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Two pricing tomes worthy of every library

By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.


Is there more to a coin price guide than just values? In the case of the two books mentioned here, the answer is yes.

One of those is Whitman Publishing’s venerable guide to average retail prices of coins, A Guide Book of United States Coins, now in its 71st edition. It is also known as the Red Book. The other is Krause Publications’ 2018 U.S. Coin Digest, now in its 16th edition.

Both books are much more than compendiums of coin values and begin with several pages of introductory material about U.S. coins and coin collecting.

A Guide Book of United States Coins opens with a page of brief instructions on how to use the book. This is followed by discussions of topics such as determining the condition of coins, third-party grading, the beginnings of coinage in America, mints and mintmarks, today’s rare coin market, and famous coin hoards.

U.S. Coin Digest begins with five chapters. Chapter 1 is a guide to identifying coin types. Pictured are the obverses of major U.S. coin types by denomination. Although most of the coins pictured appear to be real coins, appropriately placed, there are a few problems with this guide. For example, although six major types are shown for large cents, the Flowing Hair large cent is in the sixth place, following the Braided Hair cent. It should be in first place.


In addition, the Braided Hair large cent shown is the wrong color. Instead of being a reddish-brown color matching the other large cents and half cents, the color is much lighter, a grayish-white. I wonder why the picture of the Braided Hair cent on p. 67, appropriately sized, wasn’t used.

Under the “Small Cent” heading are pictured the Flying Eagle cent, the Indian Head cent, and the Lincoln cent. Still under the same heading are pictured a Shield (no denomination given), a silver three-cent piece, and a Coronet (no denomination given). Of course, I know that the coin with a shield on the obverse is a two-cent piece and that the Coronet coin is a nickel three-cent piece, but what would a neophyte coin collector make of this? Either two more headings are needed or the denominations should appear under the pictures.

Why is the pictured 50 states quarter a line drawing, rather than the picture of a real coin? For a series that began in 1999, it shouldn’t be difficult to find (or take) a picture of an actual coin. Finally, the coin pictured as the Indian Head gold $5 piece is white, not some variation of gold like all the other gold types.

Chapter 2 presents a simplified grading guide. Enlarged pictures illustrate a particular circulated grade for 10 major coin types. In all but one case (Buffalo nickel), the obverse is shown. As I recall from my early collecting days, sometimes a major feature used to determine a grade is on the coin’s reverse, not on its obverse, and that’s why the reverse of the Buffalo nickel is shown. That should also be the case for Lincoln wheat cents and Mercury dimes.

Chapters 3-5 examine minting varieties and errors, the history of American coinage, and how coins are made, respectively. Chapter 3’s detailed information seems particularly useful, as beginning collectors are often captivated by the thought of finding a minting rarity in circulation or by roll searching.

Following the introductory materials, both books contain page after page of coin values. Given the limited space, the coin values are not given for all possible grades that might be encountered but, in general, the major grades are presented.

The organization of the two books differs, with U.S. Coin Digest starting with what it calls “CIRCULATION COINAGE,” which is also known as Federal Issues. That is, the first portion of the value guide begins with the lowly half cent and ends with the Saint-Gaudens gold $20. The Federal Issues are followed by commemorative coins (early and modern), bullion coins, mint sets and proof sets, and uncirculated rolls. Pre-Federal issues, such as Colonial coins, appear next in the book.

By contrast, Whitman’s Red Book begins with “COLONIAL ISSUES,” followed by Federal Issues, then commemorative issues, proof and mint sets, and bullion coins. “Back of the book” material in the Red Book includes a sampling of U.S. Patterns, Private and Territorial gold issues, a sampling of California small-denomination gold coins, Hard Times and Civil War tokens, and so on. There are even listings of values for the Red Book and the Blue Book as collectibles.

You’ll find similar “Back of the Book” material in U.S. Coin Digest. Both books contain a useful glossary, for example. The Red Book includes an extensive bibliography, ordered by topic, which would be great for supplemental reading. Both books are well indexed.

One advantage of U.S. Coin Digest is that the print size is significantly larger. If your eyesight is not what it used to be, you may find this book preferable to the Red Book.

Of course, what most people buy these books for are the coin values. For these, both books do a decent job. It’s possible to quibble about the number of grades for which a given series is priced, or about the number of major varieties listed for a given series, but no guide book as small as these can be all things to all collectors.

Given the amount of information each book contains, the list prices (U.S. Coin Digest, $18.99; A Guide Book of United States Coins, $15.95) seem remarkably low. My advice would be to purchase a copy of each book and study it carefully.

Both guides are well worth owning and reading cover to cover.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• Check out the newly-updated Standard Catalog of World Coins, 2001-Date that provides accurate identification, listing and pricing information for the latest coin releases.

• The Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money is the only annual guide that provides complete coverage of U.S. currency with today’s market prices.