The Complexities of Rare Coin Valuation: A Nuanced and Precarious Balancing Act

John Feigenbaum
28 min readOct 5, 2021


When trying to determine an accurate market value for numismatic rarities, several factors must be taken into consideration including, but not limited to, scarcity, age, condition, circumstances of survival, demand, provenance, and historic significance and historical value. It would be easy — and naive — to cut corners on any of these factors, because every coin fits into the collecting world like a unique puzzle piece with its own special fit. Given the complexities and unique nature of individual items, how does one accurately determine the value of a rare coin? Rare coin valuation may seem arbitrary to the neophyte, but it is quite possible to assign an accurate value — even for a major rarity worth millions of dollars — by considering several primary empirical factors. Sometimes, however, rarity alone isn’t enough to make a coin worth a lot of money, for without demand, or questionable authenticity, a coin isn’t worth much more than its intrinsic metal value. In other cases, value can be fleeting as rarity or demand (often due to popularity) can change. It is at the intersection of empirical analysis and irrational market forces where the true area of valuation becomes most interesting, and the same way we must carefully understand historiographic sources when studying history, so too must we understand the pricing analyst and their biases.

In this paper I will examine three distinct scenarios of United States coins where value has been affected, not only by the coins’ rarity, but other causal factors that have affected their perceived, and therefore, real worth, to potential buyers. The first example I refer to as the unquestioned rarity with a great story, which refers to how we determine market value of coins that are well known to be rare and desirable, but also have the added benefit of having a great story to go with it. The second set of examples I describe as a great rarity of dubious provenance and/or authenticity. These include coins that are known to be rare, and should be quite valuable, but suffer from a perception that they might not be real, or otherwise legitimate to own (e.g. previously stolen). This reality is often faced by fine art collectors and museums. Finally, I explore the examples of ephemeral rarity. In the world of collecting sometimes rarity is fleeting. For example, the Essential Vermeer 3.0 web site documents thirty-seven paintings attributed to Johannes Vermeer, with just one in private hands.[1] The value of that single painting is enormous due to its unique status. However, what if someone discovers thirty more Vermeer paintings in a Dutch attic next week? How would that affect the value of the formerly uniquely available piece? The study of rare coin pricing might offer some insight on this and I have explored examples of coins whose rarity is directly affected by subsequent discovery.

I. The unquestioned rarity with a great story

The first scenario of rarity and valuation I will describe here may also be the most relatable from the non-numismatic perspective. For this case I will describe two different major numismatic rarities of American (United States Mint) manufacture that are widely held in the collecting community as both extremely desirable and valuable. Both examples are of issues that have been known to the community for centuries, and the provenance of known examples are usually well-known and documented by numismatic historians and catalogers. As an issue,[2] the value of these coins is directly related to both their rarity and desirability, and the decades-long desire of well-known collectors of the past who have sought to own an example. This historic desire of previous collectors is often an important catalyst of current buyers. There are several well-known collections of United States coins that have assembled over the years with their owner’s names, such as the successful Baltimore banker, Louis Eliasberg, Ambassador Raymond Henry Norweb, James Clapp, King Farouk I (Egypt), Mongkut (King of Siam, or Thailand, 1804–1868)[3], Colonel Ned Green, and others, some famous, and others eponymous primarily for their roles in the field of numismatics. Regardless of who these personalities are in the greater realm, they are household names to seasoned collectors and their pedigree attached to specific coins is often quite valuable. A coin whose desirability checks the boxes of true rarity in a collectible series that is extremely popular, is very much like a great painting from a well-known master, like Claude Monet’s genre paintings of waterlilies.

