The Professional Numismatist Guild (PNG) recently announced the establishment of the Edward Milas Memorial Fund which creates internships at established firms for as many as four qualified dealers/aspiring dealers aged 21-32. These internships are scheduled to be available by next summer.
I applaud the PNG for the creation of this program. I have written before that perhaps the biggest problem facing the professional side of the coin business is the aging of its dealers. Formerly young dealers like myself are now middle-aged, and when I go to shows, I can't help but notice the small number of dealers who will be factors in the market come 2023 or 2033.
The pool of dealers now basically consists of three groups: the guys in their 60's (and older) who became interested in coins during the roll craze of the 1960's, the guys in their 50's who became interested because of the gold and silver booms in the late 1970's, and the guys in their 40's who became interested after third-party grading became entrenched in the mid-1980's. There are not many dealers in their 30's, and even fewer in their 20's.
There are many reasons for this lack of young dealers. It is very expensive to run a business and this discourages young people. Interesting coins can't be found in circulation any more - and this means fewer people become collectors. The industry lacks the panache of wall Street or hedge funds and doesn't attract many of the best young financial minds; even though the chances to make an excellent income are probably better at an A-level rare coin company than at a B-level bank or hedge fund. And, for a long list of reasons, coins just aren't viewed as being "cool" like they might have been to my generation.
I love being a coin dealer and I am thankful for having the opportunity to do something I enjoy and get well paid for it. The Milas internships might add five or ten potentially good dealers to the bourse floor and I hope that I can mentor at least one or two of them once they get their foot in the door. I have a few pieces of advice for any of these potential interns (or any other young person reading this blog who is thinking of becoming or already is a coin a dealer) and I'd like to share them.
1. Try Not to Ruin Original Coins Unless You Absolutely Have To.
I'm not proud to admit this but my generation (and the Roll Craze dealers who came of age in the 1960's and early 1970's) has probably ruined more nice, original coins in the name of profit than all other generations combined. All I have to do to remind myself this is to go to a show and look at case after case of dipped, processed coins or attend an auction and reject a large percentage of the non-fresh coins for quality issues. I'm a purist but I'm not naive; I understand that there are circumstances where the temptation to dip a coin to make $5,000 is so strong that its foolish not to. But remember this: as a dealer you have an obligation not to ravage every coin which passes through your hands in attempt to maximize your profit. And this means, in particular, not to do anything much worse than dipping: no puttying, no carving full heads, no lasers, nothing which can be considered deception. The next time you, as a dealer, have a gorgeous MS64 No Motto half eagle with great color, think twice about dipping it and turning it into a bright and shiny MS65.
2. Leave Some Money on the Table.
There are essentially two types of dealers: those who let you make money when you buy from them and those who fight you for every penny.
My favorite sources for coins are the dealers who leave a little on the table in every deal. As an example, one of my best sources for buying coins is very savvy about pricing, but he understands that I would like to make 10% on the coins I buy from him. He is smart enough to realize that if I spend $75,000 with him at a show and he makes a fair margin it will work out much better for him in the long run than if he makes it hard to buy from him.
There is a dealer who I used to do a ton of business with who has a reputation as someone who squeezes you for every last penny on every coin he sells. Let's say he's got a decent quality common date Dahlonega half eagle in stock and the last three APR's for this issue are $2,600, $2,800 and $3,000. This is a coin I'd like to be in at $2,750-2,800 and sell for $3,000. But this dealer is not content to sell it for $2,750; he has to charge $3,000 even if he's making a good deal of money on the coin or it's not special and doesn't deserve PQ money. After becoming frustrated with him for squeezing and squeezing, I gave up buying from him and don't even look at his coins anymore.
3. Give Back to the Hobby.
As the PNG Internship program shows, it is critical to give back to the hobby. This means writing books, teaching classes at the ANA Summer Seminar, contributing money to the Smithsonian and the ANS pledge drives, helping out at a local coin club, or just being there for a young(er) dealer. Some of the most successful coin dealers do nothing but take from the hobby and I have little admiration for them. Others give purely out of selfish motivation (to get a better ANA table or to have access to wealthy, powerful collectors) but whatever their motive, at least they are making positive contributions to the hobby.
If you ask the typical coin dealer, what is his stance on education, he is going to answer "I am pro-education! Let's do this for the kids!" I don't totally agree with this. I'd personally rather help an aspiring 25 year old further his career in numismatics than a 15 year old because the latter is unlikely to become a professional. That's one reason I really like the PNG internship program: it targets younger people who are ready to enter the coin business today not those who might possibly enter it in five or ten years.
4. Learn to Do At Least One Thing Really Well and Embrace That Skill.
When the market was less complex than it is today, it was possible to be really good at a number of things. There are some dealers whose knowledge runs the gamut of United States coinage and they are also competent when it comes to paper money and foreign coins. Today, it is harder and harder to be really good at a lot of things. This is not only true with numismatic knowledge, it is true with business skill sets as well.
In rare coin dealing, people often aspire to be something they are not. Someone might be a great salesperson but might have only mediocre skills when it comes to grading. Typically, this sort of person fails to embrace his very important skill set (selling) and, instead, tries to convince himself (and others) that he can grade as well as a dealer who makes a living cracking coins out. It's not easy to admit that you aren't a great grader or that you can't sell well. But the sooner you learn to play to your strengths and get help with your weaknesses, the better a coin dealer you will become.
5. Your Reputation Precedes You.
Nearly every coin dealer I know has some sort of reputation (good or bad) and they earned this when they were in their 20's: bad check writer, hard partier, untrustworthy, always in debt...not exactly what you want to have to live down in your 30's and 40's.
