What Gives a Coin the “Wow” Factor?
At shows or while viewing auctions, I look at a lot of coins. Most leave no impression, some make me pause for a moment before I resume looking at more coins and a small number get me to stop everything else I’m doing (I’m a notorious multitasker), exclaim “wow” and get my thoughts immediately oriented towards “how do I buy this coin and what will I have to pay for it.”
There are not alot of coins with this “wow” factor but I find that nearly all the coins that excite me have one or more things in common. What are some of the things that make a coin special for me and how do they affect my decision to purchase them?
1. Great Scarcity.
I deliberately didn’t say “great rarity.” Obviously, if I’m looking at lots in a Heritage sale and I see an 1854-S quarter eagle which looks like it was run over by a train, I’m still going to stop, look at it carefully and probably figure a bid. But I’m more likely to be impressed by a coin with great relative scarcity within a series. In other words, if I see a real Uncirculated 1870 quarter eagle (a date which is almost never available in true Mint State), I’m likely to be “wowed.” This isn’t necessarily an expensive coin but I’m more likely to be stopped in my tracks by a CAC-quality MS62 1870 quarter eagle than I am a far more expensive but far more often seen issue.
As you become more familiar with a series, you learn what dates are seen with regularity (even if they are perceived to be “rare”) and which just don’t turn up very much. As an example, I was at a show recently and was offered a Proof example of a date which I hadn’t remembered seeing in some time. I did a quick search through auction records and noted that this date became available at a rate of about once every four or five years. The coin itself wasn’t a Gem but it had a decent appearance and it was priced fairly. I was happy to buy it for my inventory.
2. Great Eye Appeal.
Eye appeal is best defined as a combination of factors (strike, luster, color, preservation of the surfaces) which combine to make a coin attractive. Most savvy buyers have one or two hot buttons which, if they are pressed, have a greater impact. For me, these tend to be thick, frosty luster and deep, rich even coloration.
Luster is the reflection of light from the surface of a coin. When a coin is worn, dipped, cleaned or processed, the luster is impaired and the eye appeal is impacted. As I look through coins at shows and at auction, few have nice original luster and, as a result, when a coin with “booming” original mint frost is available, it tends to look great.
But part of a weakness for luster is also knowing the series which you collect. As an example, 1847-C quarter eagles are sometimes seen with thick, frosty luster and higher grade pieces can have really good eye appeal as a result. An issue such as an 1848-C quarter eagle is not known for good luster and I can’t recall having seen more than two or three coins which had a “wow” factor as a result of good luster.
I can love a coin if it isn’t sharply struck or if it shows an average number of non-detracting bagmarks but I have a hard time with coins that have bland, washed-out color. To me a coin with no definable color has no character and this sort of “blah” appearance is hard for me to embrace.
As with what I mentioned above for luster, the same is true with color: as you learn your area of specialization, you learn what color(s) a coin should show. As an example, the proper color for an early date Dahlonega half eagle is much different than that for a date from the mid-1850′s. But when coins have been processed, they tend to look alike; meaning an 1841-D half eagle will look virtually the same as an 1858-D. And this is why that when I see an 1841-D with the “right” shade of green-gold color, I get excited and it gives me the wow factor.
3. Great Pedigrees.
I’ll come right out and admit it: I’m a sucker for a great pedigree. A few weeks ago, I started to read the auction descriptions for the Eric P. Newman coins which are going to be sold in a few weeks by Heritage at the 2013 CSNS auction. The coins were impressive, the grades were impressive. What excited me most about this deal, though, was the pedigrees which many of the coins have. As an example, the star in this first group of Newman coins is an 1852 Humbert $10 graded MS68 by NGC. Not only has Mr. Newman owned this coin since the 1920′s, it came from the famous Zabreskie sale of 1907 and, even more impressively, has a direct pedigree that goes back to Augustus Humbert’s estate. In other words, this coin belonged to the man who struck it. How cool is that?
Not every pedigree means that much to me. There are a few which have personal significance and I will stretch to buy nice coins from these collections even if they are a bit “out of the box” for me. Amongst sales from my lifetime, the ones which impact me the most are Bass, Eliasberg, Milas, Norweb, James Stack, Duke’s Creek, Green Pond and Dingler. Just about any coin from a Chapman Brothers sale (with a verifiable pedigree) would have a high wow factor for me as would coins from “name” collections sold prior to 1945.
4. Great Historical Significance.
As a child, my interest in coins was predicated on my love of history. As an adult, this has, if anything, intensified. A coin with Wild West association is of interest to me and that’s why a nice CC double eagle from the 1870′s has more of a wow factor for me than a nice CC double eagle from the 1890′s. Others historic eras which send a shiver down my numismatic spine? Certainly the Civil War and, a bit less so, World War 1. I’d also give high wow marks to San Francisco gold coins from the 1850′s and antebellum New Orleans issues from the 1840′s.
Numismatic significance goes hand-in-hand with historic significance. Sure, I’m a coin weenie but I will admit that factors like a coin being a first-year-of-issue or a one-year type excite me.
Another dimension which can increase the wow factor of a coin for me is its age. An eagle dated 1799 just seems Older” (and therefore cooler) than one dated 1800 or 1801 and this tends to get my attention when I’m looking at coins. I think this is the case with most collectors. A nice coin dated in the 1790′s has more appeal than just about any other American issue, regardless of denomination.
5. Great Backstory.
I’m a sucker for a coin with a great backstory. Let me give you an example.
Perhaps you’ve seen the small red presentation boxes which people used to give gold coins in as Christmas gifts. They were typically for gold dollars and quarter eagles and they were reasonably common from the 1880′s until the 1920′s. On a few occasions, I’ve had people email photos of otherwise-common Liberty Head or Indian Head quarter eagles which are housed in these boxes. Sometimes, the boxes are inscribed and sometimes they come with letters which feature ornate notes from a grandmother to her grandson/granddaughter. I like the sentimental value that these have and because of the backstory, I will always buy them and sell the peripherals alongside the coins to add to the wow factor.
A few months ago, Heritage sold a Gem gold dollar from the 1880′s (I think it was either an 1885 or an 1887) which came in a lovely little presentation box with a beautiful, ornate inscription inside of it. I didn’t buy it but the dealer who did (hint, he’s tall, from Oklahoma and his last name rhymes with Barter…) is someone who is as easily swayed by a coin’s backstory as I am.
What is it about a coin that gives you the “wow” factor? I’d love for you to share this with me and invite you to add a comment to this blog. Are you interested in acquiring coins for you collecting which have a strong wow factor? if so, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.