Determining Value for ANY Columbian Medal or Collectible

As I was working earlier this evening on my next book, COLUMBIAN RARITIES, the subject of “value” popped up several times. So, while I have discussed some of the material included in this article in previous Journal articles and definitely in myriad discussions, the scope of detail and analysis here as an overall assessment of value/worth is significantly different and more expansive. I hope you will find this material both interesting and helpful.

The mere mention of value is sure to get a response, although those responses aren’t always from appreciative readers; there are few collector topics that can elicit as much frustration and comment as value, worth, feeling overcharged or cheated, etc.

True, this topic applies for just about any collectible. There are idiosyncrasies that are unique to certain collectibles: They each have their own identity for lack of a better term. Columbiana is no different.

My last article here brought up many questions regarding perceived values and I have found that just the general question of “value” is right behind “what will this cost me” at the top of questions I hear.

The vast majority of those with whom I’ve discussed my forthcoming book ask if it will be a “price guide.” You, I and thousands of WCE collectors are generally desperate for a legitimate WCE price guide. My bookshelves, as you can imagine, are crowded with price guides and other types of guides for many different collectibles: Numismatics from Civil War tokens to colonial currency and Klondike tokens to Roman coins, many world’s fairs, Olympic games, baseball, autographs and so on. I should also preface that in using the term “guide” from here on (unless I specifically say otherwise) I am talking specifically about PRICE GUIDES, not general information guides. In terms of general guides, I also have a section of floor-to-ceiling book shelves filled with those “general” guides to all aspects of world’s fairs, most predominantly (would there be any doubt?) the World’s Columbian Expo. I can only think of three WCE price guides or general guides that exist, and they are ALL outdated and lack comprehensive data. For those unsure about the three guides to which I refer they are:

The Rossen guide to Columbian collectibles that was published about a half century ago never became a “go to” reference because it was poorly produced, incomplete and its “values” were not very accurate even at the time of publication. I think that every serious WCE collector I know has been so hungry for any good guide that we all probably own a copy of that book. Attesting to its lack of value or completeness, I haven’t opened my copy once in the last 25 years and I suspect that no one else has either.

Doolin’s 1980 guide to Columbian Tickets was outstanding for what it was and unfortunately it was more of a checklist than a book or guide. It was only 20 pages long and its values were vague and general with no text to explain them. It was and remains the most complete checklist of WCE tickets known. Unfortunately, it’s quite outdated. For example, it lists less than half of the more than 50 Day of Sale tickets known today (and discussed in a previous Journal article).

And it also stated as fact that the long-held assumption that those Day of Sale tickets with numbers 1 through 6 as a prefix referred to the six months that the fair was open. Someone, somewhere perhaps decades after the fair felt that seemed reasonable and it was passed along from generation to generation of collectors. As we have noted here and in other texts, those numbers and the letters accompanying them were 100% random and had no other significance. This information can be verified in the post-fair summary written by Harlow Higinbotham, president of the WCE.

The only real text and information other than a brief line accorded each ticket or type of ticket was about the most common tickets, the ones only of value to the more novice collectors. In some instances Doolin listed many random exhibits as having tickets but that “none are known.” That has always bothered me and I’m sure others. Had someone suggested that the concession issued tickets but Doolin had no information, or was he saying simply that this exhibit or concession “perhaps” would’ve had tickets, but none are known? If so, why not list the other 80% of the fair concessions that operated and state that they too had no known tickets if that was the case. There would be value in a reference that listed ALL of the concessions—those with tickets and those without.

In many ways the best of the three sources cited here is the Hibbler & Kappen So-Called Dollar guide; the most recent update (2008) was really just a reprint of the 1963 original; no new entries were added. Columbian SCDs far outnumbered any other entries in the book. Of great interest, and substantial frustration, was the 16-page “Price Supplement” that was issued with the 2008 edition of the book. It was the first book that attempted to provide detailed prices for those 100+ WCE SCDs. But that isn’t even 10% of the WCE medals, tokens and related items known today. And it only addresses SCDs that were listed in the original 1963 edition with no updates or additions in the second edition, a whopping 25 years later.

I should mention two other “guides” that are at least peripheral to this discussion even though they do NOT help with WCE values. The long-out-of-print Eglit book titled “The Medallic History of Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Exposition of 1893” is the major reference to WCE medals. The title is a mouthful for sure. But it does not address values or comparative rarity. And if it was a guide to medallic items one has to wonder why it has a substantial number of non-numismatic pieces scattered throughout. And I am quite sure that when it was published it was quite comprehensive. That no longer is true, yet it is the only such reference out there.

Jeff Shevlin and Bill Hyder have published multiple books that include information on world’s fair SCDs, but thus far none involve Columbian medals. Jeff and others acknowledge working on a sorely needed Columbian medals guide. Since several collectors have said they are in various stages of progress on such a book I am sure that whichever one finally is completed (or if multiples are published) they most assuredly will surpass Eglit in usefulness.

