How to Make
By Mike Thorne
As a college
professor for many years, I begin each course by
defining the subject. In Introductory
Psychology, for example, I define psychology as
the scientific study of behavior. From there, I
go on to tell students what I mean by
"scientific study" and "behavior."
But this is not psychology, although there may
be some psychology involved, so I will begin
this article by defining what I mean by "cherrypicking."
This is a term you may have heard used by coin
dealers or collectors without knowing exactly
what it meant.
As it is used in the coin market, cherrypicking
refers to buying a coin that, for some reason,
is really worth more (often much more) than the
price you paid for it. Continuing with the fruit
terminology, cherrypicking may refer to finding
a cherry mixed in with a group of prunes (or
dried plums, as the prune sellers would have us
As it turns out, there is more than one way to
cherrypick coins, but they all require one
thing: differential knowledge. That is, in order
to be a successful cherrypicker, you need to
have knowledge that the current owner of the
"cherry" doesn't have.
Where are you going to acquire this differential
knowledge? Are there classes on cherrypicking?
Well, if there are, I'm not aware of them. For
the most part, you're going to have learn to
cherrypick on your own.
One thing you'll find, however, is that the
knowledge needed to be a successful cherrypicker
is not hidden. In fact, it's readily available
from such sources as bookstores and online
You may have heard one of the oft-quoted (and
still true) lines in numismatics: Buy the book
before you buy the coin. To this line, I would
add "and read it." That is, I think the old
saying should be: Buy the book and read it
before you buy the coin.
Too many people buy the right books and then
either never open them or skim through them
looking at the pictures. Neither of these
behaviors will make you a successful
cherrypicker. In fact, you'll actually have to
study and digest the material in order to become
So what books am I talking about? A couple of
the best of the breed actually have a form of
the word "cherrypicking" in their titles. I'm
referring to Fivaz and Stanton's Cherrypickers'
Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States
Coins, now midway into its fifth edition. That
is, Cherrypickers' Guide comes in two volumes,
and the fifth edition of the first volume has
just ,been published as I write this.
Presumably, the new edition of the second volume
will soon follow.
With a list price of $39.95 per volume, the
complete set of Cherrypickers' Guide is not
cheap, but the information the books contain is
invaluable. Of course, it's quite possible that
you won't need both volumes to be a successful
cherrypicker, if you decide to follow my
recommendation to specialize. By this, I mean
that you may be a better cherrypicker if you
focus on one or a few series rather than trying
to cherrypick in all series.
By way of analogy, look at what has happened in
university subjects: Each field of study has
become more and more differentiated, with
smaller and smaller areas of specialization. A
student today becomes an expert in one small
area of specialization rather than trying to
become a generalist and learn everything there
is to know about the entire field.
The reason for this, of course, is that there's
too much knowledge for anyone to know everything
about a subject. And this is also true of coin
series. There is so much known about popularly
collected and well-researched series that it
would be virtually impossible for any one person
to learn all there is to know about many
As a result, the most successful collectors and
cherrypickers tend to specialize, to focus their
efforts on one or two or perhaps a few series.
In this way, they become experts in those series
and know exactly what to look for if they have a
Let's say that you decide to specialize in
Lincoln cents before 1959, the wheat ears
variety. If you consult the 2009 edition of U.S.
Coin Digest, published by Krause Publications,
you'll find that beyond the basic date-mintmark
varieties, there are 14 die varieties and
overmintmarks (e.g., S over D, or vice versa).
Of course, some of these are well known and
quite popular (e.g., 1922 "no D," 1955 doubled
By contrast, I counted 69 varieties described in
the first volume of the new edition of
Cherrypickers' Guide. Obviously, if you want to
cherrypick Lincoln cents, then you need to study
Fivaz and Stanton's book.
Let me give you a few examples of the die
varieties described in words and pictures in
Cherrypickers' Guide. On p. 98, for example,
there's a doubled-die obverse 1927 Lincoln,
which is described as follows: "Moderate
doubling is evident on the LIBE of LIBERTY, IN
GOD WE TRUST, and slightly on the date." This
variety is worth considerably more than the
normal coin, which ranges in value from $1 to
$50 in grades Very Fine through Mint State-65.
In the same grades, the range for the doubled
die is from $5 to $150.
On p. 99, there is a repunched mintmark on a
1929-S Lincoln. The variety is described as
having a "secondary S mintmark . . . evident
north of the primary mintmark." The authors
comment, "This RPM is considered rare, and is
tough to locate in any grade."
One book will not be enough for a true
specialist, however, no matter how good it is.
Other books you'll want to study are Shane
Anderson's The Complete Lincoln Cent
Encyclopedia, David Lange's The Complete Guide
to Lincoln Cents, and Q. David Bowers' A Guide
Book of Lincoln Cents. All of these were
available on Amazon when I looked.
