What are rare coins and why they matter.

million dollar penny

(Photo courtesy of PCGS.)


Rare Coins

What they are and what to look for



In September 2012 a highly unusual auction occurred in the small town of Lincroft in the state of New Jersey. On a mid-autumn day that year one Bob Simpson purchased a bronze United States one cent coin bearing the profile of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The only catch was that Mr. Simpson, a long-time coin collector and the co-chairman of the Texas Rangers baseball club, paid Legend Numismatics, who auctioned the coin that day, $1 million US dollars for the coin. This raises the question, why would anyone pay a 100,000,000% mark-up on the face value of a coin. The answer is that this was an extremely rare coin. It was the finest surviving example of a 1943-S Lincoln Wheat cent coin made of bronze. All of these cent coins, which were produced in 1943, were supposed to be made of steel coated with zinc. However, a small number of bronze coins which were left over from 1942 were repurposed to make some of the 1943 issue cent coins. Because these ‘error coins’ are rare they are highly sought after by rare coin collectors and numismatists. What follows provides an introduction to the topic of rare coins, what they are, why they are collected and what to look for when collecting them.[1]  


            The 1943-S Lincoln Wheat bronze cent coin is not alone in being an example of a United States federal coin which is considered very rare and valuable. Indeed, of the ten most expensive rare coins ever sold at auction six are coins which were issued by the United States federal government and three others are coins which were privately minted in America shortly after the country acquired independence from Britain. This is somewhat incongruous. Surely one would think that the most valuable rare coins are those which are centuries, if not millennia old. This assumption would be based on the belief that the older a coin is the less of them would have survived, whereas coins produced in the last 240 years, as all US coins are, should surely have survived in greater numbers. But this is often not the case. Often hordes of Roman or Viking coins, for instance, are uncovered which contain hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of individual Roman or Viking coins. There are consequently tens of millions of Roman coins extant today. By way of contrast, if one takes the example of the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle coin, of which 180,000 were produced by the US federal reserve in 1927, nearly all of these were called in the by US government in the early 1930s and then melted down to make new coins. As a result less than two dozen of these coins have survived down to the present day. This makes them much rarer than, for instance, Roman or Viking coins that are much older and consequently one of the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle coins will fetch upwards of half a million US dollars at auction. By way of contrast a Roman silver coin of the third century AD will generally sell for little more than a few hundred dollars and often less than $100 depending on the physical state of the coin in question.[2]


            The value of rare coins is also tied to the substance it is made out of. If we return to the example of the Roman silver coin from the third century AD, these coins are particularly cheap because during the third century AD the Roman Empire was experiencing a profound political, military and economic crisis. During this the imperial government began to mint hundreds of thousands of new coins which were actually not made of silver at all. In most instances successive emperors and their administrators were commanding mints throughout the empire to effectively make coins out of bronze or some other cheap metal and then wash the outside of them in silver to make them look like proper silver coins. In reality, though, these coins had silver content of somewhere between 5% and 10%. Now if we take one of the world’s most valuable rare coins, the Brasher Doubloon, these are made of pure gold of a very high quality. The coins were the work of Ephraim Brasher, a New York-based goldsmith, who in 1787 decided to strike a very unusual type of coin. These were doubloons or pure gold coins worth sixteen dollars at the time or eight escudos, a significant sum of money by late eighteenth century standards. They bear the federal insignia and also Brasher’s distinctive EB insignia. Just seven of these coins are believed to have been struck, each made of gold of a very high standard in excess of 20 carats. As a consequence of their rareness and the quality of the metal used in them the Brasher Doubloons are amongst the most valuable rare coins in the world today and three of them have sold in recent years for in excess of five million US dollars each. However, these are only some of the criteria used to assess the value of a rare coin. There are many others, including how well-preserved the coin is. The value of coins is generally assessed by numismatists, collectors and auction houses according to the Sheldon Grading Scale, a scale from 1-70 which was popularized by Dr William Sheldon in the late 1940s.[3]


