Why Are Some Coins Auctioned Off for Millions While Others Are Not?

You may hear of stories of rare coins being auctioned off for millions of dollars. It seems like a far-fetched idea that any coin would ever go for that much at auction. In the numismatic collecting arena, it is not impossible and it is actually more common than you might think. Many of these million-dollar coins are hard to find, but there are some hiding in plain sight. To the untrained eye, we may not think a coin is deserving of such a high dollar amount, but history tells a different story. Here are three examples of coins that have gone or will go for millions of dollars at auction:

  • 1894-S Barber Dime. According to a CBS News article, "Only 24 were made, and only nine likely still exist." This coin was produced at the San Francisco Mint during a time in which dimes weren't needed because of a recession. This coin has the perfect balance between rarity and historical significance.
  • 1822 Capped Head $5 Half Eagle. This coin was unobtainable for decades because it is only one of three that exists. "The other two Half Eagles from 1822 are housed at the Smithsonian Institution." (LA Times) This $5 Gold coin was owned by the infamous Brent Pogue, who assembled one of the most extensive private coin collections.
  • 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. This coin was "originally owned by the Sultan of Muscat in 1835 and then by the Childs Family Collection for more than 50 years," (Business Insider). It is graded a nearly perfect PR-68 by PCGS, one of the top two coin grading services. 


Standards for Coins to be Auctioned for Millions of Dollars

These coins, plus other rare coins, have a lofty auction price for varying reasons, including their condition, history and handling. Much like a good wine, the value increases with age as the intrinsic value grows through generations. There are other reasons why rare coins and collectible coins are auctioned for millions of dollars. 

  • Rarity. Perhaps one of the main defining factors of a coin's million-dollar expectation is the rarity. Rare coins are difficult to come by for a reason. Numbers are not on their side, but if one finds themselves owning one, it should be kept and stored securely until the right time. Many things can happen throughout time and the coins can be lost, stolen or simply stored poorly. Rare coins surface from time to time, and others have them in a collection for years.
  • Year. Year is a defining factor as well. Political and societal events can change the value of a coin much like the case of the 1894-S Barber Dime above, which was minted during a recession. The year is important to note due to mitigating factors at the time. Some of these factors include low mintage because of a shortage of metal, laws prohibiting production of a particular type of coin or limited minting due to an economic recession.
  • First of its kind. This 1794 Silver Dollar fetched millions of dollars at auction in both 2013 and 2015. These rare Silver dollars were the first to be struck in the United States. They also contained 90% Silver content, which is something early settlers had never experienced up to that point. This coin set the precedent for the American dollar.  


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