6th National Silver Dollar Convention
St. Louis, Missouri
November 11 -17, 1985
MS-67 Dollars, or: “You Want How Much for That ’81-S?”
By Bruce Amspacher
“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one.” – John Updike
The quotation from John Updike is there for two reasons. One, to show you that I read something besides “Coin World,” Lawrence Sanders and Stephen King. Two, because the thought has a lot to do with the evolution of the MS-67 dollar market.
The ‘taste’ of today’s collectors and investors runs to superb quality. Contrast this with the bull market of 1964 when the way to buy coins was by the pound, or of 1974 when rare dates ruled the numismatic roost. Top quality dollars survived and even prospered in the bear market of the early 1980’s, and now are soaring to new, previously unexplored heights.
Why? What’s the attraction? Why does a coin that had no value (except face, of course) only 30 years ago now command tremendous premiums in the ultimate condition? Are we more “artistic” than the previous generation – seeking only the best? Is our current “taste” a fad or a very real market that’s with us forever?
“Forever” is a long time, as they say, but the MS-67 dollar market is certainly with us now. The reports from any major show soon relate tales of $1,100 1879-S dollars (“I’m telling you, it wasn’t even prooflike”) and $2,300 1882-CC’s (“I coulda sold it five times”). Controversy swirls, opinions are offered, warnings nothing short of ominous are issued by some well-meaning but badly-out-of-touch newsletter writers…and the market rolls along, crushing all dissenters in its path.
About five years ago, I wrote a series of four articles for CDN on “condition rarity” in the Morgan and Peace dollar series. If this article had been written then, I would have rushed to “establish” the “grading criteria” for an MS-67 dollar. A list would have ensued detailing the requirements of strike, luster, color, surfaces, etc.
In 1985, I do things differently. Please remember that this is not the voice of a cynic, but of a realist. The grading criterion, the only one, for an MS-67 dollar is this:
If you like it, jump in.
Don’t think that the comment above signals flippancy. I take the subject seriously; however, the bourse floors are a continuing education, classrooms of logic-defying experiences with no recess. All too often, the 1880-S dollar that “can’t be worth more than $500” trades at $800, $1,000, $1,250 and on (I guess) into infinity.
It’s the early “S” mints that you hear so much about because 1) they are the prettiest series, the flashiest and, 2) they are the most common. Being the most common, in a relative sense, means that they trade the most often; ergo, you hear about them.
Other dates are equally worthy of astounding prices – in fact, more than worthy – but the “right coin” seldom turns up. When was the last time an 1891-P sold for megabucks? Find the coin, though, and name the price.
Here are the dates most frequently seen in MS-67: 1879-S, 1880-S, 1881-S, 1882-S, 1883-P, 1884-CC, 1885-P, 1885-O, 1886-P, 1887-P, 1897-P, 1897-S, 1898-O, 1899-O, 1900-O, 1902-P, 1903-P, and 1904-O. In the Peace dollar series, the dates seen are 1922-P, 1922-D, 1923-P, 1925-P, 1926-P, and 1926-D.
Do you see a few dates you disagree with? Dates you’d add or delete? You probably do. Yes, some dates are much tougher than others on the “easy” list – but here’s the point: Many dates thought to be relatively easy are tough.
These include: 1878-S, 1883-O, 1900-P, 1902-O, and 1921-P. Two Peace dollar dates that continue to be elusive are the 1927-P and 1928-P.
It is contrary to popular belief – almost anti-intellectual – to list the ’27-P and ’28-P when we all “know” the real toughies are the “S” mints form 1922 to 1925. Regardless, the want list cards for the superb ’27-P and ’28-P yellow with age.
Further classification into “rarity groups” is futile, if not meaningless. If the right coin turns up, it will bring the money, whether it’s an “R-3” or an “R-4.”
A few recent price records have astonished believers and non-believers alike. Some examples:
|1879-S PL||$2,000||1882-S non-PL||$2,000|
|1880-S PL||$5,000||1886-P non-PL||$1,500|
|1882-S PL||$4,500||1897-S non-PL||$5,200|
|1899-O PL||$5,500||1902-S non-PL||$5,500|
As “recent” as the records are, some probably aren’t records anymore. Also, if I had selected other dates, the prices might be much more dramatic in relation to MS-65 “bid.” These are not isolated incidents of craziness. This market is real.
