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The Lowdown on Low Ball Coins

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez - December 9, 2022

Many coin collectors spend years, even decades, building the perfect PCGS Registry Set. Most frequently, this would imply collectors who are chasing after coins in the highest grade achievable. However, there’s a small yet growing group of collectors who endeavor to complete sets of coins of the lowest-possible grade. For them, perfection isn’t enumerated by a “70” but rather by a “1,” and as is so often the case, landing a coin graded PO01 can be just as daunting a prospect as seeking a PCGS MS70. So, just who are these collectors and what drives them to aim… Low?

This 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar graded PO01 by PCGS is the stuff of dreams for a low ball collector, someone who seeks the lowest-graded coins they can find. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

Low ball collecting has been an emerging area of numismatics over the past couple decades. By some accounts, a few collectors and dealers were already chasing low ball coins as a formal pursuit by the 1980s. However, longtime low ball collector Christopher Lane said the origins of collecting extremely worn coins may date back more than a century. “I would guess that there were collectors back in the 1800s who put coins away that were worn out and that they thought were cool. One of the pioneers in the low ball genre, PCGS Hall of Famer Michael Hoyman, started with low ball Morgan Dollars well over a decade ago. I think the popularity has grown substantially in the past five years, with it really getting noticed in the past two years.”

For low ball collectors, an extensively worn coin is a many-splendored thing. “A pristine, uncirculated coin with a great shine or patina is beautiful,” remarked collector Dave LeBlanc. “But, to me, a very worn coin that got to that condition because it’s gone through hundreds or thousands of hands over its lifetime makes me want to wonder where it’s been and what it has been used for.” Said the owner of some “well-worn” coins from the 1790s, “Since I’m from the Boston area, I have to wonder if maybe any of these were ever used or carried by John Adams, Paul Revere, or their contemporaries.”

Did Founding Fathers Paul Revere or John Adams hold any of these well-worn coins from the 1790s? Possibly… The portraits are public domain images sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and the coin images are courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

The historic potential of some low ball coins has fourth-generation Philadelphia dealer Andrew Edelman, himself a collector of these well-worn coins, remarking, “I love knowing that these coins were used and held for decades, and the stories that they could tell.” He added, “I also like low ball collecting because it’s a field that’s immediately accessible to everyone, on any budget. No matter what field collectors are interested in, they can start a low ball set and enjoy another facet of numismatics!”

What Defines a Low Ball Coin?

Broadly, the ideal low ball coin is one that has been worn to the point that the design is worn nearly flat but is still identifiable as to type, date, and mintmark. Many low ball coins fall into the range of Poor-1 (PO01) to About Good-3 (AG03), with some leniency in the range more inclusive of better grades for modern coins or series that did not circulate as extensively. A survey of low ball collectors provides more color.

“Looking at the PCGS Population Report, there are some coins out there which the lowest graded is Fine…” explains Lane, who adds that the threshold of “low ball” isn’t necessarily merely defined by an arbitrary grade level, such as G4. “Looking at a particular coin where the lowest graded is Fine, then that is the lowest coin available if you are putting together a set of that coin’s series!”

LeBlanc says, “When talking about Classic Commemoratives only the Columbian and the Pilgrim [Half Dollars] have ever had more than 50 coins in total that have been graded by PCGS in the PO01-AG03 range. The lowest-graded Wisconsin and York [halves] are VF20 and VF25, respectively. So, for most commemoratives an AG03 or other low grade is an extremely tough find or one that hasn’t been found yet.” He further explains, “For Morgan Dollars or U.S. type coins, most [examples] in the certified PO01 and FR02 can be hard to find, some easier than others depending on mintage. Most coins with the ‘CC’ [Carson City] mintmark can be tougher and are at a premium.”

Adds Edelman, “There are certain issues that are just hard, oftentimes because of the wear patterns and how you still need a readable date to get them graded. I own one of only two PCGS PO01 Three Cent Nickels ever graded, which might surprise people that there’s only two.” Then there are contemporary series that have seen little or even no official circulation but nevertheless yield extremely worn specimens. How does that even happen?

Collector and fourth-generation dealer Andrew Edelman has a significant collection of low ball coins. Among these here is a unique Peace Dollar graded by PCGS with a handwritten label declaring it a “0.” According to Edelman, the specimen holdered three decades ago is “the only PCGS ‘Poor-0’ coin!” Courtesy of Andrew Edelman. Click image to enlarge.

“Most of the modern low ball coins are pocket pieces, although I have personally gotten a Sacagawea Dollar from a SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) subway vending machine that is probably a low Fine!” says Edelman. He explains that American Silver Eagles with organic wear must have been pocket pieces as they are truly non-circulating. “But I could absolutely see an Ike or golden [Sacagawea] dollar naturally getting extremely worn, they are just extremely hard to come by. There are other ways coins can gain wear, such as being stuck under a frequently used chair or seat, but most of the PO1 examples of modern coins were pocket pieces for many years.”

