Is There A "Best Time" to Buy Coins?

As a dealer, I know there are certain times of the year during which I am able to buy more coins than others. As someone who does the majority of his buying at shows, the two most fertile times of the year for me are at the FUN show in January (this is a show which I tend to come to with few coins and loads of cash) and the summer ANA show in August (the traditional “best” show of the year).

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A Photo is Worth 1,000 Words (Except When It's Not Enough)

A Guest Blog from Jenna Van Valen, photographer here at DWN. We've all heard the numismatic mantra, "Buy the coin, not the holder." But what about those times we can't view the coin in person? Surely we can't all attend every convention, every auction, visit every dealer and view their inventory. We rely on dealers we trust, we rely on their descriptions, and we hope that the photo tells enough of a story that we can make an informed opinion on the coin without actually holding it in our own hands. We need to count on the dealer to be our eyes, because no two photos of the same coin will look the same. Why?

It's quite simple, really. When we hold a coin, we can tilt it, put it under different lighting conditions, get a feel for the overall look of the piece. But when I photograph a coin, I have to give you a quality representation of all the aspects of a coin under various conditions in one image. I can neither deceptively hide the flaws, nor do I really want to highlight them unless they're dreadfully apparent in hand. It's a balancing act, not so much science as intuition from nearly two decades as a professional photographer (eek, when did I start pushing 40?), and taking into account the literally tens of thousands of coins I've photographed and handled in the last decade+ in numismatics. It's entirely, completely, and sometimes woefully, subjective.

To prove my point, I spent a few extra minutes photographing a coin we purchased for inventory, using different lighting conditions, and different post-processing techniques. I will explain each set of images in non-photo-nerd terms.

The first example is my standard photograph, this is what I would post on our website as an inventory photo. I won't go into proprietary details, but I use a copy stand, an electronic cable release, some lamps, a fantastic lens, and an average (but older) DSLR body. I currently use Photoshop CS5 for my post-processing (though for years I used CS3), and have a predetermined white balance and set of techniques I use on every image to ensure consistency.

1875-CC NGC MS61 with "standard" lighting and processing

But wait - here is the same exact photo. I'm not kidding--it's the same photo, with different processing applied. But I used the same exact image files to produce this result. I could email the original files to 10 different Photoshop nerds, and you'd get back 10 different results, all based on our own intuition, experience, and techniques.

1875-CC $20.00 NGC MS61, same files, different processing

And it is so very, very simple to take the same exact coin, on the same exact copy stand and lens, and without even moving my lights or adjusting exposure, completely change the end result. I took these three obverse photos at all the same settings, processed them identically, and yet we have three wildly different results. Why? I simply rotated the coin so that it faced my light source at a different angle/rotation. It was literally just a slight turn to the left, dead center, and then to the right. Same coin, same distance, same lights, same processing, different rotations.

1875-CC $20.00 NGC MS61, three different rotations

And lastly, so I don't bore you with images and technical minutiae, here is the same coin, photographed in the same way, with different lighting applied. Diffused lighting can be magical, and can help make the fields of a proof coin light up (and it's the light I prefer to take portraits of people in). But different amounts of diffusion produce different results on the same exact coin.

1875-CC $20.00 NGC MS61, diffused lighting conditions

The same coin has many faces, but which is correct? None? All? Some? My point is that every one of these photos is accurate in some way. The camera can never, ever reproduce the range our (miraculous) human eyes and brains can. The best any of us can do is represent the coin accurately, according to our own values and experiences. Again, this is a subjective process. This is where a trusted dealer can really make or break your collection.

When you're looking at an auction catalogue, or an online inventory like ours, you can hope the image is a fair representation, but what if the rotation of the coin hides something in the fields that would make you cringe in person, under different lighting? What if the color is off? What if the image is too soft? Too contrasty? You won't ever know until you're holding the coin, and you may be in for a rude surprise. If you're trying to build a collection on your own, based on photographs, you are at a serious disadvantage. You are bidding against dealers and other buyers who have seen the coin in person. If you don't have a relationship with a dealer, you can't pick up your phone and ask if the coin is going to be a good fit for your set.

