Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
January 25, 2013
PCGS recently posted its expert picks for the Top 100 Modern Coins. The article is generating some buzz because PCGS is offering a $10,000 reward for the fabled and probably illegal 1964-D Peace dollar. If you haven't seen the list yet, take a few minutes and look it over.
Some may quibble with the decision to choose 1964 as the starting date. We're of the opinion that American modern coinage began much earlier (and actually ended a while ago), but where's the fun in rewriting the ground rules after the fact? If it were PCGS' desire to start a conversation on the best modern coins, then consider that conversation started.
The Top 10
Before we build a narrative out of the six figure sum paid for the Peace dollar, realize that the implications of such a payment have less to do with it being a modern and more to do with it being nearly unique and a repeated error-type.
Sure, attitudes are likely to shift on the value of moderns in the coming years, but any collector making a purchase at this level is less concerned about the fact that the coin is modern and more concerned with the fact that the coin is honestly quite rare.
The same thing can be said about the sole non-mintmark Eisenhower dollar proof. It is perceived to be a six figure coin as well, not because it's an Ike or even the rarest Ike, but because it is unique.
Uniqueness and tremendous scarcity mark the remaining pieces on PCGS' Top 10. You have the not-intended-for-circulation 1974 Aluminum Cent pattern, the star traveling golden dollars made of real gold, and the bizarre Sac/quarter mule whose numbers continue to trickle upwards. And two entries are No Mintmark dimes from the underappreciated Roosevelt series.
Some collectors may be disappointed to note that the only coin in the Top 10 that they have any real chance of finding is the 1990 No-S Lincoln cent proof, a scarce and well-publicized mint error that may still be lying in wait amongst cases and cases of unsearched proof sets.
Coins 11-20 include a trio of controversial selections.
The 2007-W platinum FREEDOM proofs, like many of the rarest releases on the list, were never meant for release and therefore are not likely to turn up in your local coin dealer's inventory. Each of the three pieces is currently unique. We would have liked to see these three pieces consolidated into one position on the chart since they do form a set. For the sake of our conversation here, we'll go ahead and do just that. Obviously this clears up two spaces to talk about coins we feel should have made it. We write about them at the bottom of this article.
Returning to what's in the list, the 1995-W Silver Eagle has long stood as the key to the popular Silver Eagle program. A rarity due to the fact that most collectors couldn't afford to buy the Gold Eagle set it was released with, the coin has climbed in price to a lofty plateau primarily because of its strong following.
The remaining coins in this segment are die varieties. Two of the 2004-D Wisconsin quarters get a nod, as do a pair of 1992 and 1992-D Close AM cents. The poorly understood 1972 Type 2 Ike rounds out the Top 20. PCGS estimates a population of 50,000 known pieces. We can attest that this number is high by a factor of fifty. Currently, PCGS has graded only 56 examples in gem or better, and we believe some of the MS-65s have been double-dipped by submitters hoping for a 66.
Also, the 1972 Type 2 is really two coins struck with two different die steels. The rarer of the two in gem was struck in March, 1972, and discovered by Herbert P. Hicks. Another run of Type 2's was struck in August using firmer die steel; these coins tend to look better. All of the known MS-66 Type 2s were struck in August of 1972.
Coins 21 through 30 offer the first opportunity to begin discussing mainstream collector coins.
Of course, PCGS rightly documents the existence of the 1964 Special Mint Set Finish coins. These rare prototypes first surfaced in the early 1990s. No one really knows the whole story about their creation or how many were produced. Steve Roach wrote in the December, 2011 issue of Coin World magazine that some identify coin dealer Lester Merkin and Mint Director Eva Adams as the coin's sources. At this point, we just don't know.
Other coins in this band include more Roosevelt dime No-S proofs (if you want to collect varieties, there really is no modern series like the Roosevelt dime, an underappreciated coin if there ever was one), the 1971 No-S nickel, and the 2008-W Silver Eagle with the reverse of 2007. There are still sufficient numbers of this last coin in the wild to be cherry picked by eagle-eyed collectors.
