By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
When I started collecting coins in the 1950s, the Handbook of United States Coins (the Blue Book) and the Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book) were widely used for pricing U.S. coins. Then, as now, the Blue Book was the buying guide, whereas the Red Book provided retail prices.
Nowadays, there are many guides to wholesale and retail values of coins. One of the retail guides can be found each month inside Coins Magazine. Another such guide can be found in Numismatic News, a weekly paper covering the coin collecting scene. Even the American Numismatic Association’s monthly journal, The Numismatist, has gotten into the pricing act.
Wholesale pricing guides are also much more widely available than they were back in my youth. One widely circulated example is the Coin Dealer Newsletter.
When I compare my first Blue Book and Red Book with the current editions, I find that there’s no comparison. My first Blue Book was the 1956 13th edition. Its contents occupied 126 pages. There are 304 pages in the 2019 edition. The page count of my 1958 Red Book, the 11th edition, was 254. The current Red Book boasts 463 pages.
In the 1950s, all the coin pictures were in black and white. Today, they’re all in color in the Red Book (black and white in the Blue Book). I could go on with these comparisons, none of which favor the earlier editions, but you get the picture: the popular Whitman-published books have come a long way in the 60+ years I’ve been collecting.
Both guides open with several pages providing material useful to the novice collector. One topic covered in the Red Book is the grading of coins, complete with a very abbreviated introduction to ANA grading standards. Other topics are coin certification (grading and authentication), coin usage before the Mint was established, the beginning of U.S. coinage, mintmarks on coins, and so on.
The introductory material ends with a section penned by Q. David Bowers, a well-known numismatist whose name appears on the front cover as the research editor of the book. Bowers’ section is entitled “Coins from Treasures and Hoards: A Key to Understanding Rarity and Value.” Bowers lists and briefly describes several famous hoards, such as the Economite Treasure, the Hoard of Miser Aaron White, and the New Orleans Bank Find. If you’ve not heard of these, then check them out in your Red Book.
Of course, the bulk of the books are devoted to U.S. coins and their values, either what you might receive if you sold coins to a dealer or how much you might have to pay for coins from a dealer. One key to the usefulness of this section involves the different grades for which values are provided. If there are too few grades, or the grades are not really representative of what’s likely to be in your collection, then the values won’t be very useful.
Suppose you have a silver dollar that’s been certified to be in MS62 condition by a major certification service. The Red Book lists values for your coin in MS60 and MS63. What’s your coin worth?
If there’s not much difference in values for the two grades listed, then you could reasonably assume that your coin is worth somewhere between the two amounts, probably closer to the MS63 number. On the other hand, if there’s a huge gap between the prices, which is often seen with scarce dates, then it’ll be much harder to establish an average value for your coin from the Red Book. As just one example of this, an 1896-O Morgan dollar is worth $1,500 in MS60 and $7,750 in MS63. What’s an MS62 worth?
As a collector working on Registry Sets of coins (typically high-grade coins certified by either NGC or PCGS), I’m interested in values for coins in rarified grades such as MS66 and MS67. Such grades are not to be found in either of these pricing guides. To find such grades and values, I would need to purchase the latest edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins, Mega Red 4th Edition.
I have another complaint about the Red Book’s choice of grades for which values are given. For recently issued coins such as modern commemoratives, there are only two grades, either MS67 or PF67. In both cases, certified coins with these grades are extremely rare, as virtually all such coins receive grades of either MS69 (PF69) or MS70 (PF70).
If they have silver or gold content, coins receiving the grades listed in the Red Book are worth their bullion value alone unless they have extremely low mintages. In future editions, I would urge the Red Book editors to change the MS67/PF67 to MS69/PF69 in order to more closely reflect reality.
In the 2018 Red Book, U.S. modern bullion pieces (silver, gold, platinum, etc.) occupy 20 pages, with each series listed and priced in its entirety. To save space, coverage of these issues in the 2019 Red Book has been reduced to just seven pages. Each coin type is now summarized rather than being covered date-by-date.
I particularly object to this summary coverage for the First Spouse series. In the 2018 volume, the obverse and reverse of each spouse (Liberty in the case of presidents without a spouse during their tenure) was shown in full color. This coverage occupied more than five pages compared to the current coverage, which is less than a single page.
I realize that editorial decisions have to be made that can influence the number of pages in a book such as the Red Book. If I were consulted on this matter, I would suggest eliminating Mint medals near the end of the book or the pages devoted to the Red Book and Blue Book as collectibles.
Although I’ve been somewhat critical of the latest Red Book and Blue Book, I still think they’re marvelous works for the novice collector, particularly given their list prices, which are $14.95 and $17.95 for the hardbound editions of the Blue Book and Red Book, respectively. In terms of utility, my preference would be the spiral-bound edition of the Red Book, which lists for just $15.95.
Both books are available from the publisher (www.whitman.com) and online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also find them on eBay.
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