By Dr. Steve Carr
When numismatists talk about rarity, they are expressing their experiences on how hard a certain coin or variety is to find or buy. Generally, if a coin is harder to get, it is considered more rare. This, however, is not always true. Some common coins are just not available at certain times. Also, be aware that rarer coins are not necessarily more costly. The value of a coin depends on the market.
As long as there have been collectors, they have tried to estimate the rarity of their coins. Initially, a coin was considered rare if it was hard to find. Not so hard to find coins were called scarce or common. These descriptions had almost no meaning. What’s the highest number of examples you need to go from rare to scarce? We collectors usually had to trust the rarity rating of a coin to the seller, as they were probably more knowledgeable about the coin. But no one knows everything. We have to go with our gut feelings.
How rare is rare? There might be only one known example, or maybe 50. You, as the buyer, never knew unless you did some more research. This research has to be intensive, as the more coins you see, the more you know about their availability. In the 1800s, that was extremely time consuming.
What was really needed was a rarity scale, a listing that would show how rare certain coins actually were, using the known or estimated number thought to exist for a certain rarity. Such a scale would take collectors and numismatist almost 50 years to develop.
Sylvester Crosby and Dr. Edward Maris were the first to use a rarity scale in their works in the 1870s and 1880s (1). Their scales followed the already existing rarity scale used in Europe. This scale used C (common) and multiples of up to 6 Rs. The scale is as follows:
R Almost common
RRRR Very rare
RRRRR Extremely rare
RRRRRR Unique or highest degree of rarity
This scale, still used in Europe today, has worked fairly well. But the repeating Rs were hard to visualize without study and it was also too indefinite. Unscrupulous people would inflate the rarity of a coin (it still happens today) and people would loose faith in the scale. Also, according to this scale, anything R3 through R6 was rare. Who decided how rare? Usually it was the seller or an author. A number of writers used this scale or a modified version of it. Ebenezer Gilbery (3), for example, expanded the levels to 10 in 1916, but his definitions for the levels were confusing to most collectors. The final author to uses this scale was Howard Newcomb (2), who used it in his book on 1816-1857 large cents, published in 1945.
I’ll always remember one of the first large cents I bought – an 1818 N 4, rated R6 in Newcomb’s book. I was sure I had done something wrong (I did – using the Newcomb book!). There is no reason in the world I should stumble across a rare coin. I questioned my attributing skills, I questioned the accuracy of Newcomb’s work. But the coin was an N 4.
But how rare was it? Newcomb’s book was 50 years old when I used it. Surely, other 1818 N 4s had been discovered. And even if 100 were known (only one was known to Newcomb) how many Rs would be used to describe its rarity? Funny I should say that – there are more than 100 of this variety estimated to exist today.
The Sheldon scale
A better scale was needed. In the late 1940s, Dr. William Sheldon introduced his rarity scale. The number of coins seen or estimated by Dr. Sheldon determined this scale. He had many contacts with other collectors and dealers and was pretty accurate in his rarity ratings. Feeling that the older scale was not as precise as it could be, he increased the number of levels on the scale from 6 to 8. Sheldon’s scale follows:
R 1 More than 2,000 estimated
R 2 601 – 2,000 estimated
R 3 201 – 600 estimated
R 4 76 – 200 estimated
R 5 31 – 75 known/estimated
R 6 13 – 30 known/estimated
R 7 4 – 12 known/estimated
R 8 1 – 3 known
Notice that this scale uses the number known and/or the number estimated to determine the rarity level. No one has seen all the existing large cents - the estimations were guesses based on a variety’s appearances.
This rarity scale was developed for early date American large cents. Any large cent variety with more than 2,000 examples was obviously common. But what about some of today’s coins
The Universal Rarity Scale
A more logical rarity rating scale is The Universal Rarity Scale, developed by Q. David Bowers in the 1980s. This scale is better suited to most coins 1900 to the present. On the Sheldon scale, a 1955 double die cent would be an R 1, or very common. While this is true (there are more than 2,000 known), most of these coins have gone to personal collections and are no longer available to the public. You might see 2-3 at a large coin show, but how many 1880 silver dollars will you see there? Hundreds!
This scale uses a geometric progression and makes a lot of sense. Following is the scale:
URS-0 None known
URS-1 1 known, unique
URS-2 2 known
URS-3 3 or 4 known
URS-4 5 – 8 known
URS-5 9 – 16 known
URS-6 17 – 32 known
URS-7 33 – 64 known
URS-8 65 – 125 known
URS-9 126 – 250 known
URS-10 251 – 500 known
URS-11 501 -1000 known
URS-12 1,001 – 2,000 known
URS-13 2,001 – 4,000 known
URS-14 4,001 – 8,000 known
URS-15 8,001 – 16,000 known
URS-16 16,001 – 32,000 known
This scale continues on forever – just start the next URS level with one coin more than the highest number for the next lower level. Then the highest number known for next lower URS level. This number equals the largest number of coins in the next higher URS level.
Most collectors still use the Sheldon rarity scale (like we still use his grading scale) but many collectors recognize and understand the URS scale. The URS scale is more applicable to more modern coins.
At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that rarity did not always equate to a higher price for the coin. There is also the demand for an item. If 27 of a certain coin are known to exist, but there are only 20 people interested in owning one, supply exceeds demand. You might not be able to sell it!
Some coins are popular, like the 1801 three error reverse cents. This is a Red Book variety that is very common, R 1 in Sheldon’s scale and URS-13 on the Universal Rarity scale. But being a Red Book variety has created lots of interest among collectors. At any coin show, you might find one or two and the price will be higher than an ordinary 1801.
Something else to consider – no matter how rare your item is, there must be demand for it to have financial value. If value is of no interest, enjoy your unique item. But if no one else is interested, your item may still be worthless to everybody, except yourself.
Good luck searching for that rare coin!
1 Crosby, Sylvester, Early Coins of America, 1875 Maris, Dr. Edward, Historical Sketches of the Coins of New Jersey, 188
2 Newcomb, Howard, United States Copper Cents, 1816 – 1857, 1945
3 Gilbert, Ebenezer, United States Half Cents, published by Thomas Elder, 1916