A pedigree, in numismatic terms, is the line of ownership of a coin or piece of paper money. In rare cases pedigrees can be traced all the way back to a mint, such as the pedigree of the rare 1804 silver dollar that Matthew A. Stickney received directly from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia on May 9, 1843. He traded an Immune Columbia colonial gold coin, and a few others which the Mint did not have in its collection, for the 1804 dollar, now valued at several million dollars. Such trading practices were very common in those days as the Mint was building its coin collection – now known as the National Numismatic Collection, which is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.
Pedigrees, such as this, give personalities to coins. They show what important collections coins have been a part of and what important personalities owned those coins. Pedigrees tell stories, like that of the unique 1873-CC No Arrows dime Louis C. Eliasberg was able to purchase that was the final coin needed to complete his collection of every United States coin issue, a feat never before or since accomplished by anyone else. That coin recently sold in August, 2011 as part of the Stack’s Bowers auction at the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) World’s Fair of Money in Philadelphia for $1.84 million.
Another intriguing story that accompanies coins that are available to many more collectors than the previous unique piece is that of the gold coins and ingots recovered from more than a mile and a half deep in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Carolinas. For more than a century and a quarter these coins lay on the ocean’s floor where they were very nicely preserved by the deep, dark cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and during the late 1980s were painstakingly recovered one-by-one to keep them that way.
These gold coins, now valued at well over $100 million, are part of the historic SS Central America “shipwreck” hoard that sunk in a hurricane in 1857. The two major grading services, NGC and PCGS, have labeled these coins as being from that shipwreck, and these coins are popular sellers at premium prices. Collectors are drawn to them because of their shipwreck history.
However, some pedigrees don’t matter to most buyers because their stories or connections just don’t grab people. This is true of many modern pedigrees the grading services are giving to some coins for the personal use of relatively unknown, contemporary collectors. In fact, there are some collectors who would rather not have the name of another contemporary collector on the grading service label, especially if it’s an unknown name. Therefore, some coins are being resubmitted for re-grading or re-holdering, without the previous pedigree name.
Similarly, a few coin dealers, and others, have been known to crack coins out of grading service holders that have old, well-known pedigrees listed, if they think they can “improve” the look of a coin by dipping, laser treatment or re-toning the piece, for example, in order to try to fool a grading service and get it upgraded to a higher grade and sell it for a higher price. This is called “coin doctoring.” For some buyers, photographs found in auction catalogs which exhibit the way those coins originally looked often “blow the whistle” on this practice for coins that are discovered to have been “processed” or “improved,” i.e. “doctored.”
Therefore, pedigrees and photographs are useful in helping to determine whether particular coins retain their “originality” - that possess surfaces that are un-tampered with. This is precisely the reason some coin doctors “break the chain,” so to speak, and destroy pedigrees. Short-term profit is their motive, and many purists believe these coins are forever changed. Unfortunately, some very rare, high grade coins have thus been altered.
So, pedigrees are useful in assessing the originality of coins. They show where coins have been and what important collections they’ve been a part of. Pedigrees carry interesting and historic stories with certain coins and add excitement and price premiums to important coins. It’s kind of like comparing an ordinary oak tree at the top of a hill to the oak tree under which “the treaty was signed,” for example, marking an important time and place in history and conjuring up vivid scenes of what once was.