Unlike most pieces of decorative arts offered at auction houses across the country, the number of coins produced by series, year, and mint is well documented by the governing bodies that created them. This allows for fairly consistent estimations of rarity. With the introduction of third-party grading in the 1970s and 80s came a standardized system in which a coin’s condition is assigned a numerical value. This led to an accurate estimation of a coin’s worth based on what examples at the assigned grade had previously sold for. While the condition of rare coins and banknotes matters less to collectors eager to acquire examples that may come to market once a decade, condition is one of the most important factors when dealing with coins traded regularly.
Skinner’s Coins and Currency department over the last few years has offered thousands of coins and banknotes, from common pieces to near unique, with only a few examples extant. While rarities tend to bring strong interest, some of our highest prices have been garnered by relatively common coins in exceptional condition. These coins are considered conditional rarities. This occurs when a coin has a high mintage, in the millions or tens of millions, and is one of the highest graded between the major grading companies. Prices for these conditional rarities have increased exponentially since 2001, when PCGS introduced a concept called the “set registry.”
The PCGS Set Registry allowed collectors for the first time to showcase their collections to the masses on an easily accessible platform, the internet. Now more so than ever, collectors could flaunt their prized pieces and compete against others for the greatest assembled sets. These sets are composed of coins, generally in a type or series, which are assigned a non-monetary numerical value and weighed by rarity and condition. Collectors competed against each other at auction for conditional rarities to increase their set scores and rankings, contributing to higher than expected prices realized. This has been dubbed by industry professionals as the “PCGS Set Registry Effect.” This was seen mostly recently when a 1938-S Mercury dime, MS68+ with full bands: the single finest of the issue; sold for $364,250. Coins of this same year and mint in MS67 sell for $500, and MS68 for $4,000.
Two coins in particular that Skinner has previously offered come to mind when considering conditional rarity, an 1855 type 2 gold dollar, graded MS64+, with a total mintage of 758,259 and approximately 50 graded higher, and a formerly top-pop 1886 type 2 Indian head cent, MS66RD, with mintage of 17,650,000 and one graded higher. Based on sales of coins a half point and full point lower in grade, the prices realized for these were almost triple, and historically have been stronger at Skinner than with most other large firms.
Most recently, the 1886 type 2 Indian head cent that was sold in 2018 for $28,290 at Skinner was offered at a competitor’s sale in February, only bringing $17,400.
While rarity itself is an important factor in a coin’s auction potential, condition must be considered, even for the most common of coins. With Skinner’s success in offering rarities and conditional rarities, take a look through your collections and consider what might fall into these groups. We’d be happy to consult on the best course of action for your coins.