NUMISMATIC BARGAINS: THE $100 CHALLENGE

“The Hobby of Kings…..”
“Higley copper brings $470k……..”
“Newman auction sets new record…..”

My, our quaint little hobby sounds expensive, doesn’t it? But alas, there are many avenues in this hobby of ours that offer much ‘bang for the buck.’ It is the opinion of the author that the following represent excellent values within the world of numismatics. For each example, I tried to stick with a maximum expenditure of one-hundred dollars.

Now, as with any list, the natural bias of the writer will tend to subtly rear its head. For instance, I am not a fan of proof coinage, preferring instead a nice business strike that was intended to circulate. Speaking of circulation, I will sometimes go after a coin that has some honest wear. To me it represents a ‘been there, done that’ coin. My two hard and fast rules: Collect what you like and go after coins that have superior eye appeal. Not necessarily the highest technical grade, but what I like to call “the look.” You will know it when you see it.

Also, I should mention that with any such list there are always noteworthy coins that receive an honorable mention. Contenders would include a 1909 VDB Lincoln Cent, 1913 Type 1 Buffalo Nickel, a widow’s mite, and too many esoteric exonumia examples to list (Masonic Chapter Pennies first come to mind!)

CURRENT YEAR RED BOOK BY WHITMAN

That’s right, my first bargain selection is not even a coin. Every collector, new or old, should own a Red Book. Forget about the one-hundred dollar challenge, you’re getting change back from a twenty with this purchase! An old adage used to go something like this: Buy the book, before you buy the coin. Sage advice indeed. Whitman Publishing has been printing an annual Red Book since 1947 with each edition being an update to the last with current retail pricing. The front of the book has an ‘Introduction to Numismatics’ section which will, among other things, give a tutorial on grading coins that is relevant to established and beginning collectors alike.

A SHIPWRECK COIN

Another must-have for any serious collection in my opinion is a coin that has spent some time on the ocean floor. Why? It congers up images of sunken treasure and pirates on the high seas and, best of all, can be surprisingly affordable. Specifically, try to pick up a nice looking piece of Spanish silver from the wreck El Cazador (literally translated: The Hunter). I should point out that the 1784 sinking of this vessel was well past the Golden Age of Piracy, which had been declining for the better part of a century, but for reasons that follow a coin from this doomed voyage should be a part of your American coin collection.

The vast majority of the coins recovered from this wreck are 1783 dated 8-Reales, a product of the Mexico City Mint, the oldest mint in North America. This 8-Reales coin would have been considered current money in the United States up until the Coinage Act of 1857, which forbade the use of foreign coins as legal tender. In other words, for much of our early history THIS was our surrogate dollar!

But there is another reason that coins from the El Cazador shipwreck are historically important to U.S. collectors. From 1762 to 1800 Spain held almost a million square miles of land from the Mississippi to the Rockies. This Louisiana Territory was suffering from a weakening paper money and needed Mexican silver coinage to shore up the devastated currency. Charles III of Spain ordered that El Cazador transport the necessary coinage from Mexico to New Orleans. Of course, the ship never made it and was lost to the briny deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Had the ship made it to port, the economic landscape would have been very different in those formative years of our young nation. France took back the territory in 1800 and just three years later sold the land to the United States of America for $15 million in the real estate transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase.

8-Reales from this shipwreck can be found from $70 to $90 depending on the extent of saltwater damage to the surfaces. As a buyer you should hold out for an eye-appealing example because they are available with some patience. To a lesser extent, fractional pieces are sometimes encountered selling for under $50. 2-Reales, 1-Real, half-Reales and even pieces cut down from larger coins were among the recovered treasure. For what it is worth, I have never seen a 4-Reales advertised as being from the El Cazador shipwreck, so if you do see one offered for sale be skeptical. On that note, I would only advise purchasing these in third-party graded slabs (NGC, PCGS and ANACS have all encapsulated these)

THE FIRST MORGAN DOLLAR

What would it cost to own an example of the first coin from one of the most beloved series in all of U.S. numismatics? Sounds as if it would be an arm and a leg. Well, if a collector does a little diligent shopping and seeks out a nice XF or AU50 piece, then spending under $100 on such a coin is actually possible. In 1878 the first version of the Morgan Dollar portrayed an eagle on the reverse that had eight tail feathers prominently shown. Perhaps unbeknownst to Mint engravers and die cutters of the day, a majority of birds in nature have an odd number of feathers on their tail. This was quickly corrected, although not before yet another variety was created that had the revised seven feathers AND the original eight feathers peeking from behind. Generally three or four ‘tips’ of the under-feathers can be seen protruding at the bottom on this particular variety.

Going forward, I would look for future collectors to seek out the true ‘8 tail feather’ version since it is officially the first Morgan Dollar as the engraver intended it to look, albeit anatomically incorrect to those birdwatchers among us.