A superb example such a numismatic rarity is the 1894-S Barber dime from the James Stack collection. The coin is, of course, a dime, or ten-cent denominated coin struck in the year 1894, at the United States Mint in San Francisco. The San Francisco Mint is also referred to as a branch mint, being a subordinate location to the primary facility in Philadelphia. In 1894, the United States Branch Mint in San Francisco struck 2.6 million quarters and 4 million half dollars, as well as over 1,000,000 gold coins of various denominations. In all respects, the production at this facility was quite normal compared with the years immediately before and after, with one glaring exception — ten-cent pieces. In 1893 the San Francisco facility minted 2.4 million dimes, and in 1895, the facility struck 1.1 million of them.[4] While seemingly large, these numbers were consistent with demand for the era. In 1894, however, the San Francisco mint struck a miniscule twenty-four ten-cent coins.[5] This figure was unprecedented in that era and one can examine the Mint records for several decades before and after and not find such an unusual figure. The Mint records do not offer anything specific to explain why production was effectively cancelled for dimes of this year in San Francisco. There is much debate surrounding this, and the truth remains a mystery to this day and there is no shortage of theories. The most widely accepted story behind this strange mintage figure is that then Mint Director, John Daggett, was faced with two challenges at the same time. The first was that he had a problem rounding out his ledger and was short $2.40 to square the books. The second dilemma was he had a planned formal meeting of visiting dignitaries and wanted to offer his guests a house gift without incurring undue internal costs. Lacking a budget Daggett decided to solve both his problems by striking twenty-four dimes ($2.40 face value) and give several coins to each of his guests. He then gifted his young daughter, Hallie, three of the coins and told her to keep them safe because they would one day become valuable. A much older Hallie Daggett shared this story with a coin dealer, Earl Parker, in Northern California decades later, in 1949.[6] Hallie told Parker that she promptly spent one of the dimes on ice cream, lost track of the second one, and kept the third. One of those dimes resurfaced in 1957 in extremely circulated (worn) condition and is now commonly known as the “ice cream” specimen. The second spent example has never been seen again, and the third coin she sold to Parker in his shop. This coin is in pristine condition and known to the numismatic community with the accepted provenance of “Daggett-Parker” as well as subsequent owners. This example sold for $1.5 million at public auction on September 17, 2020.[7] Of the original twenty-four coins struck, only ten are known and accounted for today and the remainders considered lost as a new example has not been discovered in over seventy-five years. To a numismatic outsider, the value of a nineteenth-century coin with ten-known examples may sound justified at nearly $2 million, but one may contrast that by comparing this coin with the quarter dollar struck in 1873 in Carson City, Nevada. There are six known examples of this coin, so basic math suggests it should be more valuable because there are fewer known examples, and larger coins are traditionally considered more valuable than smaller coins of comparable rarity. However, the most recent auction record for one of these coins tells a different story. On May 12, 2015, Heritage Auctions sold one of the finest known of the six examples for $376,000.[8] The current market value of this coin according the Greysheet CPG pricing guide is $480,000.[9]

The question remains about the value discrepancy for these two highly comparable rarities, and the answer is obvious. The 1894-S Barber dime is one of the truly great stories in American numismatic lore and owes much of its tremendous value to that fact alone. Researchers dispute the known facts of whether Ms. Daggett walked into Earl Parker’s Ukiah shop in 1959, and whether she bought ice cream with one of the coins. Others dispute whether Mint Director Daggett handed out coins to visitors on the day of his meeting. What is not in dispute, however, is that twenty-four coins were officially recorded as struck in the mint records, and ten of those are known to survive today. Collectors of United States coins have argued, romanticized, debated, and glorified the 1894-S dime almost since 1895 so its rarity is embedded in the lore of American numismatics. The 1873-CC no arrows quarter does not benefit from such an interesting story. It is just rare. In fact, it has almost no story to accompany it. Collectors see a listing for it in guidebooks, but they scratch their heads and cannot refer to a half-dozen books dedicated it, as they can with the 1894-S dime. It is so rare, in fact, that collectors of Liberty Seated quarters (as the greater series is known) generally do not aspire to own one, or even fantasize about it. Meanwhile, the tiny 1894-S dime has an outsized following, and if one were to show up at a coin convention to announce the “Ice Cream Specimen” was in hand there would be a line of people waiting with bated breath to see it, without further explanation. This coin has not been seen publicly for several decades, but when it shows up it will sell for a small fortune, all thanks to its part in one of the greatest stories in American numismatics.