The dollar that brings “MS-67 money,” that meshes all the ingredients that equal “eye appeal,” is a great coin, indeed. It is usually not a prefect coin, however, much to the consternation of some.
“Now, Sonny,” says the prospective customer, “this coin looks nice, but if you use a 50-power glass and tilt it just right you can see where a gnat landed it in 1946. If you get any real gems, though, call me.”
Extreme? Yes, but not without basis in truth. One dealer (he showed me the letter) recently had an 1882-S returned because “it is too perfect. I am suspicious.” I had a $500 1879-S returned because “it is too perfect. I am suspicious.” I had a $550, $750, $900, and $1,100. I was offered the coin back at $1,300. “I ripped it,” the dealer said.
Diversity of opinion is nothing new in the rare coin market, but the MS-67 dollar market creates the most diversity of all. Here are a few – only a few – of the arguments that rage:
1) It takes an MS-67 dollar to bring an MS-65 price
2) It’s too specialized.
3) It’s all hype.
4) The market would fall apart if three or four certain dealers quit buying.
5) Prices are crazy.
To probe these questions, or charges, or accusations, or whatever you want to call them, I consult with eight other dealers who specialize in MS-67 dollar whenever possible.
Whenever possible? Well, it’s difficult to “specialize” in something that usually stays in inventory for a maximum of 15 minutes.
Here are some thoughts:
Kent Brennan – “If it’s true – which it isn’t – that it takes an MS-67 coin to bring MS-65 money, then the $350 1881-S dollar must be an MS-67 coin. Then what grade is the $600 1881-S dollar? MS-69? If you accept that, then what grade is the $900 1881-S? MS-72? It only follows that the $1,200 1881-S must be MS-75.”
Gary Fernandez – “People who handle the ‘almost’ dollars, the MS-64 or near miss coins, are the ones who say dollars have to be MS-67 to bring ’65 money. MS-67 coins bring MS-67 money.”
Ron Howard – “MS-67 coins stand on their own. They are not tied to any printed price. Certainly, MS-67 quality is in the eye of the beholder, but if the buyer and seller agree, then the coin is worth more than ’65 money.
It’s important that people don’t confuse yesterday’s standards with today’s. It might take yesterday’s MS-67 coin to bring today’s MS-65 price. Today’s MS-67 coin, though, is definitely worth over the ’65 price.”
Comment: It also might be argued that my hand-picked panel of experts are people who parrot my own way of thinking. Not so. For one thing, all of them are pretty independent and have no need or inclination to parrot anyone. The opinions expressed above – and below – seem universal among the dozens of dealers in “wonder coins.”
In fact, the enthusiasm for this series is at once both euphoric and contagious.
Mike DeFalco – “MS-67 dollars are an endangered species. My philosophy is ‘stack ‘em up ‘til I can’t seem over ‘em’. I am a buyer at prices well in excess of MS-65 bid. MS-67 dollars continue to bring record prices. I think there will always be eager buyers for this series.”
Steele Eunson – “MS-67 dollars are dead rare. There’s no such thing as paying too much for one – at least it would take a concerted effort to pay too much. Why? Because they’re too hard to find, they’re virtually irreplaceable, and they’re awfully sexy. They seem to have unlimited investment potential. You learn quickly to buy them on sight or miss out. The nice ones just don’t stay in people’s cases.”
Nick Buzolich – “Prices are going to go higher. An MS-67 dollar sticks out and says ‘wow.’ They’re truly scarce. There’s a strong demand from the collecting and investing public even though the coins are getting harder and harder to find.
Demand won’t diminish because of higher prices. People are trying to buy coins closer and closer to the ultimate condition.”
Comment: The statement that ”there’s no such thing as paying too much for one” is not meant in the literal sense, of course.
No one is saying that if you pay $25,000 for an 1886-P that you’re justified in doing so. The point is, if you pass up a wonder coin at $1,400 because you think the “limit” for it is $1,250, you’ve probably made a mistake. As is true with most other things in life, limits are usually self-imposed.
As much of a problem as finding the right coin at the right price is avoiding the wrong at the wrong price. The bourse floors are crowded with people who want to play the game but refuse to learn the rules.
Tom Noe – “It’s getting to the point that nothing surprises me anymore. I sometimes think that bagmarks are invisible to some people. It’s like 1980 in some ways. I keep wondering if the guy is ignorant or taking a vicious shot – or both.