A NICKEL WITH A STORY TO TELL

What is the least expensive 19th century coin to purchase in uncirculated condition? The answer would have to be the 1883 No Cents variety of the Liberty Nickel, a single-year type coin. Fully Mint State examples can range from $50 to $70. At the time of the Eliasberg sale, it was discovered that Louis Eliasberg possessed almost two entire rolls of this landmark, first-year type coin in his holdings. For what it’s worth, these can still be found on the market in green-label PCGS holders with the Eliasberg provenance noted. Even these pedigreed examples sell for less than $100 in most cases.

Why was this ‘No Cents’ variety such a short lived one? Well, in an early oversight, these coins did not specifically state whether the roman numeral V was shorthand for a denomination in cents or in dollars. A few enterprising individuals would plate them in a goldine wash and attempt to pass them as $5 gold pieces instead of 5 cent nickels. The really convincing ‘rackateer nickels,’ as they are known, will go so far as to have the edge reeded by the forger (presumably the work of a pocket knife). Despite being a short lived type, the coin was saved in great number and most remain in nice condition today. This accounts for the inclusion in our list of coins that offer phenomenal value for very little cost.

AN IMAGE FOR THE AGES

Is there a more aesthetically pleasing coin than Hermon MacNeil’s Standing Liberty Quarter? I think not. It calls to mind Greek sculpture of the period from Pheidias to Praxiteles, 450 to 350 B.C. (Vermeule). With her warrior stance, Liberty seems ready to take action in her burgeoning role on the world stage. But, as always, peace is preferred and therefore the olive branch is present in her right (dominant) hand.

My favorite of MacNeil’s renderings would have to be the Type 1, as the engraver originally envisioned. Most collectors will choose a 1917 to fill this important hole in a type set of U.S. coins, as the 1916 issue is prohibitively expensive. My advice is to hunt for a nice, problem-free XF coin with the right look. Many of these survive so be selective and do not compromise quality. The draped garment of Liberty is most attractive when the coin has some circulation and light and dark hues of gray complement each other.

Regarding this ‘Type 1’ design with the exposed breast of Liberty one thing must be discussed. The fact that, despite numismatic lore to the contrary, MacNeil did not give Ms. Liberty a chain mail covering (the Type 2 design) based on any reaction to public outcry wanting decency and morality reflected in the nation‘s coinage. Those stories have all been concocted over time. The person who has done the most research in this area is numismatic author Roger Burdette who pointed out that prurient interests did not extend to allegorical figures until after World War II. Prior to that time, nude and semi nude figures were common in statuary, building pediments, ornamentation, medals, currency and other expressions of “classical” art. Furthermore, MacNeil’s addition of chain mail was started before the coins were released. He saw samples and realized they were not the design he had been told would be used. The Type 2 redesign reflected the growing specter of war - offering Liberty some degree of protection.

FIND A SPECIALTY NICHE

I should have my head examined for including the 'Feather' variety Buffalo Nickel, because I really don't welcome the competition in looking for these coins at shows, shops and flea markets. However, I do feel the quest offers the collector an excellent pursuit in the purist form. This so-called two feather phenomenon is caused by an abraded die, meaning a die that was excessively polished by a Mint worker to remove imperfections. Have a look at a normal Buffalo Nickel and you will notice that the Indian on the obverse has a third feather at the back of his neck that protrudes just underneath the longest feather.

In my experience, here are the dates that turn up in 2 Feather variety the most often: 1913-D Type 1, 1916, 1920-S, 1921 (Philadelphia) and 1925-S. These have yet to be listed as a legitimate variety in any pricing guide I am aware of, but I do know a growing fraternity of collectors who are quietly accumulating them. My grade range of choice for these is a nice mid-grade (VF/XF) with strong details, which means at least three-quarters of the bison’s horn is visible on the reverse.

So there you have it, a few recommendations regarding various paths your coin collection can take which won’t break the bank. Let me know what you find out there and good luck!

-- Greg Capps

Sources:

American Coin Treasures and Hoards by Q. David Bowers, Bowers and Merena Galleries, 1997.

The Practical Book of Cobs by Frank and Daniel Sedwick, Self-Published, 1987.

Numismatic Art in America by Cornelius Vermeule, Whitman Publishing, 2007.

Standing Liberty Quarters, 4th edition by J.H. Cline, Self-Published, 2007.

The Complete Guide to Shield and Liberty Head Nickels by Gloria Peters and Cynthia Mohon, 1995 DLRC Press.

Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars by Leroy Van Allen and George Mallis, Worldwide Ventures Incorporated, 1997.

Renaissance of American Coinage, 1916 - 1921 by Roger Burdette, Seneca Mill Press, 2005.