This is why Doug offers auction representation, this is why when we list new inventory on our site you can call him directly and get his opinion over the phone. I am an award-winning, published, successful photographer (even outside of numismatics) - but I can only show you one interpretation of the coin on my desk.

I strongly encourage collectors to remember this, and remember it well: A photo can be worth 1,000 words, but is it the right story?

2013 ANA Show Report: 10 Observations

You know how I feel about show reports. They tend to be self-serving, inaccurate, biased as hell, and generally not very interesting. Which is why I stopped writing them a few years ago. But most readers of this blog want to know about my experiences at the ANA and my thoughts about the market so I’m going to do what I said I wouldn’t: I’m going to write about the 2013 ANA show but from a perspective that you might not have already heard before.

1. So how was the show?

The ANA summer show has been the Big Kahuna ever since I was a kid and although its impact has slightly waned over the years (for numerous reasons which I will discuss at another time) it’s such a significant show that if you are a dealer with even a reasonable amount of a clue on how to buy and sell coins, you are going to have decent results just on account of being there. On the Doug Winter Show Grading System (with 1 being a show cancelled by a nuclear accident and 10 being the show that a dude walks up to my table with a box of unopened 1873 Proof Sets) I would call the 2013 ANA a 7.5 to 8.0. I was very busy from the beginning to the end. I sold a ton and I bought some very cool numismatic items. More on this later in the blog.

2. Modern coins made huge inroads at the 2013 ANA show.

Chances are good that if you go to your local regional show, you will see moderns. But the ANA wasn’t a place I expected to see dealers like APMEX with the mack-daddy of all coin show tables. (If my hefty-sized table was Oklahoma, they were Texas…) The strong presence of modern and bullion-related dealers at this year’s show sends a clear message: more and more, the coin market is about alternatives to classic or vintage coins.

3. There seemed to be more foreign dealers at the show than usual.

I didn’t count the exact number of Brits, Brazilians, and Bolivians - but taking a stroll through the foreign/ancient section of the show was interesting and, for a coin show, downright cosmopolitan. For me, the ANA has an interesting social aspect. There are overseas dealers who I literally see once per year and my annual three minute "heyhowyadoin’" chat always occurs at the ANA.

4. The ANA remains an overwhelming logistics operation for a one or two-person operation.

I attended the pre-show (ANA Lite) and the regular ANA and committed to a full eight days and seven nights in the process. Even after deciding to blow-off the Stacks Bowers auctions due, frankly, to being overwhelmed, I still found it nearly impossible to accomplish even half of what I wanted to do at the show. I never made it to see the book dealers, missed the exhibits, and failed to talk to at least ten people I wanted to connect with. Being busy is a good thing (and on more than one day, I said to Jenna, “Hey, I’m hungry, let’s eat lunch!” only to look at my phone’s clock and see that it was already 1:47 in the afternoon) but being too busy can be kind of flustering.

5. What do you think about the location of the show, Doug?

Chicago

I’m about as much of a city guy as anyone you know. I grew up in Manhattan, I vacation in big cities, and my house in Portland is in the heart of downtown. That said, I despise Rosemont and everything it represents. Would I ever spend a minute more in Rosemont than I had to? Of course not. But do I think it’s a good location for a convention? Yes, it’s actually a great location. Dead center of the country. Easy and cheap air access. Nice hotels within walking distance. A small but decent number of good dining options. (Although my Gibson’s overload factor went nearly off the charts this year. The seared crusted Ahi Tuna salad was a wonderful lunch but six days in a row?) If it were up to me, coin shows would be small, highly professional 100 dealer operations that lasted two days/nights at most, and were located in great cities like San Francisco, New York and Boston. But there aren’t so we make do with locations like Rosemont. For me it’s a true love/hate relationship, but when you realize analyze it, it makes sense.

Gibson's

6. Heartfelt congratulations to John Albanese for winning the Sol Kaplan award.

This is presented annually by PNG “for work in helping to fight fraud and thievery in numismatics.” John is one of the good guys in the coin business and he has done more for consumer protection and advocacy than nearly anyone I know. I’m happy to see him get some professional recognition from the PNG.

