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Watch those prices

Coin prices are like real estate. Collectors get invested in them and even emotionally attached to them.

Because there is no centralized exchange for coin trading, there is often no single market price for coins.

The only information about potential value for many coins exists only in price guides.

Online trading in recent years has helped, but even here there are many gaps because some things just don’t trade electronically.

This elevates the standing of price guides and also explains why they are needed.

Price guides are supposed to be comprehensive. They are, or at least attempt to be.

Editors of these guides gather information and use it in compiling the price guides.

Because the editors do this, their status is also elevated.

When prices change in the guides, they are sometimes viewed not as changes in the market for coins, but as the results of actions and/or views of the price guide editor.

“Why did you lower the price of this or that coin?”

Such is the standard inquiry posed to a price guide editor.

The easy answers come from auction records, or very public private treaty sales. Another easy answer is when the computer glitches and a mistake is published.

These inquiries to price guide editors are important. Editors should have to defend prices and justify them as well as correct errors. It keeps them professionally sharp.

On the other hand, some coins just go to sleep and never wake up.

When I was a kid I faithfully read the price guides as they were published each month.

One of the coins I followed regularly was a 1939-D nickel.

I had a strong AU that I had found it in circulation, but the Coins Magazine price guide had only XF and Unc. grade heads at the time. So I followed the XF price.

In 1971, the XF price was $7.95. During the year the price was raised to $8.

It was still $8 when I arrived in the office here in Iola, Wis., in 1978.

I had a conversation with price guide editor Bob Wilhite.

I wondered why the price had not changed in all those years.

It was no mystery to him that many if not most collectors had lost interest in Jefferson nickels. The market had changed for the worse, he explained to me.

Then I asked why the price was not lowered.

Coin prices tend to be sticky on the downside, I learned. It is part of the emotional investment we have in them, but it is also a reflection of a lack of trading.

Markets tend to most actively trade coins that are rising in price. The activity spurs changes in price guides.

When interest wanes, trading can stop, or at least become invisible to price guide editors.

In the 1970s there was no great incentive to cut prices of 1939-D nickels when trading stopped. There was still a chance collectors would return to the series.

Dealers who happened to have them in inventory did not conduct half price sales, because to do so would have meant they would have had to restock and that just was not worth the effort on such a low-priced item.

The reduction of interest in Jeffersons basically remained permanent.

What interest remained in the series moved up the grading scale to top Mint State grades and full steps.

Now the price guide lists Type I and Type II reverses for the 1939-D. The former has the reverse of 1939 while the latter reverse matches the 1940.

Which one do I have?

Beats me. I went to sleep with the series. I haven’t looked at the coin since 1971.

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

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