Chapter 2: Value and Rarity Ratings Table of Contents


Value and Rarity Ratings

by Q. David Bowers

Market Values

Market values in the present text are compiled from various sources. Most prices from about 1860 (when coin collecting began to become popular in America) through the early 1930s are taken from prices realized in auction sales and appearances in dealers' advertisements and catalogues. There were no reliable, regularly issued valuation guides. Prices tended to be very erratic. In 1880, a Proof 1873 Liberty Seated dollar could be valued by one dealer for $1.25 and another for $2. In 1900, a Proof 1881 trade dollar would be valued by one seller at $1 and another at $1.50, while a third would list a buying price of 50¢ (at the time, trade dollars were worth only meltdown value, not face value). Market prices given for pre-1930 intervals in my charts are, for the most part, approximations.

For market prices from the early 1930s to date, sources of information have included the Standard Catalogue of u.s. Coins (published from 1934 through 1958 by Wayte Raymond and others), A Guide Book of u.s. Coins (published from 1946 to date; the first edition bears a cover date of 1947), auction prices realized (from dealers' catalogues and their prices, Krause Publications' series titled Auction Prices Realized, and the earlier Rome's Prices Realized), The Coin Dealer Newsletter (1963 to date), market value guides published in Numismatic News and Coin World, and dealers' price lists and advertisements. There has been no single source of information relied upon. The prices listed take into consideration many listings observed.

Although prices are charted at five-year intervals such as 1935, 1940, 1945, etc., ample auction prices realized listings and dealers' advertisements are given for many intermediate periods. At no time in American numismatic history has there been a standard price at which all specimens of a coin in a given grade have been bought or sold. Indeed, as will be seen by comparing contemporary auction records and advertisements, prices varied, often by a great amount. In addition, such listings from auctions and advertisements will give you a window on the coin market as it developed and changed. For example, in the Peace dollar series you will learn, as I did when I first read the data, that the 1923-D was considered to be a rarity, then the 1924 and 1925 were long before the 1934-S was recognized as a key date. And, what a surprise it was when I learned that early in the present century the rarest of all Morgan dollars was-not the 1892-S, not the 1893-S, not the 1895-but the 1889-S, a coin today considered fairly common! In fact, at one time a Mint State 1889-S was worth twice as much as an Uncirculated 1892-S and 1893-S and Proof 1895 combined!

My objective in the price charts is to list the average market price a knowing buyer would pay a knowing seller to obtain a nice quality example of the grade listed at the time interval indicated, and to show how prices and market preferences have varied over a long period of time.


In the nineteenth century there were no grading standards. One person's Extremely Fine might be equivalent in quality to another's Uncirculated. Minute distinctions were not made. A coin was simply listed as Uncirculated. If it was particularly nice, it might be called choice or a gem. However, there was no consistency. Proofs were simply listed as Proofs.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, grading was impressionistic: Proofs were described as "fine" or "very fine," high-grade business strikes were catalogued as Uncirculated or sometimes "nearly Proof," and below that, "barely circulated," "VF," "Fine," "ordinary," etc. "Good" sometimes meant "nice" or "average," while "Fine" meant above average; because of this, descriptions of "Good" and "Fine" from catalogues of the 1860s cannot be translated to the specifically defined Good and Fine grades we know today.

Grading continued in a haphazard manner until the late 1950s and 1960s, when rising market values placed great premiums upon small differences in grade levels. Books by Brown & Dunn (A Guide to the Grading of United States Coins, 1958) and James F. Ruddy(Photograde, 1970) laid the framework for Official Grading Standards for U.S. Coins, published in 1977 for the American Numismatic Association.

This guide adopted a 1 to 70 point numerical scale based upon that given by Dr. William H. Sheldon in his 1949 book, Early American Cents (a system based on market price levels, originally devised for 1794 cents and later extended for Use on one-cent pieces of the 1793-1814 years). Over a period of time and the course of publishing four editions, the ANA expanded the Sheldon scale to include many intermediate numbers, including the use of every number from MS-60 to MS-70, such as MS-61, MS-62, etc.

Notwithstanding such "precision," descriptions of coins were adjectival, and those seeking to fix the grade of a given coin had to determine what "a few marks" meant, for example. Grading ran amok in the 1970s and early 1980s, and advertisements offered coins not only in MS-61, MS-62, etc., but sometimes with plus and minus signs, such as MS-63+++ (whatever that means). There was no consistency in the application of such nomenclature. The best known grading service at the time was the American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS), and even it was apt to vary widely. Dealer Harvey Stack displayed a gold dollar that was sent to ANACS on one occasion and was graded AU-50; but on a: return trip to the same service a month later it came back at MS-60, a difference of 10 points, and an elevation from a worn grade to an Uncirculated one. My own firm submitted a silver dollar three times and received three different grades for it. Because of this, price-grade data prior to 1986 are very unreliable.

In 1986 a change occurred. Interpretations were tightened. For starters, the American Numismatic Association Board of Governors announced on February 20, 1986 that coins officially graded earlier by ANACS as MS-65 were now, under new, stricter interpretations, often in the MS-60 to MS-63 range. The Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) was founded in the same year by David Hall, and used interpretations stricter than those used by ANACS and most collectors and dealers earlier. To endeavor to maintain consistency, peGS established a grading reference collection. In 1987, the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC) 'was founded by John Albanese, and also used conservative-interpretations. Differences of opinion continued to occur, but they were not as widespread as earlier. As a result, data from 1986 to date are more dependable.

For market values 1986 to date I use more detailed grading distinctions than I do for earlier years.

Chapter 2: Value and Rarity Ratings Table of Contents