I have developed, produced and/or published about 200 total books since 1980, having written a dozen of them. Just this month I completed a Seattle Century 21 Exposition book with my son Zack. I have several other books on my “to do” list after I finish COLUMBIAN RARITIES. Trying to create the new definitive “Eglit” is not on that list. But I have never been able to give up the idea of publishing a comprehensive guide to WCE tickets. I won’t commit to one just yet, but I have been working to complete a checklist of every Columbian ticket that exists or existed during the fair. This information would form the backbone of such a guide. As an interesting aside when discussing Columbiana values is that the most ever paid for a WCE ticket was for the only known ticket to a concession….that never operated. It was the “Tree of Wonder, Camera Obscura” on the Midway and never operated during the fair. That ticket fetched more than $3,000 in the 2008 Heritage Auction of my Columbian ticket collection. It’s interesting that of the many rare and unique tickets discovered and/or sold in the 14 years since the sale of that ticket, none has reached that highwater mark for a single ticket. The only more expensive ticket sale I am aware of was the $5,500 I paid for a full roll of unused return passes/tickets before 2008.

COLUMBIAN RARITIES (scheduled for late 2022 publication) will NOT be a price guide and never purported to be. But I am quite sure that it will have far greater data on historical selling prices of the hundreds of items included than could be found anywhere else. The book will emphasize medals and tickets and will include (and analyze) prices realized on items since sold beginning in the late 1970s. It will NOT be a catalog or a “price guide,” but most definitely will include information about hundreds of actual prices paid for Columbian rarities. More important, detailed text will accompany this basic historic sales data.

There are two sources of free raw data available to you right now:

  1. Heritage’s gigantic database containing some million or more sales records includes an exhaustive list of Columbian medals sold.
  2. Ebay also maintains a list of sold items. The caveats? There is no context and often not enough information to arrive at an average cost/value. Whatever you do, do NOT make value judgments based on asking prices. A seller can ask any ridiculous price and many do; nothing counts unless it was SOLD.

With all this as background, I cannot cite how many times I have been asked to assign a value to a medal, ticket or other piece of Columbiana. I routinely provide appraisals for clients and probably have sold some 15,000-20,000 WCE items. I have only estimated this number after spending 2019-2022 selling the amazing John Kennel Collection of Columbiana, again predominated by medals and tickets. I estimated that the collection contained about 6,000 items and as I write this, 99% of them have now been sold. I have a small handful of items left, plus a few boxes of books to sell. Period.

The Kennel collection included an overwhelming number of rarities; these will play a major role in COLUMBIAN RARITIES. This book, and any future ticket guide I produce, will include substantial comparative sales data and lists of the rarest known examples and their price history. Perhaps 50 or more individual items in the collection belong on a list of the most valuable Columbian items sold.

This has been a circuitous route to specifics about WCE Columbiana values, but the preceding background is important to understand the context for us in the absence of a bona fide price guide. COLUMBIAN RARITIES will provide an excellent history of prices realized, but will NOT include assigned current values. It WILL include historical sales data and analysis of it.

Examining the HK SCD price supplement shows more holes in it than just missing background data. There is no explanation about the typically broad estimates of values.

Looking at just two very well known medals in the SCD price supplement provide examples of what’s wrong with this price guide. FYI, HK 154 to 243 is the inclusive list of Columbian medals in the SCD guide. These 89 entries (plus variations noted as “A, B, C, etc.”) were determined in 1963 and have not been changed since.

I am discussing HK154 and 155 because of various deficiencies in their listings in the guide. It notes both with the same “value”: $5-$30 circulated and $20-$75 uncirculated.

A better example still is HK 220 to 222, varieties of the very well known liberty head medal, offer additional excellent examples of why I criticize the guide. The HK book (the main body, not the price supplement) provides the following information on the liberty head medals:

  • HK220, bronze, is Eglit 51a (no reference to high or low relief is noted), R5 (assumption high relief since 220a is specifically noted as low relief)
  • HK220a, Eglit 51a, bronze, low relief, R6
  • HK221, Eglit 51, gilt, R6 (not noted as high or low relief)
  • HK222, Eglit 51, aluminum, proof and business strike, R5 indicating that there is no difference between the values of the business strike or the proof.
  • HK222a, no Eglit reference, aluminum, low relief, R6

The price supplement lists all five entries above with the exact same “values:” Circulated, $100-$200 and uncirculated, $200-$600. Think for a moment about these various versions of the liberty head medal. How many times have you owned or just seen each for sale—maybe this year, the last year or even the last 5-10 years. I cannot imagine anyone telling me that they’ve seen them all the same number of times….and for the same price. That’s just nuts.

I have on many occasions questioned the validity of the various “R” ratings used in numismatics and in the HK book. HK154-155 and HK220-222 rarity ratings are suspicious as are the values; the former as noted are $5-$30 circulated and $20-$75 uncirculated. In the latter cases ALL FIVE are listed with identical values of $100-$200 circulated and $200-$600 uncirculated.

These two HK entries can be the poster children for the problems with the HK book and its supplemental price guide.