A second example of great rarity combined with a worthy origin story can be found in the so-called “Brasher Doubloon.” From a valuation standpoint, this coin has everything going for it: rarity, historic value, provenance, history, fame, condition, and it is struck in gold. The coin was struck in 1787 by the metalsmith Ephraim Brasher, who was well known in his hometown of New York City. Brasher’s mark of “EB” has been found on numerous silver objects of the colonial and post-colonial era from ale tankards to service trays and silverware. Brasher also dabbled in the art of coin engraving, as the fledgling United States of America had yet to strike their own coinage. The United States Mint would not officially be authorized to create money until the Coinage Act of 1792.[10] Mr. Brasher also had the good fortune to be neighbors with George Washington, who wouldn’t be elected president until 1789. Washington was seen as an influential ally to see his vision through so the entrepreneurial Brasher created a handful of prototype coins in the style and gold content of the Spanish doubloon, coins of foreign origin that circulated commonly and were widely accepted for barter at the time. Brasher offered Washington a preview, and possibly samples, of his doubloons. The coins he struck were privately made and not sanctioned by the government but struck to such a specification and quality that they were immediately accepted for trade at the time. He hoped these prototypes would lead to employment as a supplier of money to the fledgling post-colonial government. Brasher ultimately got his wish and, “was employed in 1792 as a contract-assayer for the newly established United States Mint.”[11] Brasher also had the foresight to envision a heraldic-stye eagle for the reverse side of the coin, with a shield covering its breast and holding thirteen arrows to represent the original Colonies. Many of the flourishes incorporated in Brasher’s design would be incorporated in the first official designs created by the Mint.

Today only seven examples of Brasher’s gold doubloons are known to have survived. All of them bear the “EB” punch, or countermark, on the eagle’s wing, with a single example punched directly on the eagle’s chest. That coin is worn down a bit as it was likely held in someone’s pocket for good luck. Even in its worn condition, it was recently offered for sale for $15 million in June 2020.[12]

Of the known six examples with the punch on the wing, all have documented pedigreed ownership, many dating back to the 1840s. One example currently resides in the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection (Figure 1).[13] In January of this year, the finest known example of the Brasher doubloons with “EB” mark on the wing appeared on the market for the first time since 1979 in an offering at public auction. The seller was the estate of Donald J. Partrick, a name extremely well known in the numismatic community, and the prior owners of this coin[14] could constitute founding members of a coin collecting hall of fame. The combination of historical importance with a connection to George Washington, the portrayal of the earliest American symbol of the heraldic eagle, rarity of just a handful known coins, and the fact that this is one of the first such coins from the United States struck in gold have combined for over two centuries to feed the story that the Brasher doubloon is the greatest United States coin, and any example has always been extremely valuable. Ironically, Brasher’s doubloons technically are not United States Mint issues, but collectors have overlooked this fact due to its tremendous legacy. When the hammer fell on the evening of January 24, 2021, the price realized for this historic relic was $9.3 million, a new auction price record for any coin, American or otherwise.

Figure 1. The Brasher Doubloon with EB stamp on the wing. Photograph from the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection,

II. The great rarity of dubious provenance and/or authenticity

Valuation discovery for numismatic rarities is complicated and dependent on subjective forces like public perception, or even the value of the historic legend behind the artifact. This pattern is consistent with similar objects of fine art and other collectibles. Collectors and investors appreciate an engaging story and the existence of such can add tremendous value to a collectible. The sword cuts both ways and when the story turns negative, it can have detrimental effects on the item in question. This can manifest itself in several ways. For starters, legendary rarities are heavily scrutinized by the hobby enthusiasts, historians, grading analysts, and authentication experts. This group forms the community of engaged voices that both contribute to the popularity of items, and can also vocalize opposition to an item’s authenticity, or veracity of its personal story, including provenance. Any number of these factors can severely affect its value and often it can take years of legal action to clear the legality and/or prove the legitimacy of the coin. In other instances, a coin’s authenticity may be called into question, only to be legitimized later. Further complicating analysis is that some items are more resilient to the noise surrounding their legitimacy than others. The fanciful legend of the 1894-S Barber dime, discussed earlier, has been called into question since the turn of the twentieth century by nay-sayers who claim the Mint Director would never entrust his five-year old daughter with three rare dimes, only to see her waste one on ice cream. The story, it is argued, is almost too good to be true.(Tebben) In this case, the controversy of the story is, in itself, noteworthy yet has only added to the grandeur.

