Having Fun Collecting in 2014

Just as I was pondering how to break in the Kraljeblog for the year 2014, the answer came to me the way so many sources of inspiration arrive nowadays: in my email box. An old friend, a fellow dealer and numismatist (those words are not synonyms), answered my query about whether or not I’d see him at an upcoming auction. His response was telling. He described himself as “unexcited” by the US coin market at present, while the world coin business was “fun.”

Fun. What an oddly foreign way for merchants to decide what to sell. Fun has no metrics. You can’t chart fun, and most banks won’t let you deposit it. You just have to have it, create it, and embrace it.

My inventory has always been made up of things I like, items that I think are fun to collect. I was never any good at plugging holes in sets, slowly upgrading collections, or selecting my favorite specimen of a type from among the 100 available examples at a given coin show. From my days when I was primarily a collector, the stuff that struck me as fun were pieces that became cooler with some research, distinctive coins and medals (and other stuff) that I might not have seen before, or items that were just plain eye-catching. Great pedigrees are fun. Originality is fun. Stories are fun. Having collecting goals that are completely of your own design is fun.

Here are a few ideas on what keeps collecting a particular series fun:

1. Actually buying things. Sure, it would be great to say you collect Mint State 1794 dollars alphabetically by color, but if you can’t actually acquire the items you purport to collect, what fun are they? This doesn’t mean that everything you want should be common, but there should be enough opportunity for acquisition to keep things interesting.
2. The opportunity to discover information. This is one of my primary beefs with so many commonly collected series: there is just not much new to learn about them, either in terms of nitty-gritty numismatic technical stuff or a broader historical context. The good news: there are an infinite number of specialties about which research has barely scratched the surface. Focus on them.
3. Scaleability. There are no greater letdowns in the life of a collector than completing a collection. So aim for a moving target. Finished a collection of all the War of 1812 naval medals? Time to make that a collection of all the War of 1812 medals, naval, military, and other. Finished your 13 colony set of colonial currency? Time to make that a collection of 26 notes that includes issues from before and after the Revolution. If finishing a collection is the worst thing about collecting, who wants that?
4. Fellowship. Clubs like the Medal Collectors of America (MCA), Colonial Coin Collectors Club (C4), Early American Coppers (EAC) et al mean that you’ll not only have a way to make new friends, but you’ll always have people to discuss new research ideas, collecting strategies, and other questions with. While being the only person to collect something can be fun, these groups can often help you find the one other person who cares about your obscure interest. Or maybe you’ll find a dozen people who are passionate about it.
5. Good value. I’m the last guy on the planet to suggest that numismatic items should be collected for investment purposes. It is only natural to hope that enough people care about what you collect to support the prices you paid for the stuff you acquired. My corner of the numismatic world deals with pieces that are only available in finite, even diminishing, numbers (this is not the case with all numismatic collectibles, including items where the value is largely reliant upon the numerical grade). Basic economics suggests that the best way to increase prices given a fixed supply is to increase demand. Thus, the things that tend to be good value are found in areas where more future collectors seems likely.

So now comes the $64,000 question: what’s fun in 2014? (Correct answers will be limited to stuff I might actually sell you. This is a commercial website after all.)

My friend who inspired this particular blog entry identified the world coin market as fun. I have to agree. Of course, the world coins I tend to like are ones that found a role in the mercantile history of early America, the small change coppers, daily-use silver, and financially important gold coins that were seen on American shores for the three hundred year epoch from the 1560s through the American Civil War. The point can obviously be expanded worldwide though. Not only is coin collecting becoming more popular than ever overseas, but the once inefficient world coin market has become amazingly streamlined in the Internet age. I used to be able to go to Europe, buy coins, and bring them home to sell at substantial profits. Others who went decades (even centuries) before I did had even better luck. Now, even the smallest coin shop owner or individual collector can consign stuff to major auctions, put it on eBay, or even attend a major coin show with relative ease. This means there are plenty of coins to buy (see rule #1) and expanding markets to sell into also (rule #5).

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I like high quality Latin American stuff the most right now. English coins have always been avidly collected, so for most series, very nice quality material is always available at a price. (Excuse the broad generalizations -- there are clearly exceptions and plenty of different ways to define “very nice.”) French coins are underappreciated, but unless one enjoys collecting by date and mint, most American-centric collectors can be made happy with single examples of long-running basic types. The exceptional variety of Dutch coins is an appealing challenge -- Joe Lasser counted them among his favorite specialties -- but most Americans have trouble discerning a ducaton from a patagon. English, French, and Dutch coins are all historically relevant to American collectors and flexible enough to allow self-defined collections.

