For better or worse, auctions have become a more integral part of the numismatic scene than at any time in recent memory. In 2006, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coins traded at auction and a number of price records were set. How do I rate the auction companies and what are their strengths/weaknesses? I thought it would be interesting to share my opinions of the five major American numismatic auction firms. There are five categories that I feel are important to consider: catalogs (and the ability to accurately catalog coins), websites (ease of use, usefulness, technology, content and images), customer service (how well do these companies handle problems), prices realized (what types of coins bring the most money at each sale) and overall strengths and weaknesses. Each of these categories is then ranked as follows: excellent, very good, good and poor.
1. Heritage: In the past few years, Heritage has clearly become the industry leader. It is now common for Heritage to conduct a $20-30 million dollar sale which features a huge variety of coins ranging in value from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Heritage has become dominant for two reasons: their use of technology is incredibly innovative and they are extremely aggressive when it comes to securing consignments.
Catalogs: Heritage produces a good catalog. Their use of graphics is exceptional and the design is far more professional than any other firm. Their photography is not as good as certain other firms but I would attribute this primarily due to the fact that they tend to have so many more coins for sale that they can not spend enough time on quality control. I regard their cataloging as good to very good. They write nice, accurate descriptions of coins but tend not to have enough time or manpower to do much in-depth, original research.
Website: No one has a numismatic website with more useful bells and whistles than Heritage. It is incredibly easy to bid online in their sales and their auction archives feature is wonderful. My one complaint about the Heritage website is that it is a bit cold and impersonal. But its overall ranking is excellent and no other numismatic auction firm even comes close.
Customer Service: Since Heritage sells more coins than anyone else, they make more mistakes. But I’ve found them to be excellent at dealing with these issues in a timely and fair fashion. I would advise the collector to find someone at Heritage they like and build a long-term relationship with that person. I personally recommend Sam Foose.
Prices Realized: Prices in a typical Heritage sale tend to be strong, especially due to the fact that they have dramatically more retail buyers participating than anyone else. The areas that Heritage does best in are 20th century issues and Registry Set quality coins. Their weakest areas tend to be the more sophisticated, esoteric areas that Stack’s/ANR excel in.
Strengths and Weaknesses: Heritage has the best website and the greatest number of bidders of any numismatic auction firm. They are extremely easy to do business with despite their size. My major complaint with Heritage as a consignor is that their sales are way too big and coins can get lost in 5,000+ lot sales. But they are clearly the leader in this segment of the market and this does not appear to be changing any time soon.
2. Stack’s Rarities: In the fall of 2005, Stack’s and American Numismatic Rarities merged. I am basing my ratings for this new firm primarily on ANR as I’ve had many positive experiences with this firm in the past unlike Stack’s who I have not.
Catalogs: ANR, hands down, had the best catalogs in the numismatic auction business. No one does a better job of cataloging coins that ANR, especially rare and esoteric items like tokens, medals and colonials. With the exception of colonials, I thought Stack’s cataloging was inconsistent, at best. Stack’s color photography was exceptional while ANR’s wasn’t as good. Assuming these firms can combine the best of each world, their new catalogs should remain the best in the industry.
Website: Stack’s website was very poor for many years but in the last two or three years it improved considerably. ANR’s was decent but could have stood to have been updated and given a technological makeover. The new combined website is good to very good but it still is long ways away from comparing to Heritage’s.
Customer Service: I always thought ANR had excellent customer service while Stack’s was poor. It will be interesting to see whether the new firm is friendly and “small townish” like ANR or rude and “New Yorkish” like Stack’s. My two “go to” people at ANR have always been John Pack and Cynthia LaCarbonera and I think very highly of both of them.
Prices Realized: ANR and Stack’s were both capable of realizing extremely strong prices for fresh, original collections. Their prices for the more mundane meat-n-potatoes items which constitute the bulk of most sales were never as strong as Heritage’s due to the fact that neither firm had an active online bidding presence.
Strengths and Weaknesses: It will be interesting to see how the combination of Stack’s and ANR works. There is a tremendous amount of talent present at the two firms although this talent tends to be more academic while Heritage’s is, in my opinion, more market-savvy. I would expect that the new Stack’s Rarities firm will never replace Heritage as the top dog in the numismatic auction world but it will continue to at least keep Heritage from getting too complacent.