To illustrate the example of authenticity, provenance and history affecting valuation I offer the dramatic example of the 1933 Saint Gaudens double eagle, which may be the most widely publicized United States gold coin ever, thanks to decades-long legal activity surrounding ownership of this now-infamous item. As a matter of background the gold coins issued from 1907 to 1933 were commissioned by then-president Theodore Roosevelt, who was an aficionado of the then-popular Beaux-Arts school of design and wanted to bring the grace and beauty of French designs to American coinage. Roosevelt enlisted New York sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens to design the new coins. The resulting coinage is what numismatists refer to the Saint Gaudens double eagle, or more simply, Saints. These coins were denominated as $20 coins and were very popular for their beautiful designs, though not widely circulated because twenty dollars was a large amount of money at the time. The coins mostly were struck in the millions to absorb the large amount of gold being mined in the American west, only to sit in the vaults of financial institutions across the United States and abroad. They were stored primarily to secure the assets of the federal banks as the United States monetary system was then on the gold standard, meaning paper money issued by the Federal Reserve had to be backed by an equivalent amount of gold specie in event of a run on paper notes. This standard was abandoned in January 1934 by the Gold Reserve Act.[15] Titled in long form as, “An Act to protect the currency system of the United States, to provide for the better use of the monetary gold stock of the United States, and for other purposes,” its intended purpose was to prevent consumers from hoarding United States denominated gold coins as well as replace the paper money notes in circulation that were supported specifically by physical gold coins. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression and consumers were stock-piling assets including gold coins in fear that banks would fail. In an effort to loosen consumer purse strings, Roosevelt was compelled to act and this congressional mandate officially ended the so-called gold standard. Another ramification of the act was that President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that the existing inventory of 1933 Saints in the Mint vaults be destroyed and melted into indistinguishable gold bar form — all 445,500 coins minted in the production run. Despite the calendar year of 1934, none of the coins dated 1933 had yet been released to the public and sat in the counter room of the United States Mint facility in Philadelphia. As events would later reveal, struck coins technically do not become legal tender until a formal entry is made in the Mint ledgers that financially accounts for the coins. In other words, the coins exist as objects, but they are not actually money until this entry is formally entered — a very important detail in the story of the 1933 double eagle. As with most major rarities, reality is often conflated with a good story and true history is murky at best. David Tripp, an expert witness for the United States government in subsequent legal actions on this coin, wrote a seminal work on this story titled, Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle.[16] Tripp detailed a rich and highly researched sequence of events that lay out the case for theft by a counter man, George A. McCann at the United States Mint who swapped an unspecified number (perhaps as many as seventy-five examples) of the coins with similar Saint Gaudens struck in prior years. (Tripp, 177) It was almost a perfect crime, and it would be years before anyone noticed the switch. Around 1939 a few, select coin dealers around the country began listing 1933 Saint Gaudens for sale in their advertisements. One by one, these items would be sought and seized by Secret Service agents whose responsibility includes counterfeiting and illegal coinage. Stories of these seizures were sporadic but consistent enough over the next few decades to know that more than a few dozen of these coins had escaped into the public domain, and often the name of Israel Switt, a prominent Philadelphia coin dealer in the 1930s would be connected with the story. None of the coins were official legal tender, and none were legal to own. The government considers non-monetized coins as illegal objects in much the same way as counterfeit $100 bills today, and they are seized whenever possible. The 1933 Saint may look like a coin, but it is not, in fact, a coin. This is where the story takes another turn.

In 1939, His Majesty King Farouk I, of Egypt, who was known to be a passionate coin collector, was offered one of the illicit 1933 Saints by Fort Worth, Texas coin dealer, Max Mehl. Numerous examples of seized 1933 Saints would be traced back to Mehl, but this coin would prove to be the exception. All facts suggest that Farouk had no idea the coin was illicit, nor would he. Mehl sold him the coin as a regular United States issue — rare, but with no strings attached. At the time of their transaction, however, the United States Secret Service hadn’t yet picked up the scent on the unmonetized 1933s that had been leaked out, so Farouk unwittingly went about the formal process of requesting an export permit for his new purchases, which included the 1933 Saint Gaudens. The coin had not yet hit anyone’s radar and it received specific clearance, without any objections, and was signed off as authentic by experts at the Smithsonian. Farouk performed this legal procedure for all his purchases, but this official document would create a legal loophole for an all-time numismatic rarity. In the subsequent decades several dozen 1933 Saints continued to appear for public sale and every one would get confiscated just before a live auction commenced. Others were tracked down by stealthy government agents from owners that included some of the most famous names in the hobby of numismatics. Collectors and dealers were extremely frustrated, but the law is clear, and the Secret Service, while inconsistent in their application of the law of confiscating unauthorized coinage, was well within their boundaries in this case. To this day rumors in the trade abound that more coins still exist, but even in the twenty-first century offering a 1933 Saint for sale is akin to selling a stolen work of art. The Farouk specimen is a major exception thanks solely to the oversight made by United States Customs and the Smithsonian. Until July 30, 2002, however, the coin would not be considered legal tender. How this particular coin came for sale is the climax of Tripp’s novel, but it includes a sting operation by the FBI of a London-based coin dealer (Stephen Fenton), a Kansas City dealer (Jay Parrino), and straw buyer (FBI agent) who met in a setup at the New York Waldorf Astoria hotel in 1996. Ultimately, Fenton was able to prove this particular coin was the Farouk specimen and, after years of legal fighting, he and the United States government had reached an impasse and ultimately settled on a unique resolution. The parties agreed to split the proceeds of sale at public auction: half to Fenton, half to the United States government. Parrino had earlier pled out of legal action and gave up his right to proceeds. At such time of sale, the coin would be certified as monetized (Figure 2) and thanks to the unique circumstances the government stated they would never monetize another 1933 Saint Gaudens. I sat in the front row at Sotheby’s on July 30, 2002, when this coin hammered down for a then-unthinkable $8.3 million with the buyer’s fee. Everyone was happy as the legalized 1933 sold for far more than the $210,000 Fenton and Parrino had hoped to realize in the Waldorf hotel room, though legal fees and stress had been considerable. (Tripp, 244)