But somehow Latin American coins just attract more eyeballs. Some like the crudeness and attribution challenge of cobs. Others are attracted to the mysterious appeal of shipwreck coins. Many like the regimented approach of assembling denomination sets of Pillars or Portraits, along with the added wrinkle of those distinctive mintmarks. Pieces with original surfaces are scarce enough to be a challenge but available enough to not be frustrating. And the price point is admittedly appealing: somehow $500 Pillar dollars and $2000 doubloons from the colonial era just seem like a good deal. There has been a surfeit of nice material around lately, thanks in large part to the unfortunate dissolution of the Huntington Collection. Among the coins of the Latin American world that were relevant to early America, the variety is almost endless. While plenty of folks like the Pillar and Portrait material, coins from Latin America’s fitful era of independence are perhaps even more attractive and evocative. They too circulated in the United States (thousands were melted at the U.S. Mint to be turned into ubiquitous Bust halves) and their historical connections to North America are endless, from the Cartagenian flag under which the Brothers LaFitte sailed to the American family of Simon Bolivar (did you know his nephew went to the same high school as US Mint officer Franklin Peale and later attended the University of Virginia?). So whether it be the crude 16th century coppers of Hispanola that have been found in Virginia or the elegantly designed silver and gold coins from the independent republics of South America, Latin American coins are pretty fun to collect.

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Medals are fun. They’re mostly big, they’re pretty, and their condition tends to be excellent. Many, as listed in Julian’s Medals of the United States Mint, were struck on the same presses as U.S. coins (and designed by the same craftsmen), but their mintages are minuscule - almost always under 500 and sometimes less than 100. Medals can be collected that illustrate colonial American history (the Betts series), symbolize the disingenuous attempts at friendship with American natives (the Indian Peace medal series), or recognize American achievements from home crafts to inventions (the agricultural and mechanical series). There is a wealth of good literature, but new discoveries are made in the American medal series continuously. You can collect as broadly as you like (the entire US Mint medal series) or as narrowly as you like: I have a customer that collects medals with sailing vessels on them, for instance, and nearly every show I have something new for him -- and he’s been buying them for years.

If you’re into die varieties, there are hundreds of Admiral Vernon medals that await your attribution, most of which can be had for a few hundred bucks. If you’re into trophies, what could be better than a Libertas Americana with a proveable provenance to Benjamin Franklin (hint: they all came from him). If you’re into artistry, it doesn’t take a MCMVII High Relief or a visit to Mount Rushmore to enjoy the sculptural chops of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Gutzon Borglum. Both made medals too.

No matter what your favorite era is, American history has been illustrated thoroughly on medals. While there are enough rarities within every medallic specialty to try the patience and pocketbook of any level of collector, there’s a extraordinary swath of American medals that are entirely too cool to be as cheap as they are. You know what? People are noticing. I can’t keep original Comitia American medals in stock. War of 1812 medals go fast too. The prices of many popular U.S. Mint medals have gone up by a factor of 5 in the last decade or two, and they still seem inexpensive. If you can come up with a good reason that a medal struck at the US Mint 150 years ago with a lower mintage than many proof gold coins should cost under $1000 in top condition, I’d like to hear it.

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Among the medal field, political campaign medals in particular have been ignored for too long. Remember how there was great world gold coins everywhere after the Eliasberg world sale of 2005? Or how every dealer had a couple of nice Pine Tree shillings after the big Ford XII sale? Well, the biggest collection of political tokens and medals ever formed -- including pieces that had never been sold publicly since they were struck in the 1860s -- sold in September, and there were fewer than a dozen people in the room. I bought a pile and so did the other dealers and collectors there. While rarities brought incredible prices from collectors who had long waited their turn to buy them, those rarities might not be what you’d think. James K. Polk and Lewis Cass are blue-chips among political medal collectors, for instance. Left behind were beautiful choice Mint State medals struck for the campaigns of candidates whose names are known by any fifth grader: Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, George McClellan, and more. The John Ford collection made many of these pieces look common, but it was truly a collection of collections, with duplication that can never possibly happen again. In a few years, we’ll all wonder what happened to them all. By that time, they probably won’t cost what they do now, which is generally in the $300-500 range in nice Mint State.

I bet most of us could name all 43 Presidents in under five minutes. How’s that for a nice compact want list you can keep in your head?

