"Why Can't I Find Coins to Buy at a Coin Show?"

"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.

1861-D $5.00 PCGS EF45 CAC

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...)

 

The Art Basel Fair Versus The FUN Show: An Analysis

I recently returned from a week long trip to Miami where I attended the Art Basel art fair. I went primarily to look at art and to purchase some pieces for my collection but I also went to closely observe what has become the most significant art fair(s) in the world. For a person like myself, who attends many coin shows each year and who had never been to Art Basel, I found the contrast to be both educational and totally fascinating. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the annual Art Basel show with the upcoming FUN convention that will also be held in Florida. For those of you who aren't familiar with Art Basel, I think a little background information is in order. This was the 11th annual edition of Art Basel in Miami and this show is a spin-off of the original fair that is held each year in Switzerland. The main Art Basel show was held in the Miami Beach convention center and it featured virtually all of the leading dealers in the world. I believe there were in the area of 400-500 dealers and I saw booths hailing not only the United States but from all over Europe, Latin America, South America and the Far East.

I could go on and on about comparing/contrasting Art Basel with the FUN show but I will keep the points to a manageable number and try to be as relevant as possible.

*Art Basel is a far more international fair than any coin show I have ever attended. The FUN show is not an especially international show and a better comparison is the NY International show which, ironically, is held at exactly the same time as FUN and which, therefore, is now impossible for me to attend. At various times at the fair, I felt like English was a second language. It was an interesting polyglot of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and more. The international scope of the attendees and the material at the fair was really, really exciting.

*Art Basel has thematic dealer exhibits; something that is not typically done at a coin show. Because of the theme(s), some dealers at Art Basel had very challenging exhibits (bananas in cars, scattered boulders on the floor, odd video, etc). This was a definite contrast to the FUN show which is more straight-forward.

*A table at the FUN show for the average dealer costs around $1,500-2,500. At Art Basel, I was told that for most dealers, a table was upwards of $50,000 and that some of the prime tables were $250,000 and up. When you combine this along with the cost of attending the show, crating and uncrating the art, setting up and breaking down the booth and countless other expenses, the cost for a dealer to attend Art Basel is staggering. Thus, prices were reflective of this (more about this in a minute...)

*At Art Basel, if you weren't Puffy Combs, an A-list collector or introduced/escorted by a well-known dealer, forget it. I was ignored for three days at the main fair. At the FUN show, the average collector isn't ignored and if he is lucky, he can interact with such luminaries as Q. David Bowers, Mark Salzberg and David Hall. At Art Basel, dealers like Larry Gagosian or Edward Acquavella wouldn't have thrown water on my if I was ablaze (unless I was about to set one of their works on fire; then they would have sent an assistant to douse me).

*The iPad is clearly changing the way collectors and dealers buy and sell art. I noticed that most booths no longer had exhibit catalogs but now used an iPad to show collectors images of artists whose art wasn't on the walls or of paintings they might have had in stock but which they didn't bring. On at least two occasions, I searched for quick information about a specific artist I liked but wasn't familiar with on my iPad. You are starting to see iPads at coin shows but they seem to be more the province of dealers than collectors.

*I paid careful attention to which artists were common at the show and which were not; just like I do at a coin show. I noted an abundance of Leger, Miro, Dubuffet and Picasso. These are artists whose works typically sell for high six figures to well into seven figures. They are the art world's equivalent of High Reliefs or Stellas: expensive, beautiful and with a sexy back story but ultimately common and typically available except in the highest grades.

*Art Basel is a show that celebrates dealers and the relationship between the dealer and the collector. There are no auctions taking place during the show and it is not like FUN that sometimes seems like a huge Heritage auction with the bourse floor thrown-in as an afterthought. Art dealers have strange, conflicted relationships with auction houses and for good reasons. Sotheby's and Christie's are not only openly competing for clients but they also have retail departments, trust and estate planning services, consultation services and offer financing. This situation is a bit different in the coin markets where dealers tend to be able to co-exist, more or less, with the two major auction firms.

*I was surprised at how out-in-the-open deals were at Art Basel. I expected deals to be done in secret areas of each booth or, more likely over dinner but I saw collectors openly writing checks.

*I was also surprised at how poorly marked most booths were at the fair. I didn't expect most paintings or sculptures to have clearly marked price tags but I was very surprised at how few pieces had name tags. I was able to identify some paintings I saw but others, especially those that were from new artists or foreign painters, were unidentifiable. And there were definitely times that I didn't want to ask...

*It was hard to tell how well the art was selling. For whatever reason, many of the A-level dealers appear to think it is tacky to stick a red-dot (equating something is sold) on a $5 million dollar painting. I can certainly see their point but the dealer in me was hoping to have a vicarious thrill or two see a $5 million dollar painting with a red dot next to it.