Figure 2. The Certificate of Monetization for the 1933 Saint Gaudens by the United States Mint government in July 2002. Photograph from Sotheby’s,

The unique example of the 1933 Saint Gaudens in private hands derives its value from an equally unique series of events from congressional acts to export licensing. One of the worst-kept secrets in the coin business is that other examples of 1933 Saints exist but can only trade on the black market. In 2005, the Langbord family, direct relations to the aforementioned Israel Switt, publicly reported that they had discovered ten more examples of the 1933 Saint Gaudens while cleaning the contents of Switt’s bank box. Their lawyer advised them to send these to the Secret Service for authentication and monetization. Knowing this would spark a new legal battle, they hoped the publicity would help gain sympathy. The government agency responded by thanking the family for bringing the coins to their attention and promptly seized them. The Langbords litigated all the way to the Supreme Court where their final appeal was denied and the government’s original decision was reaffirmed that the Farouk specimen is the only example the United States Government has ever authorized, or ever intends to authorize, for private ownership. The 2002 buyer (shoe designer Stuart Weitzman) had been unknown to the public until March 2021 when Sotheby’s Auction house issued a press release that its owner would offer the coin again for sale on June 8 of the same year.[17]

Two takeaways from the actuarial analysis of the 1933 Saint’s value are as follows. First, if the Secret Service had not decided to (arbitrarily) pursue seizure of known examples of these items, there would likely be thirty to forty examples available to the numismatic community and the coin would be worth approximately $250,000–500,000, depending on condition. We can logically compare this value with a similar issue in 1927, struck in Denver, with just a handful of known examples, worth in the $1–2 million range. More significantly, ownership of this coin is unique yet somewhat clouded because some professionals still believe more coins may yet appear on the market, and perhaps future generations of courts may be more lenient about ownership. What is the Farouk-Weitzman worth today? We will find out on June 8, 2021.

Within the complicate valuation of rarities there are also cases of disputed authenticity, which are quite common in other collectibles categories. It is not unusual that an accepted piece of art is later disputed because new technology like infrared scanning offer evidence contradicting previous authenticators. In cases of collectible artifacts, the case for authenticity is not always absolute and mistakes are made, or perceptions can change over time, often because authentication is objective and subject to human factors. Numismatic rarities are not immune from such errors. Values for high dollar rarities are strongly associated with a variety of factors including well-known lineages of ownership, known as pedigree or provenance. Suspicion is always aroused when a rare coin surfaces out of the thin air, especially to an unknown owner, which can bias the authenticator. The era of the internet has raised the stakes on the sheer volume of forgeries that appear for sale on web sites from eBay to Etsy, from sellers without the credentials to give confidence to the astute buyer. So, what happens when a coin has a great story but declared inauthentic by experts, only to be determined authentic at a later time? Such is the case of the 1913 Walton Liberty nickel.