As always, collecting anything made in America in the 18th century is fun, and that means coins or paper. Colonial paper is dirt cheap. There is no way to say this gently though: no one collects it. Sure, a few people like to buy the occasional piece, and clearly someone is buying the stuff that sells at auction, but there just isn’t much retail action on it. There are a few potential reasons, I suppose. First, it’s rarely perfect. During its useful life (and yes, often after it too), this stuff was washed, taped, repaired, sewn, ironed, and trimmed. I can’t speak in absolutes, but 90+% of the very high grade notes in the marketplace today were trimmed in modern times from sheets. Why would anyone cut up a 200+ year old sheet, you may exclaim quizzically. Because people pay more for two MS-66 PPQ notes than they do for a folded sheet that can be hacked up into a couple of nice notes and a pile of trimmings. As for the circulated stuff, a lot of it is fairly common (like most Continentals, for instance, or nearly every colonial/state issue of the 1775-76 period). The most common of the Continentals, with hundreds of thousands of notes issued, are the Fugio fractionals of February 1776 - and these regularly see higher prices than nearly any other Continental note in VF-AU condition. Why? Demand. They’re iconic, and people want them.

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I wish I could increase interest in in-depth collecting of colonial, state, and Continental paper. The stuff is wonderful: visual, easily organized, historic, challenging but not impossible to collect. Those folks that do collect it tend to do so as a sideline (collecting a 13 colonies set is far and away the most popular method). I’d happily inventory more of it if I thought I could sell it. Alas, after years of carrying an inventory to shows, it sold so slowly (and the markups were so slim when I did sell it), that I’ve essentially stopped bringing it to most shows. I’d invite feedback on this, and want lists of course, because I really find it puzzling that so few people really chase these issues. I feel like the large-scale ignorance of this series, and the concomitant price levels, can’t last forever.

As always, I think colonial coins are fun, but I feel like they’re not as fun as they could be. In the last few years, prices for the best of the best have achieved stratospheric levels. It is, thus, no coincidence that many wonderful things, from NE Shillings to six-figure Rhode Island Ship Medals, have come on the market. At the same time, typical collector coins have stagnated. It is not coincidental that it’s now nearly impossible to locate standard collector-grade early American and colonial pieces.

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One perhaps unintended consequence of the decision to start slabbing colonial coins in 1991 is to reward pedestrian coins and penalize those that require some understanding. Since the grading services penalize coins from odd die states, those struck on odd planchet stock, and the crudely struck varieties that make many series so interesting to collect, most collectors who have come to coin collecting in the age of the slab end up collecting coins that in many ways represent the lowest common denominator: common coins whose grading they and the grading services understand. Further, grading services eschew problem coins, and many colonial coins have one problem or other. I can’t in good conscience say people should chase problem coins (largely because they’re a bear to sell), but the sort of problem coin that was once widely appreciated is now a drug on the market: high sharpness pieces with some corrosion, a circulated coin with a bad nick or scratch, a piece struck on a poor planchet.

Many of the collectors who came of age in the same collecting generation I did now have most of what they need. This is why Rarity-5 Connecticuts are priced like commons but Rarity-7 Connecticuts can be five figures in low grade. The next generation would typically be the ones to pay good money for upgraded duplicates, but the next generation (in large part) wants graded, certified coins. Thus, the coins that knowledgeable collectors fought over in 1990 either went up tenfold since then (are they gradeable?) or have languished and barely beat inflation (PCGS will hate that roughness/reverse weakness/rim clip).

So while I still love colonial coins immensely, I’m finding them hard to buy and, because of that, hard to sell. The best stuff tends to go to auction, where it finds ready buyers. The pedestrian stuff is hard to sell at even a slight markup. High grade type coins find buyers if they’re nice and fresh, but finding fresh coins outside of an auction environment is a tall order nowadays. Finding fresh collectors is even harder.

But those fresh collectors are why dealing in colonial coins remains fun. Specialist dealers (not just me) are happy to help someone who really wants to build a collection, not just buy a coin. There’s a marvelous body of literature and a supportive community of collectors. For those who really want to be colonial coin collectors, even colonial coin specialists, and not just colonial coin buyers, there is great fun to be had in creating a vision of what your collection should be, then going out and building it. The learning curve may be steeper than with some other series, but the sense of accomplishment is thus that much greater. The dealers who specialize in colonials are, to a man, excellent teachers, and the repository of wisdom they have at hand far surpasses the knowledge found on the Internet, at the grading services, or even at most of the auction houses. Want to know more? Just ask. Unlike choice colonial coins, opinions and advice aren’t hard to find.

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John Kraljevich Americana