In most grades, the 1880-O (New Orleans) and 1880-S (San Francisco) silver dollars are common and virtually identical in value. These two dates sell for anywhere between $25 and $40 in circulated grades. Further up the grading scale, however, a major difference emerges. In MS 65 the 1880-S trades for around $150, but the 1880-O commands a hefty $15,000-$20,000 in MS 65! Many collectors might wonder why this disparity exists—and whether it is a common occurrence in numismatics.
While the 1880-O silver dollar might be an extreme example, there are actually many situations where common coins can become extremely rare (and valuable) in higher grades. These extreme spikes in value can be caused by a number of reasons. In the case of the 1880-O dollar, for instance, the New Orleans Mint failed to strike coins with sufficient pressure and force. As a result, 1880-O dollars are very weakly struck and lack sufficient detail to be graded MS 65.

Another contributing factor is how the coins were stored. Large, heavy coins that were stored in canvas bags tend to be heavily abraded and covered with gouges. The 1922 $20 Double Eagle is one such example. Even specimens graded MS 64 sell for less than $2,000. In MS 66, however, the coin’s value explodes. The last MS 66 to sell at auction fetched a record $40,250 in 2012. Compare this to 1908 No Motto $20 gold pieces, of which a significant quantity was carefully stored at the time of issue. That date is worth $2500-$2750 in MS 66 and only $6000-$7000 in MS 67.

A third major influence is how the coins were used in everyday commerce. Some coins, once issued, sat dormant in bank vaults or were preserved as novelties—these coins were more likely to survive in high grade. On the other hand, most coins immediately entered circulation and become “workhorses” of day-to-day transactions. Examples include one-cent pieces from the mid-1800s; these were struck in relatively large quantities but were sorely needed for everyday spending.

Ironically, the opposite phenomenon can take place sometimes, albeit not nearly as often. The 1908-S $10 Eagle comes to mind as a prime example. This is a rarer date in lower grades and is worth a hefty premium in virtually all grades. Yet, ironically, it is one of the most common issues in ultra-high grades of MS 67 through MS 69. This is because the 1908-S was the very first Indian design $10 gold eagle struck in San Francisco; apparently quite a few pieces were put away at the time of circulation as mementos of the new design.

In summary, many United States coins are both common and affordable in lower grades—yet spike dramatically in value at higher grade levels. These issues become scarce at lofty grade levels due to how they were struck, stored or spent. While most common coins are abundant regardless of grade, certain issues have exponential price jumps at higher levels of preservation.