Much like the 1894-S Barber dime, the 1913 Liberty nickel has a great story. From 1883 to 1912 the United States Mint produced a five-cent coin known as the Liberty, or V, nickel. A portrait of lady Liberty appears on the obverse, with a large V, the roman numeral for number five, on the reverse. A popular series for three decades, the design was replaced with a so-called Buffalo nickel design in 1913. As part of the changeover, five examples of the Liberty nickel dated 1913 were mysteriously struck and found their way into the hands of collectors. The 1913 V-nickels are extremely rare and popular, and many stories have appeared over the decades in print and the coin has even made cameo appearances in television shows like “Hawaii 5–0” in 1973.[18] They have always carried considerable value to their owner and, as with other rarities, ownership is well documented for each of the five known coins. At one time even, all five coins were assembled by the same collector, Eric P. Newman, who had a special velvet-lined case created for them. In 1942, a gentleman named George Walton purchased one of those five coins from Mr. Newman.[19] Walton was a coin dealer who traveled extensively to coin shows in the southeast to buy and sell coins. Legend has it that he brought his 1913 Liberty nickel with him for display purposes as a conversation starter, among other things. Sadly, Walton died in a car accident in 1962 during one of those trips and the 1913 nickel was lost in the wreckage — or so it was thought. Somehow this famous rarity remained with the family who were unaware of its value or significance. They eventually brought it, with other items, to a popular coin store in New York City for evaluation only to be told that this coin was counterfeit. This is not surprising because the prevailing logic was that anyone in possession of a 1913 Liberty nickel would have known its provenance, but the Walton heirs did not know the lineage of their coin. They took the coin back to their home where it would be forgotten for nearly half a century.

In the meantime, the numismatic community spent those lost decades searching for the missing 1913 V-nickel like a lost family member. Experts wondered how such a famous rarity could be lost forever, and the best working theory was the coin perished with Walton in his car accident. Nobody seemed to recall the coin in the closet, until 2003 when a major auction company (Bowers and Merena) ran a marketing stunt aimed more at making headlines with a large bounty than believing there was a chance the coin would show up. The company offered a $10,000 reward if anyone could possibly turn up the missing 1913 Liberty nickel at a major national coin event in Baltimore that year. In an act of true serendipity, the Walton family saw the promotion and brought the coin in for examination — the same coin deemed worthless in the 1960s. Low and behold, the coin was examined by a panel of experts at the show and unanimously determined it to be the authentic and missing Walton specimen (Figure 3). The same metal disc worth ten cents one morning was now worth millions of dollars, thanks to a change in expert perception. The Walton family retained their coin until April 2013, when it was sold at public auction for $3.2 million.[20]

Figure 3. The Walton 1913 Liberty (V) Nickel. Photograph from Heritage Auctions,

III. Coins whose rarity is affected by later discovery

Thus far, I have explored two distinct scenarios to help the reader understand the complexity of valuation for numismatic rarities. Clearly a coin of known rarity, well-established pedigree, a history of desirability, and other related factors can lean on these accepted and well-established norms to legitimize its high valuation. Sheer rarity coupled with appropriate demand are the primary factors necessary to command top dollar. The examples listed have demonstrated the enhanced value that can be added to a rarity when a good story is attached to it, even if that story has dubious origins, or includes murky ownership. There is, however, a third class of coinage where the valuation is exposed to existential circumstances which may be beyond anyone’s control and becomes exposed to the market’s perception of value and rarity. What if, in the case of the 1933 Saint Gaudens, the United States Supreme Court had decided to hear the Langbord family case and ultimately overturn the ruling and grant legal ownership of ten monetized examples of the 1933 Saint? How might that affect the value of this $9 million coin? Fortunately, for the price researcher, we have examples of such occurrences to look to.

Within the world of numismatics, new discoveries are quite common among ancient coins struck during the Roman empire, a highly popular area among collectors. While the Roman empire expanded across the European continent, its reach extended as far as England in the north and west. To this day, coins are unearthed by everyone from treasure seekers to shopping mall builders who continue to discover caches of coins from the Ancient and medieval era, most commonly where Roman roads and civilizations existed. In September 2020, “a British birder who’d stopped on the edge of a farmer’s field to watch a buzzard and a pair of magpies stumbled onto a trove of 2,000-year-old Celtic coins worth an estimated £845,000 (around $1,150,000 USD).”[21] One caveat is that reporters often incorrectly overstate a published value of the discovery and base their valuation on the previously quoted price of the items in the discovery. It is undeniable, however, that coins in a large discovery will often see considerable decline in individual value due to the fact that they are no longer as rare as they had been.

