw coins first but a coin in the holder is a sure thing,” he said.
“Some coins were bought because they were in previous number one lowball sets until the sets were retired.
“If you get them raw, that’s best. You can probably get them close to spot. You then have to scan it for any marks.”
When it comes to figuring out what makes a coin PO-1, he uses a system based on what details are present.
“I study every coin I can, looking for any distinctive markers,” Hoyman said. “Every PO-1 Morgan is different so I have to be better at finding and grading them than anyone else, graders included.
“I have a 12-point system and a coin has to meet seven or more points in order for me to send it in to get graded.
“Because it’s my money paying their fees, I have to be much better at finding coins that are problem free and low enough to grade what I need to improve my sets.”
Allen said details can make or break a coin’s PO-1 grade.
“There’s a very fine line between Fair (Fr-2) and an upgradable coin. The graders have to have enough information to tell its date and mintmark.”
He then added that a few coins can be graded PO-1 even when missing their date, their mintmark or both.
“The 1921 Peace dollar has certain design elements that make it different from the other years,” Allen said. “There are no mintmarks for 1921 Peace dollars. So, even if the date is entirely worn away, you can tell it’s a 1921. For other coins, there may not enough information to tell what it is.”
In order to reach the PO-1 grade, some collectors keep the coins in their pockets to add more wear. While it may seem like tampering with the coin, Allen said he has no problem with this practice.
“If a coin is kept in a pocket to wear it down to PO-1, that’s the same as when they were in circulation,” he said.
“Now, say I took an about good (AG-3) Morgan dollar and kept it as a pocket piece for some time. There’s many things that can happen to it then. I could lose it. It could get scratched or dinged.
“Now, if someone decided to accelerate the process with something like a rock tumbler, it’ll look different. It won’t look like a coin that’s been worn in a pocket. As you wear a coin, it will oxidize. These altered coins won’t, so they’ll have an unnatural color.”
Other coins don’t reach PO-1 because of how they wear or circulate, he said.
“Gold is particularly difficult because it didn’t circulate that much,” he said. “You don’t see that many gold coins grade with that kind of wear.
“Gold coins can also get scratches and rim dings that make the coin ungradable because of the softness of the metal.”
There are few gold coin PO-1 collectors though, he said.
“The most popular series are Morgan and Peace dollars in PO-1,” Allen said. “Classic commemoratives in PO-1 are also in demand.”
Hoyman said that PO-1 coin collecting is growing as more collectors find it a challenge and as a way to study worn coins.
“This all started out as a challenge for me and I went with it,” he said. “I don’t consider myself an expert. Because I don’t know what an lowball expert is or should be. I do consider myself a tenacious collector and persistent searcher of low grade or worn coins.
“It’s sort of like if you bought something and no one else knows what it is. You have to unlock its secrets in order for everyone to appreciate it.”