"Why can't I find coins to buy at a coin show?"
That was the exact question Collector X asked me, in a somewhat whiny manner, at the recent Central States coin show. But you know something? I can understand his disappointment. He had taken three days off from work, spent thousands of dollars on a plane ticket, hotel and meals, only to come home from the show empty-handed. He's a coin junkie and I'm sure he won't be boycotting this summer's ANA convention but his question got me to thinking...
Why has it become so hard to find the coins you want to buy at coin shows?
As I told Collector X as we spoke at CSNS, he's not the only one who is having this problem. I've been going to coin shows for three decades and I've noticed them becoming more and more dry in the last few years. Here are some theories of mine as to why.
1. Heritage: The 900 Pound Gorilla In The Room
All you have to do to see the reach of Heritage is to look and the size and scope of their major auctions. With thousands and thousands of lots worth tens of millions of dollars, these auctions are like vacuums that pull a tremendous amount of material of the bourse floor. Some of the coins in the Central States sale(s) were dealer retreads and some of the coins were low end but there were hundreds and hundreds of choice, high end pieces. This includes many fresh coins that, in the past, might have wound up entering the market through dealer's inventories instead of through auction.
You know that zombie movie when an army of hungry, brain eatin' dudes keeps coming and coming at the heroes? That's sort of like Heritage. Last time I checked they employed just a few zombies but they are extremely formidable competition for small dealers like me and a lot of the coins that formerly would be offered directly to me show up in Heritage sales. And I don't think I'm the only small dealer who has this perspective.
As Heritage has grown and grown it has created a strange reality in the market. At this point, the coin market is essentially a duopoly (Heritage and the various Spectrum organizations) with a huge degree of separation between the Big Two and nearly everyone else. Since neither of these firms is retail friendly, they use auctions as a way to sell coins directly to collectors.
2. The Coin Show Circuit is Diluted
There are way too many coin shows. I go to between 15 and 20 per year and this is nothing compared to the really hardcore wholesale guys who go to 30 or 40. At this point in my life, I'd rather be going to fewer shows and doing the bulk of my work in my office where its more comfortable and I'm three times more productive.
But its a Catch-22 situation for me. If I don't go to all of these shows, I become less competitive with the five or six sharp guys who I know are going to be in on every single coin that I'm not going to get offered if I'm not going to be at a show.
But I'm not writing this to gain sympathy from you. You want to know how this dilution of shows affects your ability to buy. Here's one way which I bet you don't know.
3. The Shadow Coin Show
Collector X was one of the first hundred people through the door when Central States opened to the public. Yet, unknown to him, a "shadow coin show" had been going on for at least two days before where many of the nicest, freshest coins traded hands.
Not only is the coin show circuit diluted, it puts unrealistic expectations on dealers. Let's take my schedule at Central States as an example. I arrived on Tuesday and started a frantic search for coins literally as soon as I arrived. But this was already a day later than some dealers. So if I had arrived on Monday (ugghhh...) it meant a full-week commitment to Central States. I'm OK with this amount of time for FUN and Summer ANA when there are fresh coins available to buy, but it's impossible for me to commit this much time ten to twelve times per year.
Back to the Shadow Coin Show theory. There are now many dealers who arrive two days before a show opens to the public and leave Thursday morning; just when many collectors are arriving. With these two different schedules going on, everyone in the long run suffers.
4. Many Dealers Don't Show New Coins at Shows
Before I had an effective website, I would show many of my new purchases at a show. Today, I almost never show them. There are many reasons, good and bad, for this. I'm not alone in doing this.
- I spend a lot of time and money on my site and I find it to be a good way for me to sell.
- I have very limited amounts of time available at shows and it is more effective for me to use them to buy than it is to sell.
- I like Collector X and I value his business. A lot. I feel better knowing that he was able to buy a few coins as soon as I listed my new purchases.
One more thought. Many of the dealers who had tables at CSNS are not really "retailers" per se. They may have some coins laid out in their cases but they are primarily wholesalers who lack: a) time b) couth c) desire to sell to people like Collector X. As I walked around the floor at CSNS, a thought hit me: there really aren't a lot of tables at the show with nice coins on display.
Which brings me to my final point...
5. If You Don't have a Relationship With a Dealer You Might Be Wasting Your Time at a Show
I must have seen Collector X walk by my table ten times during his time at CSNS and he must have stopped by three or four times asking me if I had anything new to show him. I felt kind of sorry for him as making the endless shuffle up and down the concrete floors (the Coin Walk of Shame?) couldn't have been all that much fun. And he was there to have fun, right?
If you don't have a tight relationship with a few dealers, you aren't going to see squat in the way of good coins at a show. There. I said it.
Let's say I buy an 1861-D half eagle in Extremely Fine. Unless Collector X is specifically looking for this coin (or it's one of the few shows in the year that I commit the time and resources to being able to invoice, process, and price my new coins) it's going to be hidden in a box in my safe or in my back case, and I'm not going to show it. To Collector X or Dealer Y. And I think this is the case with most other dealers.
Hopefully Central States wasn't a total waste for Collector X. He got to see the Newman coins (I told him to carefully study the patterns if only to see what true originality looked like), he schmoozed with a few of his numis-buddies, he got to breathe coins for a few days, and he probably learned that next year he'll skip Central States and keep his powder dry to the Summer ANA show. Or better yet, he'll let me do the heavy lifting and he'll find a few new items for his collection from my post-CSNS new purchase listings. (Shameless plug, I know...)