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No album for the future

Most coin collectors never get beyond collecting coins that they remember using.

That was a great strength in the circulation finds era when it seemed like everybody collected Lincoln cents.

Millions tried to fill their Whitman albums and drooled at the thought of perhaps finding a 1909-S VDB in change.

There was great strength in numbers.

The number of collectors of the Indian Head cents issued prior to the Lincoln was just a tiny fraction of the Lincoln collector numbers and collectors of large cents was an even smaller number.

We are now a long way past the circulation finds era. Many Lincoln sets have been broken up with the bulk of the coins returned to the banking system because they are not worth more than face value. Naturally, the key dates are retained in dealer inventories.

I started collecting Lincoln cents in 1963, the tail end of the circulation finds era. I finished the 1941-to-date Lincoln album. Not one of the coins in it is in Mint State condition.

What’s it worth?

In memories and experience, the set is priceless to me. But to my heirs the set will be worth one cent apiece, or scrap metal value if the Treasury allows melting by then.

Even circulated steel cents will probably not bring a novelty premium because so many other sets assembled by people my age will be coming on the market.

The demographics of the hobby being what they are make this is inevitable.

Smaller numbers of Lincoln cent collectors will also have an impact on the prices of the Mint State key dates. If there are fewer individuals who collect the series, this is inevitable except perhaps for coins at the very top of the grading scale, which few individuals have or could ever hope to own.

My expectations for Lincolns are shaped by my experience.

I remember collecting the Jefferson nickel set. As soon as I finished it in 1969 through the purchase of a 1950-D in Brilliant Uncirculated condition for $25, the set went to sleep. It was series that the circulation finds generation abandoned in droves fairly quickly.

A few years passed.

Then prices went into steep decline.

The numbers of nickels coming back to the market greatly exceeded what was needed by the smaller number of collectors.

In the mid-1980s the 1950-D in BU was $5.

Nowadays with a larger menu of Jefferson nickel grades, including counting steps, there is an impression given of price recovery.

Still any Jefferson nickel in a circulated grade is worth face value save for the key dates and the silver wartime issues.

Even though the Lincoln series is still ongoing and is accessible to anyone, the current impulse in newcomers to collect familiar issues is being channeled more into silver bullion and gold bullion coins and modern issues like the gold Kennedy half dollar.

Years ago we might have expected buyers of gold Kennedy halves to go on to put together a full set of the regular Kennedy halves. That does not seem likely now.

Thinking in terms of looking back to get all issues of the type and filling an album seems to be replaced with looking forward to grab the next hot issue.

While there will always be the hard core of collectors specializing in coins issued before they were born, more and more contemporary collections will consist simply of coins produced and collected during the individual collector’s active hobby life.

Future auctions might simply be the John Q. Public set of coins acquired from 2014 to 2039. There is no album to guide one’s purchases for that.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is winner of the 2014 Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog and is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."