Skip to main content

Up or down, take it like a collector

If you bought your house 30 years, you have a very nice profit on it. But the reason you purchased it was probably just so you could have a place to live.

If you bought silver and gold 15 years ago, you are also sitting on a nice profit. However, the reason you were buying then was probably because you were filling out a set of some kind.

Some coins bought 15 or 30 years ago also would have rewarded you handsomely. Early American coppers anyone? 18th century type?

On the other hand, buying some other coins simply was throwing money away.

It is a well known fact that buyers of the Mint’s uncirculated coin sets since 1968 have not done very well. Certainly some uncirculated coin sets, like the 1970 set with the 1970-D half dollar in it are priced at a level that means the original buyer has a significant price gain. But equally true are the many uncirculated sets that consistently bring less than issue price.

How do you tell the difference ahead of time?

For these sets, there is basically no way to defend yourself. Collectors buy them because they value completeness in their collections. They want the finest examples of new issues for their sets, so they buy the Mint’s offerings. That’s collecting.

A buyer of the 1968 mint set and the 1969 mint set had no warning that the 1970 set would be a good one. It was only the habit of buying every annual set that allowed him to get in on what turned out to be a very good deal.

Three decades ago collectors would likely have said that large cents and half cents would do well as would early type coins. But many collectors either have no interest in these or feel that they cannot afford them. Those are fair criticisms.

What is the point of collecting if you cannot buy what you are attracted to? Trying to follow someone else’s advice would become nothing more than a chore.

But there are many large cents in circulated grades that any collector can afford and are worth exploring. I took a look at an 1846 large cent from the 1999 "Coin Market" price guide. In VF-20 it listed for $19.50. Now, 15 years later, the most common variety of the 1846 in that grade lists for $51.50. The price then and the price now are widely affordable and average collectors don’t have to worry about buying only super coins at gigantic prices.

Large cent prices in another 15 years likely will be higher. But is that sufficient reason to collect them? Not really

In the first instance, you have to be attracted to coins that you want to collect. Once you have identified that area, collect the whole set in the best grade you can afford.

The goal of completeness will both help you learn as you go and it will insulate you from coins that might drop in value.

Had an eager beaver collector in 1970 decided that the mint sets he had bought in 1968 and 1969 were no great shakes, and not ordered the 1970, he would have missed a good one.

Even in areas identified as having less than stellar results such as mint sets, if you were not guided by a sense of completeness and instead attempted to cherry pick issues ahead of time, you likely would have made the financial outcome worse.

Buy what you like. The financial consequences good or bad are what make you a true collector.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is winner of the 2013 Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog and is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."