As I get ready to head to Philadelphia for this year's ANA, I'm in a reflective mood. This is my 30th consecutive year of attending this show and my thoughts go back to my first ANA as a professional: Boston 1982. Let me set the scene for you. Although I had attended two ANA shows before (the hometown New York edition of 1976 and the New Orleans version in 1981), the 1982 ANA was my first show as a full-time professional numismatist. Bright-eyed and eager, I had recently moved to Dallas, TX to start work for Steve Ivy Rare Coins. My first task in Dallas was to help write the catalogs for the ANA auction; Steve Ivy Rare Coin Auctions had been awarded the official sale and put together a sale that, while not well-remembered today, was replete with amazing quality coins and numerous rarities.
What a lot of people forget about the coin market in 1982 is that it was dismal. After the amazing precious metals price run-ups in 1979 and 1980, the market crashed in 1981 and by 1982, you literally couldn't give coins away. More on that in a second...
Steve Ivy Rare Coins (which was to soon merge with Jim Halperin to form Heritage Rare Coins) was a great example of just how badly the coin market had been devastated. In 1979-1980, I believe that there were close to 200 people working at the firm. After the market tanked in 1981, most of the staff was let go. When I was hired, I think there were something like a dozen people on the staff. Amazing as it seems today, this small group of employees was tasked with the responsibility of putting together an ANA sale, selling the coins and collecting the money; not to mention the normal buying and selling associated with the show.
I vaguely remembered thinking that Steve would be relying very heavily on me at the show. I was certainly going to help with the auction and I assumed that he'd have me run around and buy coins for him.
Just before the convention began, I met with Steve and he gave me an idea of what my main goal for the show was. To say that my balloon was quickly deflated is an understatement. But let me set this Ego Affront up better so the punch line will make more sense...
As I mentioned above, the coin market in 1982 was appallingly bad. There were tons and tons of great coins around and, compared to the heady days of 1979 and 1980, prices were cheap; sometimes as low as thirty or forty cents on the dollar. The problem was that no one had any money or any confidence in the market.
But, there was, it turned out, one person who was buying coins. His name was Hugh Sconyers.
Hugh wasn't a real numismatist; he was involved in the investment world and he was known as being one of the smartest people to ever walk a bourse floor. He represented a group of investors who thought coins, in 1982, were cheap and he set out to buy millions of dollars of choice and rare United States pieces. His buying would peak at the Eliasberg sale in October 1982 where he spent millions of dollars on amazing coins.
I never really knew Hugh that well; just mostly by sight and by reputation. I was told his checks were good (no simple feat in 1982...), he was at the show solely to buy coins and this made him The Most Wanted Man at Boston ANA. There was a bit of a problem though. Hugh was a "personality buyer." What I mean by this is that Hugh bought coins mostly from people he knew and trusted. This meant that a number of dealers who would have given their first born child to have an hour with Hugh at the table buying their coins would never have the opportunity.
As soon as Steve Ivy found out about Hurricane Hugh, he called me over and gave me a new job at the show. The conversation, which lasted about thirty seconds, went like this:
Steve: I want you to stop whatever you are doing and follow Hugh Sconyers around the show and take notes about what he's buying. I want to know who he buys from, what he's buying, and how much he's paying. What are you waiting for? Go!
Me: Uh, OK.
So my first day at my first ANA show as a professional coin dealer went like this: I had a note pad and a pen and I followed Hugh from a distance. Let's say he stopped at Joe Flynn's table. I figured my job was to get just close enough that I could spy on Hugh and give a detailed report to Steve. So as Hugh was flipping through Flynn's double row boxes, I was at the next table pretending to look at coins out in the nearby case(s). Or something like that...
I think I did this for about thirty minutes until Hugh turned around and stared at me while he was at another dealer's table. He had to be thinking at this point: "who is this kid following me and what does he want?"
I don't remember how much longer I bird-dogged Sconyers or how my report to Steve Ivy went later that day. I do remember that something else came up within an hour or two that was even more potentially life-changing for the company and I was sent on my way to put out the fire.
Did Hugh ever come over to buy coins from Steve Ivy at the 1982 Boston ANA? I don't know the answer to that but I'd like to think he did. And I've got to think he was happy that the strange kid in the ill-fitting suit who was following him earlier in the show had disappeared.