If you bid sight unseen on coins at auction there is a better than average chance that you will buy an overgraded, low end item. I recently spoke with a collector who was new to the rare gold coin market. He purchased a few books from me and we chatted about various branch mint issues for around thirty minutes.
The next thing I knew, he called me and told me that he had entered bids on around fifty lots in a major firm’s auction. I didn’t know this person well enough to yell at him (plus he was way too nice a person for me to raise my voice at) but, after talking for a few minutes, I found out that he had literally looked through a Heritage catalog like it was the latest offering from a clothing retailer and ordered one of this and one of that; like it was pants, shirts and ties.
Here’s the problem with blindly bidding at a coin auction. Despite what you might think, it is IMPOSSIBLE to accurately grade or determine the appearance of any coin based solely on an image. To see the fine nuances of a coin, such as luster and the quality of the surfaces, you absolutely must see it in person and view it in three dimensions.
When I mentioned this to the collector, he stated that the descriptions in the catalog told him most of what he needed to know. I, in turn, mentioned that these descriptions are written by employees of the auction company and while interesting to read, they tend to dwell on the positives of a coin rather than the negatives.
It is a huge disadvantage to a bidder to not see a coin. He is bidding against experts such as myself who are not only more knowledgeable about gold coins than he is but have had a chance to see the coins in person, view them in good lighting and use a magnifying glass if necessary. With these advantages, there is just no way that a sight-unseen bidder stands a chance against me.
Unless there is something wrong with the coin. Here’s a good rule of thumb for coin auctions: the worst lots in the sale—the ones that dealers pass between themselves during pre-sale viewing and giggle about—are the ones that ALWAYS wind up selling to “smart” collectors who bid sight unseen.
The collector has a few options in his arsenal. He can hire an agent to view the coins for him. He can establish a relationship with the auction company and have lots sent to him for pre-inspection. Or if he’s really lucky, he can find someone he trusts at the auction company to look at the coins for him and give him judgments.
Auction companies have dome a masterful marketing job convincing the new collector that the auction experience is totally without pitfalls and the fact that there is an underbidder for every coin means that no purchase has more than 5 to 10% downside. Wrong! What if the other bidder(s) on a certain lots is also uninformed and the smart bidders (i.e., those who had actually seen the coin) dropped out at 30 or 40% lower?
Bidding at auction is a great way to add rare coins to your collection but just remember that if you are bidding based solely on images, flowery descriptions and price histories from other auctions you are setting yourself up for a potential disaster.