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Did the big one get away from you?

Fishermen enjoy swapping stories about the great catch that got away. Coin collectors often tell stories, too, about the big coin that got away because they couldn’t afford it, or the price wasn’t agreeable, or perhaps they reasoned that the coin would come up for sale again.

Sometimes a collector only gets one chance to obtain a beautiful coin just right for her collection, and when this chance isn’t taken, the collector is left with a story about a great coin she could have had.

Collectors who begin coin sets at an early age, especially those who grew up in the era of circulation finds, may never know what scarce coins got away. Before a collector learns about mintage figures, dates, mintmarks and varieties, he may have spent a 1909-S VDB or 1914-D cent, scarce mintmarked Buffalo nickels, or a 1916-D Mercury dime. Maybe someone told you a story of a funny looking cent he found that had a double date of 1955, and he figured it wasn’t worth anything and spent it.

When a collector gets serious about his collection and goes in search of a special coin to complete a set, he may see a lovely coin that would be just right, and pass on it. Collectors of early United States coins and type collectors may have to snap up that special coin when they first see it, as the coin may not come up for sale again years and then sell for an outrageous price.

A Guide Book of United States Type Coins

Learn how to begin the ideal numismatic pursuit: a collection of United States coins by type.

During a trip downtown, I spotted a 1796 dime, perfect for a type set. The coin showed good honest wear, on the draped bust of Liberty and the small eagle, but no scratches or other abuse. I did not buy the coin. Of course, on my next visit, the coin was gone, probably to a good home in a type set.

Another dealer who knew I enjoyed type collecting showed me a recent purchase: a 1793 half cent. What a nice coin to lead off a United States type set! The obverse was strong, with Miss Liberty showing much hair detail. The reverse looked good at first glance, but there was some corrosion present, something not uncommon on early copper coins. Still, this piece would fit right in to a carefully assembled type set. I didn’t buy the coin, and I was sorry later.

Every type set fan wants a 1793 Chain cent, always in demand, and usually quite expensive. I saw one illustrated in an auction catalog. The photo showed an old copper cent, worn, but not excessively; a good candidate for a type set. Liberty’s hair showed some detail, and the chain was strong. No problems, just honest wear. I did not place a bid. When I received the prices-realized list, I found this coin sold for much less than I thought it would. Some lucky bidder got a real bargain!

Some coins, while seemingly expensive years ago, look like incredible bargains today. When I began collecting, I recall ads from a major dealer selling a vast hoard of Capped Bust half dollars. The ads appeared for months. The Bust half dollars could be obtained by the date, by a small group or a larger group, with just about every year represented, along with a number of major varieties. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a collector to put together an impressive set of Bust half dollars in a short amount of time. I’m sure some wise collector did just that.

Morgan dollar collectors have many dates and mintmarks to check in their quest for a complete set. Many dollars are common, some are not so common and others are not common in higher grades. Some are known for their bold strikes and mint luster, such as the 1881-S, and others are known for being rather blah, such as the 1892-O.

I saw a beautiful 1892-O Morgan at a major show a few years ago. What a gorgeous coin! I couldn’t believe this was an 1892-O after years of seeing “average” dollars. The strike was good, and the luster was bright. The price was high, but this was an exceptional piece. I decided this coin was out of my budget and did not buy it. I would wager the next Morgan dollar collector who saw this coin bought it immediately.

Dollars in their original GSA holders from the great Treasury release of the 1970s have become more popular in recent years, with coins being professionally graded and labeled while still in their black holders. I saw one coin at the top of a stack of GSA dollars at a local coin shop. While not professionally graded, this coin was obviously a choice one. This 1881-CC looked black and white, showing prooflike surfaces from a distance. This dollar caught my eye right away, but I didn’t buy that coin.

Morgan dollars with attractive toning have their fans. Old silver dollars toned in rainbow colors of blue, red, yellow, green, can be quite beautiful, and sometimes command higher prices than an average Mint State coin. I have seen my share of toned Morgan dollars, including a stunning 1885 with orange, red, and yellow toning. Cartwheel luster bloomed under the toning. This dollar was a gem, with eye appeal to burn! I passed on this coin too.

Sometimes a chance at a great coin will present itself at a shop, at a convention, at an auction. If a collector really wants that coin, it may be a good idea to buy the coin while it’s available. This is particularly true for a collector of colonials, early United States coins, or varieties. Choice coins of the 1790s are not easy to find. Remember that there are many numismatists seeking these coins, with a very limited number of coins available. If a colonial specialist has one chance at a wanted coin and passes, he may not see that coin again for decades, if ever.

Even some later issued coins are in high demand and should be grabbed at first opportunity. I knew a Morgan dollar lover who wanted an 1893-S, the key coin in the popular Morgan series. He got a phone call from a dealer who had one; not a super Mint State coin, but a nice Very Fine with no nicks, dents or scratches. The dealer said  he had six other clients who wanted this coin, but this collector was in the area and got the first call. Yes, he bought the coin right away.

Keep your eyes open for that one desired piece, and seize the opportunity. You will not have a story of the great catch that got away!

More Coin Collecting Resources:

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin Books Coin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition

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