Of course, you would expect to find a wealth of
information on a series as popular as Lincoln
cents. What about other, less widely collected,
Here, too, you're likely to find a book or books
on the subject. For example, for the last few
years Whitman Publishing has been issuing
individual guide books for either single series
or for a group of series. These are called
Official Red Books to link them with Whitman's
long-running guide to retail coin values, A
Guide Book of United States Coins.
According to the Lincoln cents guidebook, some
of the other series covered by Official Red
Books are gold $20s, type coins, modern proof
sets, Buffalo and Jefferson nickels, Flying
Eagle and Indian Head cents, Barber silver
coins, Morgan dollars, and Seated Liberty silver
coins. Each of the volumes in this series is
numbered, and the highest one I have is number
12 (gold dollars), which should give you some
idea of the broad array of coin series covered.
Years ago, David Lawrence Rare Coins (DLRC)
published a lengthy series of books about
individual coin series. The title of each book
began The Complete Guide to&, and some of the
guides covered each of the Barber series,
Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Seated Liberty
half dimes, Seated Liberty half dollars, and
Walking Liberty half dollars. I checked their
availability on Amazon and found that some are
not available, whereas others are listed but
often at humongous prices. For example, the
guide to Walking Liberty half dollars, written
by Bruce Fox and published in 1993, is
represented by five used copies, with prices
ranging from $164.95 to $237.06. When new, the
list price on this book was $29.95. If you can
find copies of any of the books in this series
at reasonable prices, you should buy them both
for the information they contain and for their
Zyrus Press has recently entered the
collectibles publishing market, and several of
their books contain worthwhile information for
anyone interested in cherrypicking particular
series. For example, in 2007, Zyrus published
the fourth edition of J.H. Cline's Standing
Liberty Quarters, which is the definitive work
on that series. On their Web site, they list
such titles as A Handbook of 20th-Century U.S.
Gold Coins: 1907-1933 (2nd edition), The
Authoritative Reference on Buffalo Nickels, A
Buyer's Guide to Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars
of the United States, and Collecting and
Investing Strategies for Walking Liberty Half
Kevin Flynn is a prolific writer of books that
will prove invaluable to the budding
cherrypicker. Some of his books, often written
with another author, have been published by
Stanton Printing & Publishing (www.stantonbooks.com),
whereas others have been published by Brooklyn
Galleries Coins & Stamps, Inc. Some of the
titles include The Authoritative Reference on
Three Cent Nickels, Treasure Hunting Liberty
Head Nickels, The Authoritative Reference on
Barber Dimes, Treasure Hunting Mercury Dimes,
and The Best of the Washington Quarter Doubled
As you can see from this partial listing of book
series and authors, there's a wealth of
information available about die varieties in
popularly collected series and also in some of
the less popular series (e.g., nickel three-cent
pieces). My suggestion is to pick a series or
two that you really like and then accumulate and
study as many of the die variety guides to that
series as you can. Then put your knowledge into
action at the next coin show you attend.
Of course, that brings up the question: In what
venues can you apply your cherrypicking skills?
Obviously, I think you can cherrypick dealers at
coin shows, but are there other places where
cherrypicking can occur?
One place is coin shops. Years ago I was
visiting relatives in Houston, and one of my
nephews and I set out to visit some coin shops
in the city. Although we never made it downtown,
we did locate a small shop near Rice University.
As it turned out, the proprietor specialized in
Latin American coins, which meant that when he
bought collections for the scarce Mexican
issues, for example, he wholesaled out all the
Some of these U.S. coins were dumped into a
large "junk" box, which was kept on the counter.
My nephew and I were invited to rummage through
the box to see if there was anything of
Well, I've seen junk boxes at coin shows and
flea markets that really lived up to the name.
That is, there was nothing but junk (e.g., badly
worn and/or damaged Indian Head cents, rusty
Shield and Liberty Head nickels, bent half
dimes, etc.) in them, and this material was
often overpriced. By contrast, the junk box that
I looked through at the coin shop in Houston
contained nothing but nice coins, and they were
priced ridiculously low. As just one example
that I remember, there was a solid Fine 1915-S
Buffalo nickel with $1 marked on the holder.
Now, this was more than 25 years ago, when the
1915-S Buffalo was worth a lot less than now,
but suffice it to say that even then the coin
was worth considerably more than $1. When I
discovered the wealth of material in the box, I
made a huge mistake that should provide a lesson
to anyone who wants to be a cherrypicker: If you
find something worth considerably more than it's
priced, take full advantage of it.
For reasons I can no longer recall, I bought
something like $20 worth of coins from the box.
What I should have done, of course, was to ask
the dealer to quote me a price on the whole lot
plus any more U.S. material he wanted to sell.
Here was my chance to "break the bank," and I
Years earlier, when I was a kid going through
sacks of coins almost daily, I found a
combination coin shop and bookstore in downtown
Shreveport. Although the word hadn't been
adapted for use in the realm of coins, I spent
hours cherrypicking the coins in this shop. The
reason I was able to do this was that I knew a
great deal more about grading than did the shop
Trades were done, according to Red Book values,
which were minuscule relative to today's values.