Modern technology has contributed greatly to such discoveries as technology like metal detectors have improved and become more affordable. Such is also the case with submersible equipment and the ability for seekers to explore in watery depths that were unachievable in past decades. Many great caches of coins have vanished over the centuries in shipwrecks and while the locations of such wrecks have been known it has heretofore been impossible to recover the lost loot. The greatest such recovery in numismatics was the S.S. Central America, a ship that sank off the Carolina coast on September 12, 1857. This maritime disaster, while not uncommon during the era, was catastrophic because the ship was carrying cargo insured at approximately $8 million (estimated at $550 million in present-day bullion value alone). The contents represented most of the gold coinage struck by the San Francisco Mint in that year, which was sorely needed by New York banking houses who were falling short of capital. The ship met its fate in a category three hurricane and all was lost until modern technology allowed treasure hunters to find and recover the contents in 1996.[22] It would be another decade of lawsuits before the coins became available to the marketplace but by then it was known what had lay beneath the sea all those years. Until the ship was recovered, only a few gold coins dated 1857 bearing the S mint mark (S representing the San Francisco Mint) were known. A twenty-dollar gold coin dated 1857-S was worth nearly $100,000 if you could find one at all. The shipwreck contained several thousand examples of the 1857-S and, almost overnight, the valuation plummeted, on the reporting alone. During the decade-long period while litigants from insurance companies to submarine operators fought over potential proceeds of their bounty, existing examples of the 1857-S became unsellable as buyers feared unknown future valuation. When the dust finally settled, a big marketing group secured the rights to contents of the shipwreck and the coins were ultimately sold off for a fraction of their original perceived value. Depending on condition, these coins have sold in public auction in the last twelve months between $2,500 and $7,500. Keeping in mind that they contain nearly an ounce of gold and have an intrinsic value of $1,700 (based on a spot price of $1,775), the value of these coins has dropped to what numismatists deem common, or type coins. That is, they are representative of the type of $20 gold coin issued between 1850–1866. There were so many of them recovered that the story of the shipwreck no longer enhances their value. For the pre-discovery owners of 1857-S $20 gold coins, the stark lesson was a wake-up call that their rarities were vulnerable to modern technology which could explore the ocean’s depths and reclaim thousands of the lost coins.

The examples represented here are but a few of the many possibilities available to exemplify the complex valuation of numismatic rarities. Each rarity in the hobby is unique enough to warrant a potential case study, and many items have become just that. Debates about such matters are as commonplace as the coins themselves and questions regarding valuation should never be considered settled argument. There are many factors that come into consideration when ascertaining and understanding the historical valuation of rare coins, including scarcity, age, and condition. Other intangible aspects also carry considerable weight, most especially the historical significance of the item and the story behind its legend. Rarity alone is simply not enough to place great rarities into exalted status. One also must consider the inherent bias of the seller, who acts as historian and chief story-teller. The seller has everything to gain by overstating the positive aspects and understating, or ignoring, the negatives. Certainly it was not in Max Mehl’s interest to inform King Farouk that his 1933 Saint Gaudens might not be of legal standing.

It is also worth appreciating that the perception of such rarity can be short lived. Among other variables, the legal circumstances of a coin’s existence may place the item in jeopardy. Claims to legitimate ownership, contemporary experts, and future knowledge discovery have the potential to discredit a coin’s legitimacy. The pendulum may sweep either way with such items and, alternatively, a less-rare coin may come to be perceived as more desirable thanks to new information. Most frequently, however, an item may be come to be seen as more common thanks to the discovery of similar coins. It is for all of these reasons, the study of rare coin valuation is complicated, rich, and seldom settled, thanks to constantly changing sources of information and the market’s ever-evolving perception.


“1913 Nickel: The Nickel the Never Was.” American Numismatic Association,

“1873-Cc No Arrows Quarter, Ms63: One of Three Mint State Examples Known.” Heritage Auctions, May 15, 2015, (lot 98357).

“1894-S Barber Dime, the Rarest Coin Ever Minted.” Heritage Auctions, September 17, 2020, (lot 10555).

“1913 Liberty Head Nickel, Pr63 Pcgs: The George O. Walton Specimen.” Heritage Auctions, April 28, 2013, (lot 4153).