*One of the major differences between Art Basel and the FUN show was the level of enthusiasm exhibited by collectors at the former. At a coin show, buyers seem excited to be there but at Art Basel the adrenaline level was palpable. Maybe Picassos are just sexier than Dahlonega quarter eagles or maybe I've been to so many coin shows that it's become hard for me to be excited but the buzz at Basel, especially as the week wore on, was great.

*To me, probably the most impressive thing about Art Basel was how it literally changed the entire city of Miami for a week. There were tens of thousands of people at the show and they were not bashful about booking the best rooms in the best hotels, the best tables at the best restaurants and generally pouring money into the local economy. I don't know what the impact of the FUN show is on Orlando but the average person at Art Basel, independent of his or her art purchases, was a lot more lavish than at FUN (where I have seen collectors who spend $25,000 on a coin balk at spending $250 on a nice room).

In case you can't tell, I came away very impressed with Art Basel. It was well-attended, very entertaining (unbeatable people watching!), extremely well promoted and it seemed flawlessly run. The FUN show, in my opinion, is about as good as it gets in the numismatic world but it seemed like a bake sale compared to the fair!

Some Observations About the 2010 Boston ANA Show

To be perfectly frank, I hate coin show reports. I hate to write them. I hate to read them. I don't care what restaurants a dealer went to and what they ate and I don't really care that Dealer X spent this much money on those coins at the show. That said, I also know that the ANA is the show that everyone who didn't attend wants to know about. So, with these people in mind, I thought I'd share a few random observations about the ANA. On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate this show as a solid 6; possibly a 7. Overall, I'd say a was a tiny bit disappointed. I was expecting the show to be an 8 or a 9 because of the fact that it was the first ANA in Boston since 1982 and the fact that Boston is within a few hours of huge numbers of serious collectors.

I go to coin shows primarily to buy and from a buying standpoint I was reasonably pleased. I bought some great coins. These include an 1854-O double eagle in PCGS AU55, the Garrett specimen of the 1808 quarter eagle (graded AU53 by PCGS) and over fifty crusty original 19th century gold pieces, most of which have already found their way onto my website. I would have liked to buy more but, hey, that's what I say at every show; even when I'm wondering how I'm going to sell all the great coins I just bought. And, yes, this paragraph is self-promotion.

Attendance seemed good and the mood among dealers and collectors seemed upbeat and positive. I didn't have any little old ladies walk up to my table with a New England shilling in a cigar box (a fella can dream, can't he?) but I was fairly pleased at the number of fresh coins that I was able to purchase on the floor.

I participated in three auctions. The Stack's sale contained an interesting fresh deal of Liberty Head eagles and prices were amazing (more on this in a future blog). The Bowers and Merena sale was reasonably strong but prices were mainly reflective on the quality of the coins. In other words, nice coins brought good prices while schlock sold cheaply, if at all. The Heritage sale was strong although prices didn't seem as off the charts as in years past. With the exception of the eagles in the Stack's sale the coins brought basically what they were worth. That sounds trite but, in past ANA sales, many coins brought a lot (stress a lot) more than they were worth. A lot.

In the area of rare gold, I noticed some definite market trends. Early date (i.e., pre-1834) gold was almost non-existent. Even the low end, overpriced stragglers that had been overhanging the market seemed to have disappeared. I can't remember an ANA at which I saw fewer early gold coins nor a major show that I purchased fewer.

There was extremely strong demand for Type One double eagles. The coins that nearly everyone seemed to want were common and somewhat better dates in AU50 and up, especially in the $2,000-7,500 price range. Demand was also strong for interesting Type Ones in the $10,000-20,000 range. Its hard to say what demand was like for expensive, really great Type Ones as there were almost none to be seen at the show.

Branch mint gold also was in demand. I bought and sold a few interesting pieces of Dahlonega at the show and had quite a few people come to my table with specific wants. I searched through dozens of dealers' inventories in a Quest for Crust and was unable to find more than a handful of truly DWN-worthy coins.

Another area that suddenly seems strong is Carson City double eagles. I sold a number of interesting CC Twenties and was pleased at the prices they bought. I tried to buy an amazing 1872-CC in NGC MS62+ that was far and away the finest known for the date but was outbid despite figuring it for nearly six figures. Congratulations to whoever purchased this coin; it was sensational.

Off the subject of coins for a second. I hadn't been to Boston in about a decade and it was great to return. What a fantastic city. Great places to shop, small and compact with wonderful walking, fantastic architecture; my kind of place. I was able to leave the show early one day and went to the Gardner Museum. The Rembrandt self-portrait and the two Botticellis were breathtaking, to say the least.

So, another ANA show has come and gone. After nearly 30 years of ANA's, I don't feel the excitement that I used to but this is clearly THE show of the year and the 2010 edition was memorable.