Putting together a set of Indian Head Pennies - what it takes!
This is a diary of sorts that traces my experience in putting together a set of gem Indian Head pennies. When I started in 1995, the idea seemed simple. It couldn't possibly take more than a year before moving on to another series. Boy, was I wrong! It has become an exciting challenge that is only partially completed 6 years later. Let me share why, along with tips for those of you just embarking on this exciting journey.
I had always been interested in collecting coins as a child. During school, there was never any money to persue it seriously. After being rebitten buy the bug as an adult, the first challenge was deciding what to collect. I started putting together a type set of US coins. After a short while, the Indian Head and Flying Eagle pennies stood out as the most interesting to me. I was fortunate in living close to Rick Snow and Brian Wagner of Eagle Eye Rare Coins when they were still in Seahurst, Washington. They were willing to share their knowledge and show me coins they had acquired for inventory. Naturally toned red coins quickly became my preference, though I wouldn't argue with someone that a RB or beautifully toned brown coin is just as beautiful. Red just happened to be my preference.
My next decision was the grade to pursue. After viewing coins for some time, I personally settled on the 65 red level. This was a combination of liking the appearance of gem red pennies and, as a practical point, recognizing this would be a desirable level for others should I someday need to sell the coins. While not collecting for investment purposes, neither did I want to throw my money away. There is nothing wrong with a MS64 red coin. If you can afford it, go for 66 red or higher, but you better have a fat wallet and the patience of Job.
My third challenge was setting a personal standard. It quickly became apparent to me that certain coins would make my "heart skip a beat". The features of these coins were three fold: full strike, spot free and original bright luster. The full strike included date, diamonds and feather tips. A full shield on the reverse is a bonus. I find spots are distracting unless they are few, tiny and peripheral.
It is probably best to avoid uncertified coins. If a rare coin is uncertified in this day and age (2001), there is usually a reason (unnatural toning, PVC, retooled, etc). I've purchased a few but only because they were extremely rare. I didn't mind that they were misrepresented (and fortunately misattributed) in the auction catalog. Watch out for "doctored coins", those that have been dipped or treated in some fashion. With a little practice, you will be able to tell unnatural from natural luster. Conversely, a coin being certified is no guarantee against doctoring. There are coins that have been dipped or have had spots scraped off with a pin or other sharp instrument. The latter is easily detected with a microscope. If you need one, buy one. You can't grade a coin this way but you can look for problems. Luster is something one has to develop an eye for. The first coin is the hardest. After you have a bright original coin in your possession, compare each subsequent coin to it.
The next challenge was learning to grade coins properly. I wanted an outstanding set of Indian head pennies, not a "registry set" of finest known plastic. Grading is far easier for a collector like me than it is for a professional grader. I only need to worry about three things. Is it fully struck? Is it spot free and a natural red color? Does it fall between MS 64 red to MS 66 red? If yes to all three, then the coin is for me and I know how to price it. You can do the same with your criteria.
The easiest way to learn grading is by attending auction previews and shows. Close your catalog and pull out the coins from the box, one by one, covering the grade insert. Then try to grade it. You will quickly get a rough feel for grading coins, using auction lots as a teaching file. Hone your skills further by developing a relationship with a dealer you trust. Books are useful to a point but you can't just read about grading. You have to do it and experience it.
The biggest challenge has been finding the coins. Developing a relationship with dealers is helpful. You need to remember that most are trying to sell you what they have in inventory and don't necessarily share your standards. It is important to let them know explicitly what you are looking for so you can avoid wasted postage and trips to the post office. Dealing with a dealer who specializes in the Flying Eagle and Indian Head series has a better chance of yielding satisfactory coins. Again, you need to be specific with your standards. As you buy or return coins from them, they will quickly come to appreciate what you are looking for. If they keep sending substandard coins, it's better to quit calling them than to "hope" for a nice coin.
A second avenue for acquiring coins are the national and regional auctions. Most now have auction lots "on line" one month before the sale. Reviewing "on line" is only a starting point. It is critical that you, or someone you trust, see the coin in person. My experience has been that the great looking coins "on line" (or in the catalog) look great in person about 10% of the time. Conversely, coins that look ugly in the pictures (or those not even illustrated) can be beautiful in person. If possible, get to the sale or, alternatively, preview by mail. The only auction house I have found to be helpful for mail preview has been Bowers and Merena. You will likely need to travel for the other auctions.
A third avenue is fellow collectors. Some of my best collecting friends have been met via Ebay or specialty clubs. I have purchased, sold or traded coins with fellow collectors without a negative encounter to date. Join a specialty club like "The Fly In" Club and correspond with the members/officers. The club will also expose you to the world of varieties and patterns. Don't be discouraged if the club topics initially look esoteric. As you learn more about the series, the topics and information provided will become more valuable to you.
The final challenge is pricing a coin. If you have found a especially beautiful coin (well struck, graded properly) throw out the usual price guides. These guides are a historical "blended" average price of a few great and many substandard coins. They cannot tell you what a premium rare coin is worth today. I use the "Pink Sheet" (Eagle Eye Rare Coins), prices realized from previous auctions and coin rarity (population reports) as a starting point. I then do a personal "gut check", looking back on what has been on the market or offered to me.
Let me give some examples. When buying a relatively common coin (one that comes available several times a year) there is no reason to pay a premium over historical prices. If however, a truly rare coin becomes available, be prepared to pay significantly more. Let's pick a hypothetical year. Say this coin has a population of 4 in MS65 red and the 3 you've seen are substandard. The 4th one turns out to be a beauty. Other collectors and dealers will know this too. Be prepared to bid/pay strongly (well above the price guide suggestion) for the beautiful 4th one. Otherwise you will need to start looking for a MS66 that fulfills your criteria!
Here is a more specific pricing example. In 1996, the "Pink Sheet" for an 1872 MS65R was $12,500. I would have been willing to buy every one (that met my criteria) at that price. None were available. It was an unrealistic historical price based on past sales. Let's say you had finally been offered one for $20,000. If you relied on the then "current" price guides, you would think the price was ridiculous. The truth is, a price of $12,500 was ridiculously low for a coin of that rarity. The current price (2001) of $25,000 is still low. It's based on historic sales. I would buy every one offered to me, at that price, if it met my criteria.
The last challenge is how to begin. I suggest you read every book or article available on the series that you can find. Subscribe to a specialty club. Start meeting dealers and fellow collectors and "pick their brains". Then buy some coins. I started purchasing cautiously, buying medium to low priced coins. Sure, a few mistakes were made along the way that cost some money. But just like getting a college education, I look at it as tuition money. Learn from those experiences. The key is to not make the same mistake over again.
After all these years, there are still coins in my collection that make my heart race. Looking for those remaining gems to fill out my collection has become an enjoyable passion. Collecting Flying Eagle and Indian Head pennies (along with varieties and patterns) has added immeasurable pleasure to my life. I hope it does the same to yours. Enjoy the hobby and have fun.