The 1997-W Jackie Robinson $5 gold and the 2000-W $10 Library of Congress bimetal coin make the list. The Robinson coins were produced in concert with Major League Baseball's 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. As a collector coin, the program flagged far below expectations. We feel that the designs (both silver and gold) didn't help matters. The gold $5 is decidedly unattractive and people voted with their pocketbooks, ordering only 5,174 pieces.
Of course, the investment-minded collector looks at this mintage as a great opportunity. Collectors may have voted with their pocketbook but most of those same collectors now look at it as a major missed opportunity.
The 2000-W $10 Library of Congress coin, however, is a beautiful release. Its low mintage is due to its bimetallic composition and the thinness of the market at that price point. With a mintage of 7,261 pieces, it'll never be truly scarce, so expectations of future performance need to be kept in line with the narrow funnel of collectors who can bear the cost of entry. Still, in terms of eye-appeal, the Library of Congress $10 exemplifies John Mercanti's talent for creating excellently executed designs.
The 2009 $20 Ultra High Relief may stand the test of time as being the most beautiful coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint. This modern interpretation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' original double eagle sold well, despite the bullion barrier-of-entry (which is even higher now). Of the handful of postmodern Mint releases, few would argue that this is not an essential piece.
The 2000-P Goodacre Presentation Sacagawea is another great modern coin. The specially burnished golden dollars were rendered as payment to Glenna Goodacre for her award-winning dollar design. The coins are handsome and affordable despite their low mintage. We believe that the Sacagawea dollars, unlike their dubiously designed Presidential dollar counterparts, will stand the test of time in the hearts of collectors, especially now that the coin has annually rotating reverses. This and the "Cheerios" Sac that was listed before are great modern coins.
The 2007 "godless dollar" makes the list at #34.
Also making the list is a pair of highly sought-after Lincoln cent doubled dies.
Bullion coins and gold commemoratives dominate spots 41 through 50.
The only circulating coin in this group is the 1982 No Mintmark dime. The No Mintmark circulation strike caused a sensation when it was discovered near Cedar Point in Ohio. The coin comes in two "varieties", which are noted by the quality of their strike.
The two silver eagles in this list are reverse proofs struck for the 20th and 25th anniversary sets. The 2011-P coin sold out almost instantly and crashed the mint's online ordering system. Profit takers had a field day early on when the coin was more traded than collected. Prices are coming back to Earth for this great looking collector coin, and while the mintage of 100,000 looks high, the demand for American Silver Eagles is such that the coin will retain a strong premium for years to come.
The gold commemoratives all have mintages below 10,000. We wonder why these totals aren't considered normal based on the cost of the coin. Of all of the designs, we like the 1996-W Smithsonian the best.
The 1974-D DDO rounds out the top 50. What a great doubled die. The most prominent and popular doubled die in the Kennedy half dollar series, the coin is within the budgets of most collectors. We've mentioned our fondness for Roosevelt dime varieties, but the Kennedy series is also filled with cool varieties, including the non-listed 1982 No FG, found by PCGS' own Ron Guth.
More bullion coins, only this time we 100% concur with the inclusion of numbers 57 through 64.
With the explosive rise of gold prices, platinum has almost taken also-ran status in terms of collector and investor interest. Normally, mintages below 10,000 for bullion coins don't excite us. They're not mass market products, so who cares if there isn't enough to go around in a mass market context? But these platinum bullion coins are as rare as they are beautiful. In fact, we think the Mint saved their best work for these pieces, which may one day become the most desired (post)modern coins struck this century.
The 2009-W First Lady/ Liberty $10 gold series also has a number of issues with desirable low mintage totals. We feel that while this series remains out of mainstream budgets, time will tell if this series picks up steam. Its base-metal Presidential dollar counterpart certainly looks like a dead fish to us.