Morgan Dollars (left) and Peace Dollars (right) like these Poor-1 specimens dated 1881 and 1922 are two of the most popular coins for low ball collectors. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click images to enlarge.

The dealer warns that low ball collectors need to be careful discerning between truly worn coins and those that were altered to look like they saw heavy circulation. “As low ball collecting becomes more popular and low population PO01 coins start to bring thousands of dollars, the prevalence of ‘artificially worn’ coins has started to increase.” Collectors are reminded they should stick to buying low ball coins certified by PCGS, whose experts can distinguish between a coin that has received genuine wear versus artificially accelerated wear.

And it’s the type of wear itself that can drive a low ball collector’s ambitions. There is the question of whether to collect so-called “straight-grade” coins (the kind that are certified with only a grade on the label and no notes, such as “scratched,” “holed,” etc.) or those that carry damage. “Initially, I had no-date and holed coins in my low ball set, but I now enjoy my PCGS Registry sets, which dictate that the coins must be straight graded,” says Edelman. “You can absolutely enjoy low ball coins if they are holed or damaged, but I choose to stick with only straight graded coins at this time.”

LeBlanc, who also prefers “problem-free” low ball coins, says, “There are a number of collectors that just look for holed, culled, or error coins, and that’s great. It’s just wherever someone’s interest lies.”

How Low Can They Go?

The PCGS Set Registry recognizes a slew of low ball categories, with more on the way to meet demand. However, the most popular areas are clustered around the major U.S. series from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with specialty interest for modern low ball efforts, including sets of Kennedy Half Dollars and Eisenhower Dollars.

“I saw an Iowa [State Quarter] graded VG08 in an online auction and I was able to get it at a reasonable price,” recalls LeBlanc of his early low ball collecting ventures. “That started me working at putting together a low ball commemorative set. While slowly trying to find some of the last coins to finish that set, I started collecting low ball Morgan Dollars and U.S. type set coins.

Lane is also pursuing a low ball type set, a 97-piece copper, nickel, and silver assemblage that he has “worked on for decades” and considers a monumental endeavor.

Edelman enjoys type sets, too. “I have the second-highest-rated PCGS Registry low ball set for a complete 133-coin U.S. type set.” He also has a nearly complete low ball Peace Dollar set. “My original classic commemorative set will always be a work in progress, although that set is extremely competitive with a number of very serious collectors participating.”

How did this 1971 Eisenhower Dollar see enough circulation to garner a grade of Fair-2? It may have been a pocket piece or could’ve been used for many years in the Nevada casino circuit, where many Eisenhower Dollars circulated in the 1970s and beyond. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

A collector who goes by his Set Registry handle “Lopezjohn” says he started collecting coins and stamps years ago as a teenager. Now he is a PCGS Set Registry member who pursues among many things low ball Barber Dimes, which offer a mixed bag of challenges for collectors like him. “Barber Dimes are harder to find in lower grades since they were used and used,” he noted of the coins, which were often worn beyond the point of attributing their date and mintmark. “The later years are harder since people kept them for silver and collections.”

High Hopes for Low Ball Coins

A rarity in any grade, this 1930-S Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle graded PCGS AG03 sold for $44,400. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Click images to enlarge.

The marketplace dynamics for low ball coinage isn’t really unique – it comes down to function of supply versus demand. What’s different and perhaps even perplexing for those not attuned to this aspect of collecting is how a coin graded Poor or Fair could garner a significantly higher value than one encapsulated Fine, Very Fine, or even better. “When you get right down to it, some of these really tough PO01 coins are much rarer than their high-grade counterparts,” asserts Lane. “The high-grade coins were pulled from the mint, banks, etc. and carefully put away. Imagine a coin like a Three Cent Silver – small, thin, easily damaged, and oftentimes used as a screwdriver in the day! After all these years, how many survived undamaged, unmelted, and ended up in perfectly worn low grades?”

Observes LeBlanc, “A few years ago, I did a presentation at a coin club and I showed an MS65 Huguenot Commemorative Half Dollar valued between $200 to $250. While this was a very nice and collectible coin it wasn’t really rare since there had been over 1,700 graded at that level or higher. I then explained that there were four graded MS68 and only one at MS68+. I asked if anyone would like to have one of these rare coins if money was no object since the current price guides listed their values between $25,000 to $32,000. The ‘yes’ votes were unanimous. I then showed them a Huguenot graded FR02. Back then there were only four of these and only one PO01. The cost of these would be much closer to the cost of the MS65 even though they were just as rare as the MS68.” He noted that he received three offers on his FR02 Huguenot Half Dollar at that meeting following his presentation.

Edelman says that as a dealer his experience in transacting low ball coins has been quite successful. “I’ve found the low ball coins I do decide to part with have sold very well. I think there’s a much larger collector base than some might expect, which makes me optimistic for the growth of this niche market.” He says interest in low ball coins is absolutely growing. “I expect there to be more collectors who realize it’s a very fun, cost-effective way to collect the coins they love!”

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