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The Desirability of Worn Coins

A 1908 Point of View

William G. Goodhugh’s comment on the title subject was printed in the May 1908 issue of The Numismatist.

As a coin collector I am a very new one, having for years been interested in philately or stamp collecting, and only the last six months taken an interest in coins, and as an old experienced collector or expert might remark, very green. However, it has come to my mind very forcibly that it is a strange condition of affairs that coins in Uncirculated or mint condition are catalogued and valued by collectors at 300% or 400% more than a similar coin that has been issued to the public, has done a public service, has done its duty for which it was issued, in fact is the same coin with a history but not considered good enough to grace a fine collection.

I refer to the 1796 half dollar, catalogued in mint condition, $100, Fine condition $50, and in Good condition $20. In my humble opinion the coin that has done duty over a large territory should have most honor and value and not the one which is lain away in a bank or a safety deposit vault. If the supply and demand represents the value and there are so many more used than in mint condition, then reduce the value of them as a whole, and not discount the one that has served the purpose for which it was intended and issued.

How about the old war flags? Are they prized more if fine silk, unsoiled condition, just out of the box? No! Decidedly no! All the world over the more ragged and torn they are from service, the more honor and prize value the owners have for them, and they are hung in churches and regimental armories and there venerated.

The value of a coin to a collector should be its genuineness, its rarity, and its fair average condition after having performed so much of its duty.…

Editor’s Comment:

Wonder what the reaction would be if this piece were printed today? Of course, prices would have to be changed—instead of $100 for the Mint State 1796, how about several hundred thousand dollars! (Indeed, rare coins have performed admirably as an investment.)

Right now there is a frantic chase for Mint State coins, even of ultra-common varieties, a trend that is amazing to old-timers. Wonder how long it will last? True rarity is always in demand, and we suggest that a VF 1793 Chain cent will be a key item 50 years hence, but we would not want to bet on, say, the current price of a MS-70 1959 Lincoln cent holding its value. But we digress.

What do you think of this comment today, more than a century after it was published?

As to our observations, among regular federal coins, a Mint State example continues to be worth more than a worn one in every instance that comes to mind. Likely, this will not change. Before going further, it is worth noting that a 1796 half dollar, the example used by Goodhugh, has increased in value hundreds of times over, since a century ago. A choice Uncirculated coin would cross the auction block at well over $100,000—a far cry from the $100 he mentioned. A Fine or Good coin would each be worth a small fortune as well, although not at the same level as Mint State.

A worn coin can be rarer, even much rarer, but an Uncirculated piece will trump it in value and buyer interest. Examples abound. The 1950-D Jefferson nickel, the lowest-mintage issue in that series, is very common in Mint State. Soon after they were released and the low production became known, there was a mad scramble to get them by the bag and roll. Of the 2,630,000 struck, we would not be surprised if 80% were saved at the time. Today, a well-worn 1950-D is a rarity. However, it draws little interest. At the risk of being silly, we can say that just about any state-reverse Washington quarter from 1999 to date would be rare if worn down to VF-20 grade, but choice and gem Mint State coins exist by the tens of millions. Few people would want a VF-20 coin.

One rule does not fit all, at least not across all of numismatics. During the Civil War, many soldiers bought brass ‘dog tags’ from their sutlers or other sellers. Typically, these were in the form of struck medalets with an eagle, portrait, or other device on one side, and the other blank. The name, division or regiment, and town and state of the soldier would be punched on the reverse, and a hole drilled at the top for suspension. Today, these are in strong demand, and a used example in, say, Extremely Fine condition, might sell for $500 to $1,000. Occasionally, Mint State examples surface in the marketplace—medalets that were never stamped for use. These have much lower values, with few buyers in sight.

In the field of obsolete bank notes issued by state-chartered institutions from 1782 to 1866, it is a general rule that a bill that is signed by the bank’s officers, serially numbered, and used in commerce is worth more than an Uncirculated nice-as-new remainder that never saw the light of day in the marketplace. In fact, a rag-tag bill in Good grade might be worth more than a pristine Uncirculated piece.

On the other hand, among federal currency, Uncirculated bills are always worth more than used ones.

What conclusion to draw? Perhaps this: in numismatics there are often exceptions to rules, and these make our hobby especially interesting.

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