Investing In History: Rare Gold & Silver Coins

Most people with an interest in collecting gold and rare coins hope for a coin portfolio that appreciates with time. To avoid losses and make money in any collectible, investors should plan with care and ask questions before investing. Investors should research the best coins to buy, then learn how to avoid losing money in rare coins.

A short history of rare U.S. gold and silver coins. According to the authors of “2012 North American Coins & Prices,” (2012) the market values of gold and silver varied in the early years of the country. For example, during the California Gold Rush, silver values temporarily exceeded that of gold on a supply vs. demand basis. Author Edgar Holmes Adams (“Private Gold Coinage of California: 1849-55, its history and its issues,” 1912) writes about the bonanza years that started in 1849. An octagonal $50 gold “slug” was used as currency. Ten, $20 and $25 gold pieces were stamped “CALIFORNIA” and reflect the plenitude of gold in the country during this exuberant time.

Prior to 1838, most Americans preferred to place gold coins in a vault rather than spend them for goods and services. In 1870, with the discovery of several Nevada silver mines, the price of gold declined in relation to gold once again.

Sunken treasure. According to Michael J. Kosares (“The ABCs of Gold Investing, 2012), buying an exciting coin recently sourced from a sunken ship is probably a bad idea. After the hype and excitement of the find dies down, aftermarket sellers are likely to receive less for their treasure coins. While sunken treasure coins may represent a finite number of a specific kind of coin (rarity), finding a larger number of coins (from hundreds to thousands) indicates the prospective buyer should proceed with caution.

Conversely, authors Robert MacKinnon and Dallas Murphy (“Treasure Hunter: Diving for Gold on North America’s Death Coast,” 2012) report that rare coins sourced from excavated sunken ships on the Atlantic Coast in the vicinity of Cape Breton Island may have greater reason to appreciate in the future. The Nova Scotia government has decreed that treasure hunters are not allowed to explore “thousands of shipwrecks that line the Atlantic Coast…where in some places wrecks are piled three deep…” Gold and silver coins from unexplored wrecks “are to be left on the sea bottom, where they will inevitably be dispersed, destroyed, or simply swept away…”

The ‘Dollar Shoals’ around Halifax are so known because silver dollars washed ashore in the 1960s, prior to the excavation of Britain’s 1814 ‘The Fantome’ treasure fleet. Two of the world’s most valuable silver dollars, minted in 1804, prompted divers to brave extremely cold water and mortal danger. MacKinnon and Murphy recall the finding of “treasure, real treasure. Coins everywhere…some of the concretions consisted almost entirely of coins.” American and British coins–copper, silver and gold–dated as early as 1795 and found an enthusiastic sellers market.

When considering the purchase of sunken treasure coins, investors should also carefully consider their condition. While bronze coins fare the worst in salt water, gold coins are usually least affected. Keep in mind that any coins of this kind of provenance should be of highest grade (MS-64 or better by a high quality grading service).

Rare coin investing vs. coin collecting. According to former American Numismatic Association president David L. Ganz (“Rare Coin Investing,” 2010) rare coin investors tend to out-perform coin collectors (or buyers of coin proof or uncirculated coin sets). In an example provided by the author, coin investors and coin collectors both spent about $2,500 in 1984. By 2009, all investors saw substantial appreciation. The rare coin investor (strategically selecting rare coins for future profit potential) portfolio surpassed the coin collectors’ by almost $30,000 (coin collector portfolios worth about $60,000 in 2009 vs. coin investor portfolios worth about $90,000 in the same year). Additionally, the author says rare coin portfolios outperformed other financial assets, including the Dow Jones Industrial Average, farmland, and platinum between the years of 1928 to 2010.

Rare coin investor profiles. Ganz says that prior to 1996, about 95 percent of rare coin investors were male. At that time, he estimates that about 3 million Americans collected and maintained rare coin portfolios. Of that number, he estimates that about 200,000 collectors of rare coins were ‘serious investors.’ Today’s rare coin investor is about 63 years old and manages an average portfolio of approximately USD 342,000. About 59 percent collect series, e.g. silver dollars; about half of these investors collect other rare silver coins while only 25 percent collect gold coins.

An exemplary rare coin portfolio. In 1986, Salomon Brothers (later purchased by Citigroup) traders assembled a ‘diversified’ rare coin portfolio. Note that the portfolio selection includes extremely rare coins in investment quality condition. Traders Hans M.F. Schulman and Neil Berman chose: half-cent, Liberty cap (1794), extremely fine; dime, draped bust (1807), brilliant uncirculated (BU); liberty seated dime (1866), BU; quarter, arrows (1873), BU; quarter, seated (1886), BU; quarter (1916), BU; 20-cent piece (1876), BU; 2-cent piece (1873), brilliant proof; five-cent (nickel) with rays (1866), brilliant proof; half-dime (1862), BU; 3-cent silver (1862), BU; half-dollar, bust (1816), BU; half-dollar, seated (1855-O), BU; half-dollar, walking liberty (1921); half-dollar, commemorative Hawaii (1928); dollar, draped bust (1795), BU; dollar, seated (1847), BU; dollar, Morgan (1884-S), BU; and dollar, trade (1881), proof.

According to the Salomon Brothers 1989 survey of collectible vs. classic investment assets, rare coins returned approximately 30 percent per year, and were second only to antique Chinese ceramics (returning approximately 40 percent per year). Over 10 years, coins performed less well than stocks (13 percent per year vs. 17 percent per year). Over 20 years, rare coins outperformed every other asset (approximately 17 percent per year) when compared to Chinese ceramics (13 percent); gold (12 percent); Old Master paintings (11 percent); and diamonds (10 percent).

What to look for in a rare coin dealer. Lots of small businesses and antique stores sell old coins, so it is important to know how to find a reputable rare coin dealer. Monaco Rare Coins, located in Newport Beach, California, is an established rare coin dealer.

The Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) offers a searchable dealer directory. The Code of Ethics embraced by the PNG and its members helps to protect investors and collectors. Even the most experienced coin investors cannot know all coins! PNG members’ “Collector Bill of Rights” seeks to protect investors from unknowingly purchasing stolen, counterfeit (reproduction, altered, etc.) or lower quality coins. PNG also seeks to provide a path to recourse for problems that may arise between buyer and seller.

Salomon Brothers 1989 survey
PNG Dealer Directory
PNG Code of Ethics
PNG Collector Bill of Rights

Investing In History: Rare Gold & Silver Coins
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