The year was 1995. I can remember my wife Mary telling me that it was really important to establish a presence on the Internet; that it would be the future of the coin business. No way, I thought, people are still going to want to read print ads and receive mailed price lists. The Internet was slow and bulky and you could basically die of old age waiting for each coin image to come up on screen. Sixteen years later, it seems that, as usual, she was right and I was wrong. The Internet has, along with third party grading, changed the coin market like nothing else in history. Why has the Internet been so good for the coin market and what are some of the changes that it has wrought?
The best thing about the Internet for all hobbies has been the dissemination of information. 10 to 15 years ago, if you wanted information about rare coins you had to dig for it. You could open a Redbook and get mintage figures and you could find information about die varieties in various specialized books. But like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, in the past, information was strictly controlled. If you were lucky, you were invited into the secret circle and given some of the information you needed. If you didn't know the secret handshake, you were pretty much on your own.
The impact of the Internet can be felt in a numbers of distinct ways. One is the newest phenomenon of the Internet (better known as Internet 3.0): social networking. Back in the pre-web days if you wanted to meet and talk with other collectors, you had to join a local coin club or, if you were lucky and lived in a town with a good coin shop, you met at the bid board on Saturday and talked coins with other interested locals. Now, it is reasonably easy to connect with fellow collectors and share information, buy and sell coins, talk about which dealers are good or bad, etc. I would expect that Facebook will become a much more important platform for coin collectors in the coming year.
As I mentioned above, the Internet has given collectors access to information that was formerly difficult to acquire. Pricing information from auctions is easier to source than ever before. A decade ago, the only place that compiled annual auction data was Krause Publications' annual auction prices realized book(s). These were expensive, not always complete and only provided a one-year window into specific series of coins. Today, sites such as Heritage.com and PCGS.com enable collectors to see 10 or even 20 years of auction results for a specific coin in a specific grade. This is critical information for determining what to pay for a coin or what to price a coin at when you are ready to sell. I would expect that better, more sophisticated coin pricing sites will be introduced in the coming years as well.
As recently as ten years ago, many dealers did not have a website and many of the ones that did featured clunky, slow moving sites. Today, coin websites are considerably more sophisticated and offer much better quality images and descriptions than before. The fact that collectors now feel comfortable enough to buy coins sight-unseen is a result of better technology (hello cable modems!) and it has greatly broadened the size and scope of the market.
One of the biggest changes we have seen in the last decade as a result of the Internet is a restructuring of the auction market. One coin auction firm responded better to technological advances in the last ten years and as a result they have basically decimated their competition. Ten years ago, the vast majority of coins sold at auction were purchased by dealers who were sitting in the room. Today, most lots sell to Internet bidders. Its a little unnerving for a new collector to walk into a coin auction and see it basically empty (with the notable exceptions being the FUN and ANA sales which still attract good crowds or very important specialized collections) but to be told that the auction is in fact a rousing success and that there are hundreds of active bidders participating.
I would expect that we will see similar changes with coin shows in the next ten years. I'm not certain we will have an actual "virtual bourse" but with coin dealers and collectors getting older, travel becoming harder and more expensive, and the number of shows simply too great to be sustainable, I'd think we'll see very different types of shows than what we have now and that they will be far more Internet-based.
How has the rise of the Internet changed the way that I do business? I can think of numerous ways in which it has and there are a few that stand out in particular. I have always sought to purchase pretty, high end coins but now a major consideration for me is if the coin is "photogenic." I might pass on a very dark or somewhat splotchy piece because it won't image well on my website and will be hard to sell as a result. It is very important for me to get my new purchases listed online as soon as I can after I return from a show. Instead of spending the weekend following a show relaxing and decompressing from an intense two or three days of trading coins, I know spend the next few days writing descriptions and having my new coins imaged.
The Internet has improved my cash-flow as it has sped up the amount of time it takes to sell a coin. In the pre-Internet days, I would create price lists and mail them out or put my new coins in print ads. The process would take weeks. Now, I put new coins on my website and often they are sold within hours and shipped within a day to their new owner. By the same token, it's made my concept of what's "fresh" change. I can have a coin on my website for thirty days and if it hasn't sold, it's no longer fresh and I have to rethink the pricing and selling process(es). The Internet has sped up the business cycle in ways which can be great but which can be a little scary as well.
I can foresee some exciting changes to the coin market as a result of the Internet. I would expect that dealer websites will become more interactive in the near future and that there will be more video and customization. If 3-D imaging ever becomes a reality, the inclusion of such images on coin website would be fantastic. I would expect there to be more social networking, more specialized auction sites and, as I mentioned above, more and better access to pricing.
I'd love to hear your input about the Web and its impact on your collecting habits in the past decade.