            Now that we know, broadly speaking, how the value of a rare coin is established, let’s look through some important time periods and civilizations and the kind of coins which are extant from them. No assessment of western history and the material culture which it has left behind is complete without examining Ancient Greek society, which flourished not just in Greece but across the Eastern Mediterranean between the seventh and fourth centuries BC. Ancient Greek coins are a classic example of how the value of coins is determined by their rarity rather than their age. Because the Greek world in ancient times spread far and wide across the Mediterranean, as far west as Marseilles and Syracuse in Sicily, which were effectively Greek colonies, and because Greek civilization was a society that traded extensively, Greek coins have survived in plentiful amounts. For instance, the American Numismatic Society has over 100,000 Ancient Greek coins in its collection today. A great many of these coins, such as the fifth century BC Athenian silver tedradrachma will often sell for just a few hundred US dollars today. However, others are very valuable. The Gold Staters issued by King Croesus of Lydia, a Greek kingdom in western Turkey, in the mid-sixth century BC are an extremely valuable coin associated with the Ancient Greek world and have sold for as much as $150,000, while fetching an average amount of more than $50,000. Again this is owing to their being rare and also made of pure gold.[4]


            If there are many Ancient Greek coins still extant today, then we might say that there are enormous amounts of Roman coins. This is hardly unsurprising when we consider that the Romans controlled most of the Mediterranean world for a period of over half a millennium and approximately a quarter of the world’s people lived within the borders of its empire at its height in the second century AD.[5] Accordingly there are tens of millions of Roman coins which have survived down to the present day. An examination of coin hoards discovered over the years in Roman Britain alone gives an idea of this. For instance, the Beau Street Hoard found in the town of Bath in 2008 contained 30,000 Roman silver coins. The Bishopswood Hoard found in Herefordshire in the late nineteenth century contained a massive 17,500 coins. But even these were eclipsed by the Frome Hoard discovered in the town of Frome in Somerset in 2010. This comprised over 52,500 Roman coins, generally all being made of debased silver and bronze during the crisis period of the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries AD. Dozens of other hoards have been found in Britain alone dating to the Roman period containing hundreds or thousands of coins. And given that Roman Britain was a rather unimportant, thinly populated part of the empire it is not difficult to see how Roman-era coins are relatively lacking in value today, despite being nearly 2,000 years old. There simply are so many of them on the market that there value is generally quite small. Yet there are always exceptions. For instance, gold aureus coins, which were worth multiple times what even a pure silver denarius was worth when first minted, can sell for thousands of dollars today. Indeed one such aureus, a type which was struck in 42 BC bearing the image of Marcus Junius Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins the previous year, is extremely rare and sold at auction in 2020 for $3.5 million dollars. Other valuable Roman coins include the Titus Colosseum silver sestertius. This commemorative coin was issued by the Emperor Titus in 81 AD to mark the completion and opening of the huge new amphitheater (known at the time as the Flavian Amphitheatre, but subsequently as the Colosseum, the remains of which still stand in central Rome today) which his father had commenced work on over a decade earlier, but which was only finally completed during Titus’s reign. The silver coin bears an image of the Colosseum on one side and of Titus on the other. Because these were only minted in small numbers just ten survive today and in 2017 one sold at auction for nearly half a million US dollars.[6]


            The pattern with Roman coins continues into the medieval period for peoples such as the Vikings, Franks and Arabs. While these are often remembered today as violent warrior peoples who engaged in extensive conquest, they actually spent far more time trading than fighting. As such, as with the Romans, we find enormous hoards to have survived from the Middle Ages. For instance, the Spillings Hoard, the largest Viking hoard ever located, contained nearly 15,000 coins. This was found in northern Sweden, but despite this geographical remove the majority of the coins were actually coins minted in the Arab Caliphate which ruled most of the Middle East and North Africa at the time from Baghdad. Similarly, the Cuerdale Hoard found in England in the mid-nineteenth century contained thousands of Viking-era coins. Coins from the Arab Caliphate are even more plentiful, particularly precious ones. For instance, in 2015 marine archaeologists working off the coast of Caesarea in Israel discovered a hoard of some 2,000 gold coins dating to the period of the Fatimid Dynasty which ruled much of the Arab world between the tenth and twelfth centuries. However, there are always exceptions to this rule. An Arab gold dinar struck in 723 AD during the Umayyad Dynasty period of the Arab Caliphate sold for just over $6 million dollars at auction in April 2011. The value of this coin is again owing to the fact it is struck from high carat gold and also because Arab coins from this early in the history of the Caliphate are rare survivals.[7]   


