Understanding Price Guides (2015/16)
We are blessed that we have pricing catalogues to enhance our hobby - it is a good thing. The variety of types and indeed grades available across the whole spectrum of British coinage is wide but finite. Whilst strictly speaking the same can be said, in general, for antiques, it is almost impossible to catalogue all the makers of furniture or metalware for example, let alone all their output. A concise price guide for individual pieces is therefore out of the question. The price guides that we have in numismatic circles help collectors (and indeed dealers) to know what the estimated retail market value is for a given coin type, and virtually all the main varieties are listed. But the catalogues we have available are precisely that – a guide!
It is worth exploring catalogue price vs.catalogue price and catalogue price vs. market price in a little more detail to illustrate the point. Probably the most widely used catalogues containing prices are ‘Coins of England & the United Kingdom’ by Spink, ‘Coin Yearbook’ by Token and ‘British Coins Market Values’ by MyTimeMedia Ltd. The references in the Spink publication are most often being used by dealers to reference a particular coin type. So how do the prices in the catalogues compare? A few examples illustrate the difficulties. A Cnut pointed helmet type penny has a book price of £140 in Fine and £300 in Very Fine in British Coins Market Values and £115 and £260 in the Spink catalogue. The Spink volume lists a second period Edward VI sovereign at £6000 in Fine and £20,000 in Very Fine, British Coins Market Values at £9000 and £25,000 for the same coin. The Coin Yearbook only gives a summary of types and prices for hammered so this is excluded from this comparison. A final comparison for hammered coinage is an Elizabeth I crown which is listed as £1500 in Fine in ‘Coins of England & the United Kingdom’ and £1975 in ‘British Coins Market Values’. The milled issues show even more variation. A Cromwell shilling in extremely fine is listed at £4000 in ‘Coin Yearbook’, £2950 in ‘British Coins Market Values’ and £4250 in ‘Coins of England & the United Kingdom’ and an Anne 1706 post-union five guineas as £2950, £6000 and £22,000 in Fine to Extremely Fine in ‘British Coins Market Values’, £3000, £7000, £21,000 in ‘Coin Yearbook’ and £3500, £9000, £37500 in ‘Coins of England & the United Kingdom’! As a final example an 1873 shilling in UNC books at £250 in ‘Coin Yearbook’, £275 in ‘British Coins Market Values’ and £525 in ‘Coins of England & the United Kingdom’.
So, there is clearly a bit of an issue in using a price guide as ‘gospel’! The discrepancies come from the fact that the different catalogues are compiled and edited by different people and that each can only put a certain amount of time and effort into monitoring and adjusting all the prices – there are a lot of them. As such some are inevitably adjusted by a percentage across the board rather than examined individually. To a lesser extent prices can be out of date by the time the catalogue is printed though this is often only an issue when there is a sudden surge in popularity for a particular type and is rarely an issue across the board unless the market is moving at a ferocious pace.
This isn’t the complete story though. The other factor which, on the face of it, gives the appearance that catalogue values can be inaccurate is so called ‘eye appeal’ or desirability. A hammered coin of a given type in Very Fine condition can take on a wide range of appearances. For example it can be on a small and irregular or full and well spread flan; it can be nicely struck or have weaker areas; it can be bright and porous or can have beautifully toned surfaces; it may or may not have a good provenance. Clearly a full, nicely toned and struck example with a good provenance is likely to be worth considerably more than a weakly struck, porous example on an irregular flan – but technically they may both be very fine! And which does the book price represent? The answer is neither or an average for the type - it is just a guide!