Coin Pedigrees: What They Are and What They Mean
In everyday life, the word “pedigree” usually translates to lineage, ancestry or bloodline. It’s a word often used in conjunction with award-winning dog breeds or prestigious families. In numismatics, however, a pedigree (or its fancier French synonym “provenance”) refers to a coin’s past owners. Sometimes this information is of little significance, but in many cases a coin’s pedigree can make it much more desirable.
In the history of American numismatics, certain collections stand out as being of exceptional quality, depth, value or “freshness.” A classic example is the Garrett family collection, which was sold at auction in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Garrett family owned the wildly successful Baltimore & Ohio railroad—and as you can imagine they had quite a bit of disposable income. They were active buyers of major rarities in the late 19th and early 20th century; dealers in the industry knew to offer them to finest and most unusual items.
When the Garrett coins were auctioned, many had not been offered for sale in 60-100 years. Many of the coins were making their first public auction appearance ever, as they previously had been trading privately. In fact some were purchased by the Garretts directly from the US Mint in the 1880s! Collections like these have a “freshness” factor that make them particularly thrilling. When collectors wait decades to see—let alone have the opportunity to purchase—a major rarity, there’s often pent-up excitement.
The Garrett collection was also lauded for its depth and quality. While not complete, the collection contained numerous major rarities including coins that fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1970s! The Garretts also had discriminating taste; due to their substantial wealth they could afford to buy superb quality specimens rather than “fill holes” in their collection with marginal pieces.
As a result of these factors, the Garrett pedigree will often enhance a coin’s marketability, desirability and value. Even somewhat lesser items owned by the Garrett family get a value boost from the pedigree, simply by virtue of the positive association. Collectors assign value to knowing a piece was part of a major collection, especially ones that can be traced back 50 or 100 years into the past.
A common misperception is that the most valuable collections carry the most “Pedigree Caché.” In reality, value alone does not make a pedigree desirable. In the past decade, numerous substantial collections have been hastily assembled and then suddenly liquidated soon thereafter. Since the coins were not off the market for long, they completely lacked a “freshness factor” and looked more like retreads. Even spectacular rarities will figuratively lose their luster if offered for sale repeatedly in a short period of time.
The basic message is that certain pedigrees carry a tremendous amount of weight with coin collectors. This is especially true with carefully assembled collections that have been off the market for many years. The most celebrated pedigrees belong to collections that were built with great care, attention to quality, and patience. For numismatists, it’s more than dollar value that makes a collection memorable and significant.