7. The coin show wasn’t all Rosemont/Gibson’s/Numismatics for me.

I took part of Saturday and most of Sunday off and stayed in downtown Chicago. The highlight of my trip was going to the Art Institute of Chicago. As you might know, I’m a bit of an Art Weenie and the AIC was on my shortlist of great American museums that I had yet to visit. It was worth the wait. It is spectacular and I highly recommend it. I mostly wanted to see this.

The Grand Jette by Seurat

8. As you have no doubt read countless number of times in the past year(s), it is hard to buy nice coins now.

For a number of reasons, there are real issues with supply and this is across-the-board; whether you deal in Gem Proof gold or Conder Tokens, nice material is really in short supply. I actually was able to find some pretty neat coins at the show. (That surprised me.) I noticed a drop-off in coins around Wednesday afternoon and the reason for this was clear: PCGS was so slammed by submissions for walk-throughs that they shut off grading - and when I left the show on Friday, they still hadn’t returned coins. Had they done so, I would have had the appetite for more new purchases. And I’m sure so would have other dealers.

9.   In Observation #1 I mentioned that the ANA is the Big Kahuna of coin shows...

But for those of us old enough to remember back before, say, 2000, the ANA used to be a lot different. I can recall saving coins for three or four months to sell at the ANA. But that was before the internet made the coin market a 24/7 thing, and it was back when the only spring show of note was Central States, and the next show on the Coin Calendar was the Summer ANA. Back when people used to hold coins, you’d see some wild, wild stuff in dealers' cases. I remember how Dave Akers, Ed Milas, Paul Nugget, Mike Brownlee, and my other gold-coin-heroes would have crazy Territorials I had never seen before, insane early gold and groups of fresh branch mint coins (some of which I could actually buy for my fledgling business), and more. In 2013, the cupboard is pretty bare. Oh sure, I grooved on the Eric Newman silver coins. Legend’s 1894-S Dime was pretty neat, and the Proof 1921 Saint that a dealer friend of mine owns caught my attention. Ah, but for the Good ‘ol Days…

10. There were clear signs of what was hot and what wasn’t hot at the show.

The strongest areas included Carson City double eagles, Type One double eagles, virtually all interesting Liberty Head eagles, Dahlonega gold (I could have sold twenty half eagles had I found any for sale; where the heck are they?), and choice early gold with original color and surfaces.

To those of you who stopped by my table at the Throes in Rose(mont), thanks. And to everyone who has bought one or more of the new coins that I purchased at the show and listed on the website (www.raregoldcoins.com), double thanks.

I Hate Ebay

It’s official. I hate Ebay. This is a pretty big statement coming from someone who has, in the past, been an enthusiastic user and supporter of Ebay. And I still do use Ebay to look for knick-knacks like National Bank postcards, vintage Adidas jackets and sporting event tickets. But when it comes to buying coins on Ebay, I think I’m pretty much done. For the sort of coins that I am interested in, the selection of coins on Ebay has gotten pretty dismal. With a few exceptions, most of the coins are either cleaned no-grades or they are housed in third-world slabs (including a few so-called grading companies that even I haven’t heard of!). Yes, there are occasionally a few interesting, fresh coins but, man, do you have to troll through a lot of trash to find the occasional jewel.

For me, it’s a question of time. If I want to spend time searching through coins online (and at this point in my life I’d like to think I have a few better things to do…) I’d rather spend an hour on the Heritage website going through their 7,000+ Signature Sale lots. There seems to be a lot more of a payoff on an auction site specifically designed for coins than on one like Ebay, where coins are one of hundreds of categories.

Ebay really is like the world’s biggest flea market. It’s as if every item was dumped on a table and you have to sort through it (with the assistance of some pretty nifty technology…). I’m tired of the lousy images, the poor descriptions and the games that you know many of the sellers are playing.

And when I do bid on something on Ebay…ah, that’s when the fun begins. It seems that every day I get yet another Phishing email from someone trying to get my account number or password or credit card number. When I bid with Heritage, I might get a little too much spam but at least I don’t get Phished three times a day. Not to mention the fake post-sale re-offering of lots from my friend Vladimir in Estonia.