            There are also many late medieval and early modern coins which have fetched impressive prices at auction over the years. For instance, the Double Leopard gold florin, which was minted by the government of King Edward III of England in 1344, is one of the world’s most valuable coins. These had an extremely high face value when they were struck in the mid-fourteenth century and consequently were not made in great numbers. Only three are known to have survived down to the present day, one of which sold for nearly half a million pounds sterling in 2006. Similarly, a Double Rose noble piedfort minted at the Dutch city of Kampen, a member of the late medieval Hanseatic League of trading cities, sold very recently for nearly one million US dollars. Indeed, many coins from the High Middle Ages and the Late Medieval period would actually fetch considerable sums of money on the open market today, but the issue here is that these coins, where they are well-preserved and made of gold or high-quality silver, are often owned by museums and governments and are consequently not for sale. As one enters the early modern period coins were becoming ever more plentiful as trade and government activity expanded enormously across Europe. As a result, we find very few instances of coins fetching huge amounts of money from the years between 1400 and 1750. The notable exceptions are gold ducat coins from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which were minted during the long reign of King Sigismund III in that part of Eastern Europe between 1587 and 1632. Two of these sold for $2.1 million and $1.38 million in auctions in 2018 and 2008 respectively. But these are exceptions to the rule and generally early modern coins have a lower value than those of other eras.[8]


            What of Asia and other regions outside of Europe, one might ask at this juncture? Curiously enough, the most valuable coins from many parts of Asia and other regions also date to more recent centuries than say, for instance, Han Dynasty China or the Indus Valley Civilization thousands of years ago. When one looks to the subcontinent the rarest and most valuable coins for collectors today are gold mohur coins dating to the period of the Mughal Empire, an Islamic power which ruled much of India between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The most valuable of all are the ‘Wine Cup’ gold mohur and the ‘Zodiac’ gold mohur coins, both dating to the reign of the Emperor Jahangir who ruled from 1605 to 1627. These sell at auction for anywhere between $150,000 and $240,000 today. Further east the most valuable Chinese coins date to the nineteenth century. For instance, it is widely perceived that the rarest Chinese coin is the 1897 Kuang-Hsu Proof Dollar. These were made out of silver for the people of Kiangnan by the Heaton mint in England. Curiously, though, they were never actually brought into circulation and the number of them to have survived is extremely small. As a consequence they are worth about a quarter of a million dollars today. Many of the other most valuable Chinese coins today date to a similar time period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when China was undergoing dramatic political change and many different types of coins were being produced, before being quickly removed from circulation. As a result, these have become rare coins.[9]  


            The twentieth century has seen a gradual decline in the production of rare coins as paper notes began to replace valuable coins struck from gold and silver and as the gold standard was gradually abandoned as the monetary basis of the economies of developed nations. Thus, for instance, while coins produced by Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and other totalitarian regimes which significantly shaped the history of the twentieth century have an incidental historical value for numismatists and collectors, they are generally not of any major value, as they were typically produced in huge numbers and more often than not out of cheap, valueless materials such as aluminium, nickel and zinc.[10]       


            The major exception to this trend is the United States, the titan of modern age rare coins and indeed rare coins throughout recorded history. For instance, of the ten most expensive coin sales of all time, nine were produced in the United States. Two of these were 1933 Double Eagle gold coins worth twenty dollars at the time of minting. Three were copies of the Brasher Doubloons noted earlier, one was a 1794 Flowing Hair dollar, one was an 1822 Half Eagle, another was an 1804 Bust Dollar, and number ten on that list is a $10 Proof Eagle made from gold and struck in 1804. The only coin which features on this top ten list is one of the surviving copies of the Umayyad Gold Dinar minted in 723 AD detailed above. And this pattern continues as one continues down the list of the most expensive coins in the world. Approximately 85% of the coins which have sold for in excess of $600,000 dollars globally at any time were either produced by the United States federal government or were some anomalous coins such as the Brasher Doubloons which were struck in the United States in any event. Thus, for numismatists and collectors of all hues who decide to dabble in rare coins, US coins are by far and away the most valuable items to collect today.[11]


            No discussion of rare coin collecting and the art of numismatics in general would be complete without mentioning the most expensive rare coin on Earth. This is intimately connected with King Farouk of Egypt. Born in 1920, he was the penultimate King of Egypt and the Sudan, succeeding his father King Fuad I in 1936 when he was just sixteen years of age. In July 1952 he was forced to abdicate the throne in favour of his infant son, Prince Ahmed Fuad, following a military coup by the Free Officers Movement in Egypt. He subsequently spent much of the remaining thirteen years of his life in exile in Europe. While reigning as king and afterwards in retirement Farouk amassed one of the most significant rare coin collections ever assembled. This included one of approximately two dozen surviving 1933 Double Eagle 20 dollar gold coins. Farouk acquired his one in 1944, however it disappeared following the coup of 1952 and did not surface again until 1996. It was subsequently purchased at auction in 2002 by Stuart Weitzman, who recently sold the coin at auction through Sotheby’s on the 8th of June 2021. It sold for $18,872,250, making it by far and away the most expensive rare coin on Earth, surpassing the ten million dollars which had been paid for a 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar in January 2013.[12]


