Understanding the Rarity of a coin is critical. As a critical element, there is a need for much discussion, because it not only involves a coin’s rarity as defined by the actual number of coins known, it also is part of the “finest known” equation.
There has been much discussion and discourse among serious Cal Fractional collectors regarding which rarity scale to use, and which is perhaps more properly applied for this collecting field. Breen-Gillio uses a modification of the Sheldon Rarity Scale of R1 (most common) to Unique (R9). Locke has proposed the possibility of using Alan Herbert’s URS scale, which he suggests renaming the “Prevalence scale” This scale is more “mathematical” and allows for coins that we know existed, but there are no known examples. (In this light, there are several pioneer gold coins that we know existed, but none are known today. I have published statements or articles on two of these.)
Sheldon Scale (Breen-Gillio)
Unique = 1 known. (Most prefer to use the Unique designation, rather than R9.)
R-8 = 2 or 3 known.
Borderline R-8 = 3 or 4 known.
High R-7 = about 4 to 6 known.
R-7 = about 7 to 9 known.
Low R-7 = about 10 to 12 known.
High R-6 = about 13 to 18 known.
R-6 = about 19 to 24 known.
Low R-6 = about 25 to 30 known.
High R-5 = about 31 to 45 known.
R-5 = about 46 to 60 known.
Low R-5 = about 60 to 75 known.
High R-4 = about 76 to 100 known.
R-4 = about 100 to 150 known.
Low R-4 = about 150 to 200 known.
R-3 = about 201 to 500 known.
R-2 = about 501 to 1,250 known
R-1 = over 1,250 known.
Prevalence Scale (Locke)
P0. Unknown, but known to exist
P2. 2-3 known
P3. 4-7 known
P4. 8-15 known
P5. 16-31 known
P6. 32-63 known
P7. 64-127 known
And so on.
The discussion of the use of these two scales is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is important to illustrate that there remain differences of opinion in how best to illustrate rarity issues.
PCGS, NCG Population Reports Versus True Rarity
Understanding Rarity when reading the PCGS or NGC Population Reports and ancillary Auction reports can be, and is, challenging. All of this data gets even more confusing when a collector looks at Breen-Gillio and the above rarity scales and tries to compare them to the PCGS and NGC population reports.
One thing for certain is that through Jack Totheroh’s extensive work on Period One fractionals, in addition to Bob Leonard’s work and with Mike Locke’s long and continuing data building on Cal Fractionals and related tokens, we now have an idea of what the true rarities are. New data garnered after the second edition of Breen-Gillio is included within the descriptions in this catalog.
Data from PCGS and NGC, among other grading services, is very important, and becomes an important part of a collector’s decision to buy or not to buy. One group of collectors collects the coin. The second group collects the holder (which means the grade, as printed on the holder). Thus a need is present to discuss the differences.
A third set of data has come about recently with the publication of auction sales history within the PCGS membership site. This is an indirect continuation of the work Jack Totheroh started decades ago, but does not contain all of Jack’s data.
Population reports were first published nearly twenty years ago, other that Totheroh’s. For awhile, they were printed annually by at least one of the services. Over time, printed reports (circa 1993-2004) gave way to internet published reports. The initial population reports became a standard reference, and in so doing, became a tool of clever coin dealers and collectors. The game was afoot.
With the advent of quality coin grading classes, more people learned the eccentricities and fine points of grading including collectors and dealers (hereafter referred to collectively as collectors.) Collectors could thus examine a particular population of graded coins and look for errors—coins that had perhaps been under graded. These coins were, and are, then broken out of the grading service holder and resubmitted for upgrade. The grading service submittal forms themselves add to this by asking what grade the coin is. Today, this practice is a form of Russian Roulette (See the essay on grading). For non-standard coin series, of which fractional gold coins are certainly among those at the top of the list, grading is problematic and troublesome.
The 1990s-early 2000s were part of the “crack-out” time when coins, such as those in PCGS old green holders, were routinely broken out and submitted for regrading. The practice is carried on today, though to a lesser degree because of tightened grade standards. The old rule of thumb that a coin that is broken out of a holder will receive the same or better grade is completely false. Coins are broken out of the holder for a number of reasons:
The collector wants only “raw” coins. Examples are many, including Totheroh and Bill Weber (half cents, pioneer gold and so-called dollars).
Coin is clearly a higher grade
Coin’s appearance can be enhanced by removal of dirt, usually by horse or camel hair brush.
Appearance and luster can be improved by removal of same using liquid product MS70.
Appearance can be improved by adding artificial color.
Appearance is improved by “tooling”, or “moving metal.” The only time this is acceptable is when a holed or other form of jewelry piece is plugged or had solder removed, and so indicated, so as not to deceive.
The real professionals are those that can recognize a grading error without touching the coin. The ethics of 3-6 above are hotly debated.
All of the resubmittals are part of the population report. The reports are a summary of all coins submitted for grade. Thus if a coin has gone through the grading process three times, it adds 3 to the population report, even though it is the exact same coin. Thus the population reports can be, and often are, misleading.
A further problem exists, known as “crossover.” Crossover is when a coin graded perhaps MS58 is broken out of the holder and resubmitted to another competing grading service. The concept is that one grading service is “tighter” than the other, and the coin will come back in a holder from the competing grading service marked MS60 or higher. This is a bonus for those who “buy the holder.” In cash terms, it can mean thousands of dollars. But it is the same exact coin. This practice has been going on for over twenty years.
So how do we determine how many coins really exist when a population report can be a misleading guide? We might now have an answer.
Auction Sales History, aka “Sales Events”
The PCGS membership website contains excellent new information about coin auction sales history. While Jack Totheroh spent decades gathering this information, including provenance as far back as 1859, the new site has data back about 20 years, 30 in some cases (1983). It also includes two new sales mediums, Teletrade and eBay (to some extent).
While studying this data, statistical patterns quickly emerge. These patterns may be a guide to rarity. One of the patterns, without doing detailed statistical analyses, generally shows that there are about twice as many submissions as sales events. The clear exceptions are the coins that are true rarities—those with a “population report” of less than about 25 specimens. This may also show that there are perhaps at least 25 serious collectors. One meaning gleaned from this is that it appears coins have been resubmitted at least twice over the past twenty plus years.