“The World’s Most Famous Coin: 1787 New York-Style Brasher Doubloon.” Heritage Auctions, January 24, 2021, (lot 3934).

“Coinage Act of 1792.” United States Mint, April 19, 2017.

Collection, National Numismatic. “Brasher Doubloon, United States, 1787.”

Finnegan, Bill. “Hawaii Five-O.” In The $100,000 Nickel, edited by Allen Reisner, 50 minutes, December 11, 1973.

“First United States Gold Coin May Fetch $15 Million in Private Sale.” Collecting, Bloomberg, June 2, 2020,

“How Much Are My United States 1873-Cc Na (5 Known) Quarter Worth?” United States Coins: Quarters, CDN Publishing, LLC, accessed May 2, 2021,

Isis, David-Marks. “British Birdwatcher Discovers Trove of 2,000-Year-Old Celtic Coins.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 31, 2020.

Jason, Jonathan, “Complete Vermeer Catalogue & Tracker,” Essential Vermeer 3.0. Essential Vermeer, March 5, 2021, 2021.

Kinder, Gary. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.

Sothebys. “Three Treasures Collected by Stuart Weitzman.” news release, March 11, 2021,

Tebben, Gerald, “The Ice Cream Dime,” Five Facts. Coin World,

Treasury, United States. Department of the. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Year 1894. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894.

— — — . Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Year 1895. Washington, D.C., 1895.

Tripp, David. Illegal Tender : Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle. New York: Free Press, 2004. Publisher description Table of contents only Sample text

[1] Jonathan Jason, “Complete Vermeer Catalogue & Tracker,” Essential Vermeer 3.0, Essential Vermeer, March 5, 2021, 2021.

[2] The term “issue” here is defined as a United States Mint product of specific date, denomination, mint location, and finish.

[3] The King of Siam (modern-day Thailand) was not a collector but the recipient of presentation coins from President Andrew Jackson in 1836.

[4] United States. Department of the Treasury, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Year 1894, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894).

[5] United States. Department of the Treasury, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Year 1895, (Washington, D.C. 1895). p.309.

[6] Gerald Tebben, “The Ice Cream Dime,” Five Facts, Coin World,

[7] “1894-S Barber Dime, The Rarest Coin Ever Minted,” Heritage Auctions, September 17, 2020, (lot 10555).

[8] “1873-CC No Arrows Quarter, MS63: One of Three Mint State Examples Known,” Heritage Auctions, May 15, 2015, (lot 98357).

[9] “How much are my United States 1873-CC NA (5 Known) quarter worth?,” United States Coins: Quarters, CDN Publishing, LLC, accessed May 2, 2021,

[10] “Coinage Act of 1792,” United States Mint, April 19, 2017.

[11] “The World’s Most Famous Coin: 1787 New York-Style Brasher Doubloon,” Heritage Auctions, January 24, 2021, (lot 3934).

[12] “First United States Gold Coin May Fetch $15 Million in Private Sale,” Collecting, Bloomberg, June 2, 2020,

[13] National Numismatic Collection, “Brasher Doubloon, United States, 1787,” (

[14] Previous owners of the Partrick Brasher Doubloon include Stickney, Chapman, John Work Garrett, Wayte Raymond, and Johns Hopkins University.

[15] “Public Law 73–87, 73d Congress, H. R. 6976: Gold Reserve Act of 1934.” Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research (FRASER),

[16] David Tripp, Illegal tender : Gold, greed, and the mystery of the lost 1933 double eagle (New York: Free Press, 2004).

[17] Sothebys, “Three Treasures Collected by Stuart Weitzman,” news release, March 11, 2021,

[18] Bill Finnegan, “Hawaii Five-O,” in The $100,000 Nickel, ed. Allen Reisner (December 11, 1973).

[19] “1913 Nickel: The Nickel The Never Was,” American Numismatic Association,

[20] “1913 Liberty Head Nickel, PR63 PCGS: The George O. Walton Specimen,” Heritage Auctions, April 28, 2013, (lot 4153).

[21] David-Marks Isis, “British Birdwatcher Discovers Trove of 2,000-Year-Old Celtic Coins,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 31, 2020,

[22] Gary Kinder, Ship of gold in the deep blue sea, 1st ed. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998).



John Feigenbaum

Lifelong numismatist and data scientist in numismatics. Current CEO-CDN Publishing (Greysheet), Exec Director PNG. Enjoy reading, history and tennis..