With Ebay, I just don’t feel a sense of security anymore. Sure, I’m willing to bid on a $65 Adidas jacket but I’m very hesitant to bid on a $5,000 coin from a seller that I don’t know. I think that Ebay’s caveat emptor attitude is tiresome.

Ebay would argue that their feedback system is safe and it represents the market policing itself. I say that is a crock. I have seen coin sellers with extremely high feedback rates (and hundreds—if not thousands-- of transactions) that I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw them. When I bid in an online coin auction with Heritage or ANR or Goldberg, I know exactly who I am dealing with and I have recourse in case there is a problem. In Ebay’s world, you’re on your own.

Another thing that drives me crazy about Ebay is sniping. Yes, I know that I can use software that enables me to bid 0.01 seconds before a lot closes. But why should I have to go through the hassle? The problem with Ebay is that I never feel secure enough about the whole process to bid my maximum early in the game.

I’m not certain that I’ll ever be able to totally resist the allure of Ebay. I can think of at least three items I purchased on Ebay that I’ve made alot of money on. The greedy side of my nature thinks there is another five-figure payday waiting for me at the end of the Ebay Rainbow and I guess I’ll have to check the coin listings every now and then to find that special New Orleans double eagle or Dahlonega gold dollar.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to enjoy my Ebay experience any more than I already do…not.

Factors in Coin Purchase Decisions

A collector recently asked me an interesting question: “what makes you to decide to buy certain coins and to pass on others?” The factors that I use in deciding what to buy for my inventory are actually quite similar to the factors that a good collector should use in deciding what to buy for his set.

The first thing I consider is if I like the actual coin itself. In most situations, I try to buy nice coins. By “nice” I mean a coin that has good overall eye appeal and one that I would rank as being in the top 10% for the grade. But there are situations where I might buy a coin that I regard as being “average” quality for the grade or one that I know has been dipped or which seems a bit enthusiastically graded. These situations, which are pretty rare for me, tend to occur when I am offered a date that I really like or a coin that I think is really undervalued. As a collector, I do not suggest you indulge in this compromise behavior very often.

As a dealer, liquidity is very important to me. I like to sell my coins quickly and I try to buy coins that I know will move in a few weeks. I carefully monitor my inventory and if I see that a certain coin gets a lot of attention when I post it on my website, I try to buy other examples of this date. The liquidity factor of a coin should also receive consideration from a collector. You never know how quickly you might have to sell your coins down the road and you will generally find that having coins that are easy to sell are a lot more enjoyable than owning coins that take forever to get rid of.

I try to buy coins that are good values. This does not necessarily mean that I think a coin is undervalued. What it means is within the context of a specific series I like the value that a coin offers. As an example, I like virtually all New Orleans eagles from the 1850’s. If I am offered nearly any reasonably attractive, fairly priced piece from this era, the chances are good that I will buy it. I also like all higher grade New Orleans eagles from the 1890’s and early 1900’s. But there are specific higher grade coins that I will pass on because I feel that the premium over the next grade down is way too high. As an example, I recently bought a nice PCGS MS62 1892-O for under $2,000. I also had a chance to purchase a piece graded MS63 but it would have cost more than triple the price of the MS62. Even though the higher grade coin had a very low population and seemed interesting I didn’t like the level of value it provided. Therefore, I passed.

I try to purchase coins that are popular but not necessarily too popular. It can be hard to define the line between popularity and “too popular.” An example of a coin that I will always buy because of its popularity is the 1861-D gold dollar. But I tend to shy away from higher grade examples of this date because I am not sure that I believe that a decent Uncirculated 1861-D is now worth close to six figures.

This is a fine line that smart collectors and dealers always have to walk. You want to be somewhat “cutting edge” when you buy coins and find a market that is undervalued. But by the same token, you don’t want to be the lone voice in the wilderness buying a series that only you feel is undervalued.

So, in summary, I’d say that the things that mean the most to me when I buy a coin are the following:

    Is the coin nice?

    Is the coin relatively easy to sell?

    Do I like the value that the coin represents?

    Is the series that this coin is included in currently undervalued or have values peaked?