Rare Coin Purchasing Strategies

In 1996, two collectors decided to assemble a million dollar collection of high grade United States coinage. Seven years later, both decided to sell. One now has a collection that is worth upwards of $2 million while the other individual's coins are worth $600,000. What did collector #1 do that was so much smarter than the other? I'd like to say that the answer was as simple as collector #1 carefully listening to me while collector #2 took his advice from other people. And while this is ultimately true, there were a number of important purchase strategies employed by the first collector that were ignored by the other.

Collector #1 did the following: he was patient, he chose his coins carefully, he was loyal, he was not a slave to published bid levels, he reached for the best available coins and he assembled a true collection as opposed to an accumulation. Collector #2 made rash, impulsive purchases, bought coins from a wide variety of sources (some reputable, some not), would never purchase a coin unless it was priced at a "bargain" level and wound-up with a strange, disconnected assemblage of coins rather than a true collection.

It is a good idea to look at some of these points more carefully to understand why one collector did so well while the other did not.

1. For the collector, patience is a virtue: One of the key reasons for the success of collector #1 was his patience. Instead of wildly charging out into the market and buying whatever looked interesting, he was highly selective. In fact, he typically purchased just a few coins each year. Collector #2 was extremely impulsive and purchased some coins that, in retrospect, made no sense. As an example, he bought at least three five-figure coins that he didn't really like and which he knew, even at the time they were bought, that they would have to be upgraded. And he purchased some other coins that had absolutely no thematic tie-in to what he was collecting. These were quickly jettisoned at a significant loss.

2. Always buy the best coins you can afford: If you care about the financial returns provided by your coins (and if you are buying coins that are more than $1,000 each you should) then it is important to buy the best you can afford. A collection should be centered around quality instead of quantity. This means that you will have to tailor your collection around your budget.

Both collector #1 and collector #2 had the same budget but collector #2 wound-up buying dozens of coins while his counterpart only purchased a few. The result was that the first collector had a small collection of superb pieces with enough of a synergistic tie-in that it was more valuable as a whole than as a sum of its parts. The second collector had an assemblage of expensive coins that, because of the presence of a number of "dogs", would have to be broken-up and sold piece-by-piece.

3. If you find one or two dealers you like, stay loyal to them: Yes, this is a self-serving comment. But in the non-numismatic areas that I personally collect, I have followed this advice and it works. If you establish a good relationship with a knowledgeable expert, you are more likely to get good deals from this person. He will be genuinely concerned about the coins he sells you, especially if he knows that he will have a chance to resell them in the future. Because I knew that collector #1 was loyal (and because we became good friends as a result of the time we spent together pursuing his coins) he purchased great coins at fair prices. I immediately figured out that collector #2, while a very good person as well, would never be a faithful customer and that as hard as I tried to earn his loyalty, it just wasn't going to happen. As a result, this made me less enthusiastic to sell him my very best coins.

Collector #2 made another mistake that I think ultimately cost him alot of money. He gave out his want list to a number of dealers. I know of at least two instances when many dealers were competing against each other for a specific rare coin, all thinking that it was for their "own" customer. In reality, everyone was working for the same collector and this allowed the original owner of the coin to hold out for a higher price. When it comes to rare or expensive coins, it is highly advisable to keep your want list as private as possible.

4. Truly rare and choice coins are seldom offered at "bargain" prices: Truly good items, whether they be houses, paintings or coins, are not cheap. You don't get a "deal" on a museum quality Van Gogh just like you don't get to "rip" a problem-free high grade 1793 Chain Cent. Collector #1 understood this and was willing to pay well over Greysheet, Bluesheet or Trends prices when it came to rare, important coins.

Collector #2 was always looking for a deal and would never pay above published price levels, even for rare, early United States issues. He was told again and again that they were impossible to buy at these levels but never took this advise to heart. As a result, when he did buy a significant early type coin, it tended to be a problem piece that was priced cheaply or which savvy buyers had rejected due to quality considerations.

Novice collectors typically do not understand what these published prices represent. The Bluesheet lists low sight-unseen wholesale bids. In other words, if a dealer I didn't know called me up and offered me a 1795 silver dollar in a PCGS AU-50 holder and explained that it was dark, poorly struck and enthusiastically graded, what would my offer be? While it is not impossible to buy nice coins at bluesheet bid levels, it should be understood that most attractive, desirable coins are generally priced at levels above "sheet."

5. Collections are better than assemblages: Many dealers believe that a collection of coins is worth more collectively than the sum of its parts. I generally agree with this but would offer the following caution. In the case of an expensive, high-powered collection it is likely that it will have to be broken-up when it is sold. But if the coins in the collection are properly connected than they can add value to each other. As an example, collector #1 had a small but outstanding group of early coins that were not only very choice but they were first year of issue pieces. It was a true collection that was worth more as a whole than as the sum of its parts, even if it were not realistic to think that it would sell intact.

Collector #2 also specialized in early coins but his grades ranged widely (from Extremely Fine to Mint State-65) and he typically chose "bargain dates" to represent a specific type (as an example he chose a 1795 half dollar instead of a 1794 because it was "cheaper.") When it became time to sell, his coins seemed to be more of a random accumulation than a true collection.