The way the trade worked, I could have any of
their coins at double Red Book for my coins at
Red Book. Sounds like a sweet deal for the
owners, right? The kicker was that they knew
little or nothing about grading. In particular,
in their eyes a coin was just as valuable with
damage as it was without.
You can probably guess what happened. I gave
them all my culls at Red Book for their nice
coins at twice Red Book. In this way, I was able
to acquire such coins as two uncirculated 1936-D
quarters, several AU and uncirculated 1931-D
dimes, and a VG-F 1908-S Indian Head cent.
Of course, this experience highlights another
way that you can cherrypick: by knowing more
about grading than the person you're dealing
with. Cherrypicking by grade is done both with
raw coins and with certified coins, and you may
have even heard of people who play the "crackout"
game. That is, they buy a certified coin they
think is undergraded, crack it out of its
holder, and resubmit it to either the same
grading service or to another service in the
hope of having it returned with a higher grade
than the one at which they bought it.
One key to playing this game is to focus on
coins that have a dramatic change in value from
one grade to another. For example, if you bought
an 1892-S Morgan dollar graded MS-63 that you
really thought was an MS-64 or -65, you could
double your money (or more) if you turned out to
be right. Of course, this is an extreme example,
but there are many better-date coins that take a
big jump in value from one grade to the next.
Now, the secret to cherrypicking by grade is to
be an expert at grading a particular series. And
you can get this knowledge by studying grading
guides and the guides to single series in some
cases. (Many of the books that I mentioned above
have sections on grading the particular series
For circulated coins, one of the grading guides
you should study is Photograde: Official
Photographic Grading Guide for United States
Coins, by James F. Ruddy, which claims to be in
its 19th edition. Actually, most of the "new"
editions are really new printings, but I
quibble; this is a good book to have in your
library (and its contents in your head).
Another one that's a must for circulated and
uncirculated coins is The Official American
Numismatic Association Grading Standards for
United States Coins (6th edition). Opt for the
spiral-bound version, as this is a book that
should see a lot of use. All of the grading
guides I'll mention are quite inexpensive, by
the way. Amazon lists this one new for only
$11.53 plus shipping.
A rather quirky grading guide that's
particularly worthwhile for its discussion of
grading uncirculated coins is The Official Guide
to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection (2nd
edition), prepared by Professional Coin Grading
Service (PCGS). Amazon's price for this large
paperback book is just $13.57 plus shipping.
Last but definitely not least is Whitman's new
grading book by Q. David Bowers, Grading Coins
by Photographs: An Action Guide for the
Collector and Investor. In addition to
full-color photographs of coins to illustrate
each major grade, Bowers' book contains a wealth
of information on the general topic of grading,
including the striking characteristics of coins
in particular series.
As an example of why you should study this book
carefully, particularly if you're interested in
cherrypicking by grade, here's a quote from the
introduction to Chapter 5, "Smart Grading and
Buying": "A lot of knowledge can be very
beneficial. If you read this text carefully, and
combine this with some field work examining
coins in person, you will know that a coin
graded by someone else as EF-40, or MS-65, or
some other number, may have features far beyond
the number indicated." As a result, it may be
ripe for picking.
Getting back to the topic of venues for
cherrypicking, I am told that you can cherrypick
at antique malls, although I have never
encountered such an opportunity myself. When
they've had them at all, the coins at the
antique malls I've visited have typically been
common, usually cleaned, and always overpriced.
However, a numismatic friend with whom I've
corresponded has had different experiences.
For example, he told me recently about a gem
1903 Indian Head cent he purchased for $42. He
writes that it's "virtually flawless," and he
would grade it MS-67 and appraise its value at
$20,000. Although this value may be somewhat
optimistic, if it certifies at least MS-65, it's
worth considerably more than he paid for it.
Another venue in which I've had some success
involves eBay auctions. I had several
cherrypicking experiences with an eBay seller
that I found to be a quite conservative grader.
In one such experience, I bought a common-date
Seated Liberty quarter the dealer graded
Extremely Fine and sold it as an AU to another
dealer at the next coin show I attended, more
than doubling my money.
Similarly, a 1929-D Walking Liberty half that I
bought from one of his auctions as an EF came
back from a major grading service in an About
Uncirculated-55 holder. Again, this resulted in
a healthy profit for me, the cherrypicker.
As I think you can see from this discussion, if
you acquire differential knowledge about a
particular series, either about scarce die
varieties or about grading, you can apply this
knowledge to your advantage in a variety of
settings. In fact, I believe that you can
cherrypick in virtually any setting in which
coins are exchanged for money.
Is cherrypicking easy? Not really. If it were
easy, then everybody would do it. I can tell
you, however, that the first time you do it
successfully, you'll get a rush of pleasure that
will make all your hard work and study