MS-67 dollars are great investment coins, but there’s more to it than just writing ‘MS-67’ on the holder.”
Comment: Tom Noe’s point doesn’t need defending – a few hours on any bourse floor will prove that – but it does need expanding. There is no intent of elitism here. Anyone is permitted to ask any price he wants. But when the price is “three” and you think he meant $300 (and you pass) and he really meant $3,000 (!)…
The price levels that “bother” the detractors of the series don’t seem to bother the people who are willing to lay down the money to back their opinion.
Dick Armstrong – “At the Sacramento show, I paid $1,200 for an ’80-S that was a shallow P-L at best. I sold the coin almost immediately for $1,400. No doubt there are those who would say ‘it can’t be worth that,’ but the experience has shown that those who pay ‘too much’ for a superb quality coin very seldom lose.
I have no reluctance to sell an ’81-S for $500 – or whatever – if it’s a $500 coin.
People want the best, whether it’s an MS-67 dollar or a type coin or something else. If they didn’t, why would they pay tens of thousands for a Ferrari when a VW Bug would take ‘em where they want to go? They’ve worked hard, they want the best, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
Comment: Almost every dealer related a story of one kind or another about “paying too much” again and again only to find his judgment justified by selling the coin(s) immediately. The prices are there because the demand is there.
“He warned himself, not for the first time, of the dangers of labeling. His discipline, like all others, had its special vocabulary. That was necessary. But a hazard lay in categorizing. In his field, the variations were infinite; there was no neat filing system. Each case is different, each issue unique.”
– Lawrence Sanders
While the quote above concerns psychiatry, it could just as easily have been written about silver dollars – a series of infinite variation, each case unique, defying the objective label. Some labeling is necessary, of course, so that people know what we’re talking about. The label chosen is “MS-67.” It is special vocabulary, but not a definition.
“The whole thing is eye appeal,” Mike DeFalco said, “it’s subjective. It will never be standardized.”
It will never be standardized. I agree with the statement and celebrate the truth of it. To many, subjectivity is the flaw of the wonder coin market; the one thing that prevents total acceptance by the masses.
Will the market succeed despite the subjectivity? No, the market will succeed because of the subjectivity. The market thrives on controversy and opinion as long as it’s divided. The day we all agree on every coin it will be time to put our money in tax-free municipal bonds and go home.
Since I never preach for more than four paragraphs, it’s time to discuss other areas of the MS-67 dollar market, such as rare dates.
The price records, the focus, the action is not restricted to early “S” mints and other “common” dates, but the activity in rare dates has been somewhat restrained over the past several years. Price resistance is one reason, simply because fewer people can participate in coins over $10,000. Another reason, the principal reason, has been unavailability. It this about to change?
“The rarer dates can be harder to sell because of the demand for cheaper coins.” Kent Brennan said, “but a change in that philosophy is long overdue.”
“If you look at the percentages of survivors in MS-67 for common dates, the numbers are small,” Steele Eunson added, “but in better dates the percentages are even smaller.”
“Rare dates are definitely coming into their own again,” said Gary Fernandex, “I’m hearing positive reports when the coins are available.”
Indeed, in a less active dollar market in 1983, an 1884-S and 1896-S sold for $100,000 for the pair. Several 1903-S dollars have traded recently in the $15,000 range. And, don’t forget the sale of the Wayne Miller Collection, a price record bonanza for rare dates when the set is broken down on a date for price basis.
Could all this collapse if three or four dealers stopped buying? “A ridiculous supposition.” Tom Noe said. “There was a time – fifteen or more years ago – when super dollars were handled by only a few dealers. Today, hundreds of dealers are eager buyers, the collector/investor base is enormous and interest in the series is always there – even in the worst of times.”
The “worst of times” can produce more attractive prices for the collector/investor, though. Despite assurances by several dealers that “you can’t pay too much” there are some coins – even of “wonder” status – that haven’t returned to 1980 highs. Most dates have recovered, however, and show no signs of resistance.
The ultimate question, again and again, is distilled down to one word: Why? Demand, yes, but why is there the demand?
I think the answer involves the concepts of both “taste” and “art,” transcending social acceptance (“it’s what everyone is doing”), ego (“I must have the best”), and even speculation (“they’re going up, so I want in”).
In MS-67 dollars, the dealers, collectors, investors, hoarders – and whoever else participates – have found what they like, and in that alone they are comfortable. To them, it is here that numismatics has “created” its highest art.