First, HK155 (small letters, acknowledged by virtually all collectors and sellers as rarer than HK154) is in my estimate as much as 10 times rarer than HK154. On two occasions, one about 15 years ago and the second just 2-3 years ago, I logged the number of each 154 and 155 for sale on Ebay during a several-week period. It’s hardly scientific, but then again it provides far more hard data than any guides over the years. These “tests” showed that about 10 times more 154s than 155s were listed. At the very least this objectively supports the idea that 155 is substantially rarer than 154 and clearly both are NOT R2 as indicated. FYI R2 as used in the HK book represents 2,001-5,000 known. And what about these silly values given? I don’t have a problem saying that circulated price ranges are from $5 to $30, and it seems quite obvious that a $5 medal is a cull or very low grade while a $30 medal is probably a strong AU55-58.

Then why do the uncirculated grades begin at $20, or 1/3 lower than the top circulated price? I have problems with ALL of HK’s price ranges and these two Columbian SCDs are just typical examples for medals familiar to most WCE collectors. Thus, if a range of $20 to $75 for uncirculated specimens is correct then I would say that $20 must be an MS60 up to an MS66-67 being the $75 top of the price range. Since one might find perhaps one example every five or so years graded higher than a 67, we can assume that my MS60-66/67 range is appropriate. But again beating the proverbial dead horse, HK provides no background or justification for its range, nor how one should apply the values to medals within the price ranges. I’ve NEVER seen coins or medals increase in value in direct proportion to their grades, i.e. some MS60 might sell for $50 and an MS63 for $80 and then suddenly an MS65 jumps to $200. Everyone knows that virtually every medal or coin has its own set of facts that affects how those prices change….and rarities work the same way. A given MS60 might be an R3….but in R6 it is vastly rarer.

I won’t delve into the R2 assigned to both the 154/155 other than to offer one comment about the assigned “R” ratings. I believe that most collectors (and likely sellers) consider the rarity number as something RELATIVE rather than thinking “Mmm that must mean there are 2,000 out there based on the R rating.”

Rather, I believe most people utilize this information as a relative comparison to others: R2 is very common, R8-10 are rare and in between R6-7 are scarce; R3-5 are somewhat common and somewhat scarce. If someone knows that a few medals in their collection or their inventory are considered R5s, they can form an opinion about a WCE medal they see noted as an R5 and formulate their own relative opinion. It would be quite common for most any collector to note that he/she has two different medals that are both considered R4s. But of course one is dramatically rarer than the other. And what the heck does that number quantity mean? Is it the whole universe in private and institutional collections and/or just those considered out there for sale, available for purchase at any given moment.

Looking at HK220 to 222 is even more entertaining. Let’s see, we cannot tell from the guide if it is describing a high or low relief in some cases. And do I really believe that ALL of these, from BU low relief to proof high relief are either R5 or R6, and that an HK222 is an R5 whether it’s a proof or uncirculated business strike.

Having owned or sold HK liberty head medals dozens of time over 40 years I can tell you unequivocally that proofs are MUCH MUCH rarer than business strikes. Finally, since I’m criticizing the price guide I should take it a step further and question the designation of some medals as proofs. According to the definition of a proof, among other criteria, it is struck on a specially prepared planchet and struck twice. Has anyone researching the WCE and the production of medals at the fair EVER found a reference to proofs being struck? Or more likely, are they simply first strikes with a new die? And I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’ve seen slabbed medals labeled as both proofs and prooflikes that are absolutely indistinguishable from one another.

I don’t dispute the fact that one could find examples of these liberty head medals at anywhere from $200 to $600, but then what good is a guide that can’t do any better than calling a proof and business strike both R5 and “worth” the same amount?

Will this information help you determine what your HK222 is worth or what you should spend for a proof….or an uncirculated business strike? If the HK price guide allows you to make those determinations then I will apologize profusely for my criticisms. My guess is that I won’t need to be apologizing.

The bottom line IS THE BOTTOM LINE.

If you’re comfortable with a buying or selling price, comfortable you have researched the history of past sales, checked with friends whose knowledge you respect AND noted how those sales (wholesale, retail, last month or in 2020, with or without any defects etc.) align with your proposed transaction, you’re probably way ahead of any price guide. If it’s a common WCE Lord’s Prayer mini medal for $10 or $15, don’t waste any time with the process; if it’s a rarely seen medal that last sold 10 or 15 years ago for $1,000, it might be wise to take care of your due diligence.

Finally, just what is it worth TO YOU?

When you are buying for your own collection you have an advantage over someone buying for resale. You can take all these suggestions into consideration and then decide the medal represents a bit of Columbian history you really want….so why not pay a little more since you may not have the opportunity again? Resellers don’t have that luxury; it wouldn’t be particularly wise for them to match your price when it’s more than they can recoup selling it.

It’s all on your shoulders to do the research and estimate the “value” to you until someone comes up with a comprehensive price guide that can do it for you. .

PLEASE NOTE: I have not held back my criticsm of the HK price supplement and the lack of changes in the book itself. I recognize that the publisher repeatedly vetoed suggested changes and improvements by the editors that would have made this second edition truly an actual revision. Just completing the price guide was a huge step and a helpful one. Unfortunately, writers and editors often have to shoulder the brunt of criticism when in fact the problems are often—quite often!—due to budget constraints imposed by the publisher.

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