            The near $20 million dollars which the Double Eagle fetched at auction in 2021 is indicative of how valuable some rare coins are. Indeed, they are only getting more valuable with each passing year. Four of the five most expensive coins in history were sold at auction in 2021. Of the one-hundred most expensive coins to ever be sold only seven were sold during the twentieth century. The other 93 were all sold in the early twenty-first century, indicating that there is serious inflation in the rare coin market. Thus, while the foregoing has sought to highlight how modern coins, and above all US rare coins, are the most valuable coins extant today, the market in rare coins continues to grow and will doubtlessly become even more lucrative in years to come.[13]







[1] [accessed 26/5/22].

[2] [accessed 27/5/22].

[3] Michael Hodder, ‘Brasher’s Lima Style Doubloon’, in John Kleeberg (ed.), The Money of Pre-Federal America (New York, 1992), pp. 127–157; Walter Breen, ‘Brasher and Bailey: Pioneer New York Coiners, 1787–1792’, in Harold Ingholt (ed.), Centennial Publication of the American Numismatic Society (New York, 1958), pp. 137–145; [accessed 28/5/22]; Colin P. Elliot, ‘The Acceptance and Value of Roman Silver Coinage in the Second and Third Century AD’, in The Numismatic Chronicle, Vol. 174 (2014), pp. 129–152.

[4] [accessed 26/5/22].

[5] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London, 2016).

[6] [accessed 27/5/22]; [26/5/22]; [accessed 27/5/22]; [accessed 28/5/22].

[7] [accessed 26/5/22]; [accessed 25/5/22]; M. Dhénin and P. Leclercq, ‘The coins of Quentovic from the Cuerdale hoard in the museum of Boulogne-sur-Mer’, in British Numismatic Journal, Vol. 52 (1982), pp. 104–107; Ann-Marie Pettersson (ed.), The Spillings Hoard: Gotland’s Role in Viking Age World Trade (Visby, 2009); Michael Kenny, ‘The Geographical Distribution of Irish Viking Age Coin Hoards’, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 87C (1987), pp. 507–525.

[8] [accessed 27/5/22]; [27/5/22]; G. C. Brooke, ‘Florin Issue of Edward III’, in The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 16 (1916), pp. 105–107; [accessed 28/5/22].

[9] [accessed 28/5/22]; [accessed 28/5/22]; R. B. Whitehead, ‘Some Notable Coins of the Mughal Emperors of India’, in The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 3 (1923), pp. 115–149.

[10] Lawrence Lande and Tim Congdon, ‘John Law and the Invention of Paper Money’, in RSA Journal, Vol. 139, No. 5414 (January, 1991), pp. 916–928; Paul Hallwood, Ronald MacDonald and Ian W. Marsh, ‘As Assessment of the Causes of the Abandonment of the Gold Standard by the U.S. in 1933’, in Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 67, No. 2 (October, 2000), pp. 448–459; [accessed 26/5/22]; John Perkins, ‘Coins for Conflict: Nickel and the Axis, 1933–1945’, in The Historian, Vol. 55,  No. 1 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 85–100. 

[11] [accessed 27/5/22]; Mark Dickie, Charles D. Delorme Jnr. and Jeffrey M. Humphreys, ‘Price Determination for a Collectible Good: The Case of Rare U.S. Coins’, in Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 1 (July, 1994), pp. 40–51; Walter Breen, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (New York, 1988); Robert E. Preston, History of the Monetary Legislation and of the Currency System of the United States (Philadelphia, 1996); Dan Taxay (ed.), The US Mint and Coinage (Second Edition, New York, 1983).

[12] Elizabeth Birdthistle, ‘“Holy grail of coins” with King Farouk and US Secret Service connection in Sotheby’s sale: Coin and two stamps collected by US designer could be worth €31 million’, The Irish Times, 27 March 2021; [accessed 27/5/22]; [accessed 28/5/22]; Willaim Stadiem, Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk (New York, 1991); Hugh McLeave, The Last Pharaoh: Farouk of Egypt (New York, 1970).

[13] [accessed 28/5/22].

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