Collecting Coins in Difficult Economic Times

If you are like most people, the last few months have been tough on your pocketbook let alone your psyche. We are, at least for the immediate future, in tough economic times. For some people, there are difficult decisions that have to be made: which bills get taken care of, can the mortgage be paid, do we eat dinner or fill the tank with gas. Fortunately most coin collectors are faced with decisions that are much less dramatic. When people are feeling wealthy, spending discretionary income on something like coins is a no-brainer. You see something you like and you buy it. In a Recession, such purchases become far less impulsive. But I don’t think the coin market is going to come to a screaming halt. Prices may come down (in some cases they may actually raise) but I sense that there will be activity. Simply put, there are just too many people who enjoy numismatics and there is just too much money (in the United States and world-wide) for established hobbies like numismatics to crash. And, if we enter an inflationary period as many experts believe, there could easily be a rush into tangible assets.

That said, I think people’s buying habits will change quite a bit in the next few years. The Irrational Exuberance we saw in the middle part of the decade could be over forever. As someone who has survived a number of lean Numismatic Cycles, I’d like to share some observations on how you can still add coins to your collection, even in tough times.

1. Buy Smart. I can’t begin to tell you the number of purchases I saw in the last few years that were just plain dumb. Collectors battling to the death at auction over coins that weren’t really that nice or rare. Dealers falling all over themselves to buy old holder coins in one grade and paying a price that assured them they would possibly break even if the coin upgraded three points...sheesh!

Being a smart coin buyer means being informed, confident and well-connected. In my opinion, this means taking the time to carefully research the coins that you are contemplating buying, fully understanding the buying and selling process(es) and having a good relationship with a small group of dealers.

I am a huge believer in first impressions being correct. In numismatics, this means having a good feeling about a coin’s appearance, a coin’s price and the person who is selling it. If you have to convince yourself that you like a coin, don’t buy it. If you have to make irrational justifications about a coin’s price, pass. If the person who is selling the coin makes your skin crawl, have a trusted dealer make the transaction for you—or shop somewhere else.

2. Look for Value. I think value is going to be a real buzzword in the coming coin market. You the collector are going to be bombarded with this word but do you really understand it? And, if so, how does it apply to what you collect?

Here’s an example of how I form opinions in regard to value. I have spent quite a bit of time in the last few days doing pricing for the 2010 edition of the Redbook. As I was going through the various sections, one thing that really grabbed my attention was the pricing structure of Extremely Fine Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles. As an example, virtually every C+D half eagle in EF40 is priced at basically the same amount. Sure, there are a few exceptions but we are talking about issues with a wide range of rarity and availability being priced exactly the same. For instance, the 2010 Redbook prices for an 1854-C and an 1858-C half eagle in EF40 are both $2,500. That’s great except for the fact that the 1854-C is a considerably scarcer coin in this grade (and in all grades higher than EF as well). As a value conscious buyer, I’m going to be looking for the 1854-C half eagles of the numismatic world.

When money is tight and you don’t have as much to spend on your hobby as in the past, make your purchases as value-conscious as possible.

3. Think Long Term. There are many collectors who have never known a slow coin market and they’ve been spoiled. In the past few years, they’ve been able to bail themselves out of trouble when they’ve bought “bad” coins by throwing them into auctions and letting the next buyer come along. In some cases, they’ve been able to turn handsome profits on coins that they had no business buying, let alone selling, for a profit. In a slow market, these “unburials” are going to happen with less and less frequency.

There’s a pretty basic solution to this problem. Buy the “right” coins and buy for the long term. You don’t have to become a numismatic “black hole” who never sells any coins (in fact, I urge you to sell from time to time so that you better understand how this part of the market works). But buy every coin as if you were going to hold it for a reasonably long period of time.

4. Eye Appeal, Eye Appeal, Eye Appeal. If the coin market were to tank in the next few years, the coins that are going to maintain their value better than anything else are the ones that are aesthetically appealing. This is particularly true if you collect a series in which the coins aren’t really rare from the standpoint of total number known. Let’s say you collect Proof Seated Liberty Quarters. If you have a set of coins that are all bright white and which show average quality contrast, the chances are good that these coins will devolve into semi-widget status (unless they are in very high grades). The same set with all beautifully toned original coins or with a mix of toned coins and superb black and white cameo pieces is probably likely to retain more of its value and interest levels even in a poor market.

Coins do not have to be expensive to be pretty. And they don’t have to be in ultra high grades to be considered great eye appeal pieces either. Savvy, sophisticated buyers are often more content to purchase a nice EF45 example of a rare date than a marginal quality AU55. The only time you should allow yourself to buy a coin with marginal eye appeal is if essentially every known example of the type or issue is crudely made. But even in the case of an issue like this (an example would be the 1856-D quarter eagle) there are still pieces that despite a crude or “ungainly” appearance have a certain charm to them that make them clearly desirable.

5. Be Patient. I’m a strong believer of being patient even in a bull market. In a slower market, patience is, I believe, imperative. Back in the day, collectors looked at their collections as long-term endeavors. The collector who was assembling a set of Carson City gold looked at his challenge as something that would take many years, not just a few months. I blame the short attention spans of many new collectors on the internet mentality that says “I want it, I must have it NOW!!” Sure, it is possible to complete a set of Carson City gold in a few months. But the collector who rushes his way through a set is certain to make some potentially big mistakes and he is missing out on the fun of the big, long-term picture.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that many so-called “rare” coins are not rare at all. Unless you collect a series that is replete with truly rare coins (Liberty Head eagles would be an example of a series that contains dates that ARE truly rare, in my opinion) don’t sweat it if you missed out on a certain coin on a dealer’s website or at auction. You’ll probably find another one in a few months.

6. Buy Special Coins. Whether you collect Roosevelt Dimes or Proof Liberty Head double eagles there are clearly coins which exist that are “special.” In other words, there is something about them that make the viewer stop and look twice. As an example, when I view lots at an auction, I tend to plow through the coins and after a while they literally all begin to look the same. But then some lot will pop up that make me stop, take a deep breath and exclaim, “man, is that cool/pretty/neat.”

For the Roosevelt Dime collector, this “special coin” might be a piece with monster toning or one that is fully prooflike and very unusual as such. For the Proof Liberty Head double eagle collector, his special coin might be a piece with a Bass, Eliasberg or Norweb pedigree or one with splendid natural hazy orange-gold color.

Special coins can also be pieces that have a great story to tell. I have always liked coins that are one-year types or first-year-of-issue pieces because they can be appreciated by someone who knows nothing about the specific series. Even if you could care less about Dahlonega gold or three dollar gold pieces, the chances are good that you’ll still think an 1854-D three dollar is a pretty interesting coin.

One last thought. In tough economic times, the natural instinct for many people is to panic. Your sense of fear may be played on by some of the numismatic newsletters or ads that you read. Don’t buy into this shameless marketing. If you like collecting coins and you can afford to keep buying them, do so. If you think the world’s economy is going to hell in a hand basket, putting 10% or so of your net worth into a nice coin collection probably isn’t the worst thing you can do. Coin collecting is a great hobby and I hope that you’ll call on me to help you with your purchases whether the Dow is 12,000 or 3,000.