By the time we reach the final thirty pieces in the PCGS Top 100, we see three different impulses play out:
These silver commemoratives come from the 1996 Atlanta games set, a debacle if ever there was one. Not only are the coins uniformly bad in terms of design, but they were also shunned in large part by the collecting community. Sure, we got another program to commemorate the 2000 Salt Lake City Olympics, but this set served as the death knell for Olympic-themed sets.
We also don't know about the inclusion of the 1970-D Kennedy half dollar. With a non-circulating mintage of over two million, the coin isn't rare. The same goes for the excluded 1973 Eisenhower dollar (ostensibly a mint set only coin; however, some bags have been reported!). We understand the impulse that every series must have a key date, but sometimes it rings hollow. We would have left this silver-clad Kennedy off the list.
Another coin we don't like is the 1996-W dime. We understand that it's the first circulating denomination struck by the West Point Mint. Even still, we don't consider the novelty coin to be much of a key or semi-key date. When's the last time you saw a 1996 mint set sell for big bucks? How many new collectors did this coin bring into the hobby? The answer to these two questions is never and zero.
We do like the inclusion of the 2001-D Buffalo. For most collectors, this is the only large buffalo they will likely afford, which is why we feel the coin maintains its high price point for the mintage. Honestly, we don't know why this coin doesn't sell side-by-side with ASE, it's a perfect compliment.
A handful of Susan B. Anthony's make it on the list. The 1979-P Wide Rim was tough to find when the Mint released surplus bags several years ago. And the 1981-S Type 2 Proof has a strong following despite being not all that rare. It's amazing that "Carter's Quarter" gets a little respect so long after its disastrous short run.
Coins that didn't make the list, but should have
Collectors on the PCGS board and elsewhere felt that the inclusion of unique or almost unique errors and patterns hurt the list. Of course, when a particular coin you like was ignored in favor of a coin that made it, these sorts of complaints are likely to occur. We feel that the SMS coins and the Platinum Freedom patterns could have been listed as one coin, thus freeing up seven slots. Coupling the 1999-W $10 and $5 bullion coin make it eight.
If this were done, what coins would make appropriate substitutes? Here's where the debate gets interesting.
We say that If we're not judging the coin in terms of rarity or value propositions, the 1999 Delaware quarter belongs on the list. It was significant not only because it launched the wildly successful State Quarter program, but it also brought untold millions of new collectors into the marketplace. With untold millions of these coins being hoarded, it's unlikely that the coin will ever be an investment coin, but who can deny its influence or place in modern numismatic history?
The 1965 quarter also belongs. The clad-sandwich coin has had a long and successful run as the economic heavy-lifter and successor of the pre-1964 silver quarter. The '65 is still in service, though in most instances with features well rounded and disappearing by the year. The Mint's decision to produce Special Mint Sets from 1965 through 1967 and the coin's obscenely huge mintages gave the issue a perception of perpetual commonness. Remember, the 1857 Flying Eagle cent also had an obscenely huge mintage. How many mint state examples of that coin still float around? and its debased composition influenced generations of collectors to ignore it as a collectible.
Of course, we also feel that the modern period began much earlier than 1965. We actually pinpoint its beginning to about 1932 with the release of the Washington quarter, a circulating commemorative coin, whose story we all know well.
The 1971-D Type 1 Eisenhower dollar, also known as the Friendly Eagle Variety: CONECA's James Wiles first published this variety in the 1990s, although it went unnoticed by most until fairly recently. The coin is a closer approximation to the 1970 Eisenhower Dollar galvanos created for publicity than the low-relief Eisenhower design. PCGS recently began to attribute the coin as a variety, but honestly, this is a type coin hidden in plain view.
These are merely a few pieces we would have voted for... and there are undoubtedly others. The great thing about most of these pieces is we get to experience them first hand. In some ways, lists like this are essential because it's one way to come together and determine what coins must be saved and studied for the next generation. This is only the start of the conversation and just one point of view. The hobby has a way of proving the experts wrong over time. Who knows what PCGS' board of experts will have to say when they again convene to compile such a list down the road? Maybe one of your coins that didn't make it will make the list.