3. Bowers and Merena: The last few years have been a roller coaster ride for Bowers and Merena. As recently as the early part of this decade, Bowers and Merena was one of the major forces in the coin auction business. A disastrous stretch during the middle part of the decade almost destroyed this firm’s reputation but the last year or two have seen considerable improvement.
Catalogs: The graphics and design of a B+M catalog are good but the overall quality of the cataloging and the images could stand improving. However, I have noted a marked change for the better in the past year. B+M still needs to hire photographers who can make coins not look like lumps of coal.
Website: The B+M website is attractively designed but it does not have many interesting features. Bidding online is easy and secure. I would rate their website as good but it could certainly stand to be improved.
Customer Service: I have had a few problems in the past with B+M but they have always been resolved to my satisfaction. The biggest problem that this firm has had in recent years is considerable turnover which makes it difficult to establish a relationship with a capable person. I would personally recommend dealing with Debbie McDonald as I have found her to be very competent and honest.
Prices Realized: In the past year or two, Bowers and Merena has begun to create a niche as a company who is able to get strong prices in the various 20th century series. Their ability to get collections which are strong in 18th and 19th century material is not yet as well developed.
Strengths and Weaknesses: After a rough few years, Bowers and Merena has established itself as a strong #3 in the coin auction business. But in order to become more competitive, they will have to show they are capable to doing something that distinguishes themselves from their competitors.
4. Goldbergs: As someone who runs a niche business himself, I admire the fact that Ira and Larry Goldberg have a clearly defined goal as a company. They do not want to be as big as Heritage and they want their sales to be small, manageable and held in their own backyard of Beverly Hills. They have created a well-run, solid company that consistently offers good coins.
Catalogs: I think the Goldberg catalogs are very nicely designed with excellent graphics. Their cataloging is weak and their images appear to be enhanced. I would not personally feel comfortable bidding on a coin in one of their sales based on the image in the catalog.
Website: The Goldbergs website is solid if unspectacular. It is sometimes hard to find a specific coin due to an unsophisticated search feature. I do not personally care for their online images although I think they look more realistic and accurate than the ones in their catalogs.
Customer Service: The level of customer service in this firm is very good and when problems arise it is easy to deal directly with one of the owners. I personally recommend dealing with Glenn Onishi who I have known for many years and who I think is extremely trustworthy.
Prices Realized: Like any coin auction firm, the Goldbergs can get great prices for fresh, original deals. They tend to have recycled dealer consignments in their auctions and these coins typically bring exactly what they are worth. My one complaint with their sales is that some coins are too aggressively reserved by consignors.
Strengths and Weaknesses: If you live on the West Coast, this firm is a good resource. I’m not certain that I would travel all the way from the East Coast just to attend a Goldberg sale but the fact that they are typically held in conjunction with the Long Beach shows makes them convenient for dealers. The best compliment I can give this firm is that if I were creating an auction company, it would have many of the same basic goals as the Goldbergs do.
5. Superior: This is another firm that appears to have seen better days. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Superior sales were massive and featured extremely interesting coins. In the last few years, the volume and quality of their sales appears to have shrunken considerably although they still get the odd interesting fresh deal every now and then.
Catalogs: Superior’s catalogs are unimpressive from a visual standpoint. Their cataloging is underwhelming and their images are poor. To remain competitive in the marketplace, they will have to improve in these areas.
Website: Not to pick on Superior, but their website is by far the worst of the five firms discussed in this report. It is confusing, sloppy and difficult to navigate. This is another area that will require a comprehensive overhaul by the powers that be at Superior if they are going to remain relevant in this increasingly web-driven business.
Customer Service: I’ve found customer service at Superior to be well-intentioned but erratic. One person at Superior who is very competent and knowledgeable is Larry Abbott. I have also had good experiences with Paul Song.
Prices Realized: Prices at the last few Superior auctions have ranged from very strong to indifferent. These sales are generally not well-attended and have little retail participation.
Strengths and Weaknesses: The numismatic auction business is very competitive and Superior finds itself (currently) lagging. The future of this firm depends on whether or not they can retain their key personnel. I’d guess that if Superior’s next two or three sales are not successful then the signs are ominous for their future.