Rarity: A Complex Topic

For some time now I’ve been considering how best to approach an article on rarity. The longer I thought (and read) about it, the more I realized how complex the topic actually is. There are so many factors that contribute to the relative scarcity of any one particular date, variety, or series. In addition, we now have something called “condition rarity”, a subset that has grown out of the advent of third party grading services such as PCGS, NGC, and ANACS to name a few.

When Robert Wasserman, a reader here on Numistories, commented on my post “The Pine Tree Coins of Massachusetts” I decided the topic of rarity had to be addressed. So thank you, Robert ,  for the final push. Hopefully what follows will answer your questions!

Many beginner numismatists make the assumption that the sole deciding factor in how rare a particular coin is would be the mintage figures found easily in the Red Book. But if this were the case, we would expect, for example, a 1901-S Morgan Dollar with a mintage of 2,284,000 to be about as hard to find as a 1973 Eisenhower Dollar with a mintage of 2,000,056. Here is where the concept of “surviving examples” comes in. After 110 years, how many of those 1901-S Morgans are still around? How many escaped being melted down for their bullion value as silver prices skyrocketed (relatively) in the early 20th century?

Now we know there are a lot more 1973 Ikes around nowadays. Ikes were never popular as circulating currency. They were kept as novelties for the most part which accounts for the fact that, of the 2,000,056 that were struck, the vast majority are still hanging around.

Let’s continue the Morgan/Ike comparison to shed some light on “condition rarity”. I’ll bet that if you decided to collect a set of Eisenhower Dollars, you would have no problem procuring an outstanding Mint State 1973 example for around 20 bucks. I’ll also bet that you won’t find a Mint State 1901-S Morgan without a lot of  difficulty, and definitely not for 20 bucks!  However, you could probably find a lot of Fine to Very Fine examples for around the current price of silver. Why?

Here are just a few reasons:

1. The 1901-S (San Francisco) Morgan Dollar was used heavily in local commerce. Most surviving examples are worn down by a lot of pockets.

2. In 1901, a dollar was a third of a day’s pay. These weren’t given to a child for a birthday present or tooth fairy loot. They got used and used and used.

3. In 1973 when Grandma gave you an Ike dollar for an A on your report card, you bought your comic books, the merchant deposited it in the bank, and there it sat, almost as fresh as the day it was minted.

But wait, there’s more! Sometimes this works in reverse. Let’s stick with Morgans for another paragraph. There are many dates that languished in bank vaults until the 1960’s. When these were discovered, many coins thought of as rare became quite common. And because they were never released into commerce, they are quite easy to locate today in high grade. A Very Fine example may be more difficult to find! Mint State 1881-S Morgans are easy to locate in high grades because many bags of this date never made it into circulation. A flood of silver dollars had resulted from the passage of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 and a few years of heavy production had already met demand.

So there’s a little background, but how does it pertain to Mr. Wasserman’s question? Robert wanted to know how rare, in general, were the Pine Tree coins of Massachusetts thought to be? For the answer, look for my next post where we will discuss the Rarity Scale of Dr. William H. Sheldon and the more applicable Universal Rarity Scale of Q. David Bowers. ‘Til next time!

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