You can salvage a bad reputation but it's not easy. I can remember seeing a bounced check in the case of a once-powerful dealer about 15 years ago. It was displayed along with a handwritten sign that said something to the effect of "don't do business with Dealer X." Today, the dealer who displayed the sign is essentially out of the business and bankrupt while the dealer who wrote the bad check is highly regarded and does tens of millions in business each year. Dealers have long memories but they become curiously short, in terms of common sense, when it comes to money. I've heard it said on more than one occasion that a known serial killer could come to a coin show and many dealers would be happy to take his check so long as they thought there was a decent chance it wouldn't bounce.
6. Turnover Your Inventory
At nearly every show I go to, there are a few dealers who have reasonably nice coins but are impossible to buy from. I can think of three dealers, in particular, who have had literally the exact same inventory for five years. This includes coins priced at under $1,000 and it also includes generic gold coins whose value has dropped appreciably in the last six months. It also includes coins which these dealers disagree with the grade which PCGS or NGC has assigned and they'll price their MS64 Bust Half Dollar as an MS65 or MS66; never lowering the price even after crackout dealers have had their chance to buy the "misgraded" coins.
I try and turn my inventory over at least once every month to six weeks. As a dealer whose coins are exposed on a well-browsed website, I know how important it is to have fresh coins. In the World of Internet Retail sales, anything which is more than a month or two old is considered stale and stale inventory is hard to sell, even if it is fairly priced. This isn't necessarily as true for dealers who sell primarily on a wholesale basis, but I can tell you that most sharp dealers remember the good coins in other dealers' inventories. Remember what I said above about earning a reputation? You don't want the reputation as someone whose inventory is as stale as year-old bread.
7. Don't Be Afraid to Sell Coins For Losses.
Which brings us to the next point. Young dealers are often afraid to sell coins for losses. When you are working with a small budget, you can't afford to make many really bad decisions but you have to understand the value of money. Tying up money on bad purchases and let them stack up is going to ultimately poison your inventory. After you sell off the good deals, you will be left with a growing pile of bad deals and sooner or later they will really add up.
Let's say you bought an MS64 $10 Liberty for $2,000 because you thought it was a "lock" to grade MS65 and you could then sell it for $3,500. You've tried it six times for grading at PCGS and its graded MS64 every time. Your actual cost in the coin is now close to $2,500 with the PCGS fees, shipping and the value of your money being tied up for months. At this point, the best thing to do might be to sell it for as close to your original cost as you can and move on. It's a poor use of your money at this point and you stand a better chance to make it back on the next deal you do with the original $2,000.
Some dealers refuse to sell coins for losses. Others will stick with a coin which makes sense. Let me give you two quick examples. I might have a nice Dahlonega quarter eagle in stock for a month. Its a fresh, pleasing coin which I feel is fairly priced but its not selling because it doesn't have a CAC sticker. Assuming it won't sticker even if resubmitted, I might still believe in this coin even though it hasn't yet sold. In this case I might hang on to it another month or two before I give up on it and sell it wholesale or consign it to a Heritage auction.
Or, I might have a $10 Lib in an AU55 holder which I paid $6,000 for and which I truly believe grades AU58. It's worth $12,000 in a 58 holder. The value spread is enough that I might try this coin ten times at PCGS and NGC (over the course of six months) if I really believe in it.
As you become more experienced, you'll learn when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em but just remember that sometimes its better business to sell your losses and just move on...
8. Find Someone You Trust to Split Deals With.
When you are just starting out as a dealer and your money is likely to be tight, it can make a big difference to find someone to split deals with you. By this, I mean finding a partner who will put up half the money and share in your profit or loss. I did this for many years, back when my budget was more limited than it is now, and had mostly positive experiences.
It is important to choose someone you trust to split a deal with and it is important that this person has something to offer that you don't. As an example, if you are a dealer who is knowledgeable about 20th century gold and you offered a nice deal of early gold, it makes sense to split this with someone who knows more about these coins than you do. If you are going to enter into a full 50/50 split with another dealer, try and choose someone whose skill set doesn't overlap yours. If you are primarily a wholesaler, it's great to choose a partner who can sell the coins to end-users; or vice-versa.
9. You Can't Get Collector Privileges If You Are a Dealer.
As a collector, you are entitled to certain privileges in transactions. You can, from time to time, put coins on hold for a few hours or even days to "think" about purchasing them, show them to a collector or dealer for another opinion, send them to PCGS for crossover or CAC for approval, and even, in certain circumstances, renege on a "done deal." You don't get to do this, with rare exceptions, as a dealer.
If you are a young(ish) numismatists making the transition from collector to dealer, you have to be ready to swim with the sharks; typically with no repellent at hand. It also means that you have to be more decisive as a dealer than you were as a collector.
10. Embrace Your Inner Accountant.
As much as I'd like to tell you that most of my time as a professional numismatist is spent buying and selling coins, quite a bit of it entails doing paperwork. I don't necessarily like this part of my job but its something I have become fairly good at and its something that I choose to do myself as opposed to turning it over to someone else.
Some of the best coin dealers I know are terrible businessmen. They are unorganized and too impatient to do their own grading submissions, accounting, correspondence and basic record-keeping. As a result, they work for larger firms where they often give away significant amount of their profits in order to stay organized.
I was an English major in college and never took a business class so I pretty much had to learn how to keep track of my inventory and my finances on the fly. But I'm glad I've learned to do a reasonably competent job of this and haven't had to give up my freedom as a dealer in order to be properly "managed."
I look forward to meeting and eventually doing business with the winners of the Milas/PNG Internships. And if you are a young person thinking of becoming a full-time coin dealer, I encourage you to find a mentor who can help you grow and prosper in what I think is a fantastic field. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have and encourage you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.