Passion for Coins Turns Into a Successful Career.
Mark Salzberg simply calls it “The Coin.” And he will never sell it.
The chairman of Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) bought the 1877-S Trade dollar in 1985 from a well-known Miami dealer.
“He showed me that coin and I almost fell down when I saw it,” he said. “To me it was the greatest silver Mint State type coin I have ever seen.”
The Miami dealer had purchased it 10 years earlier for $4,000.
“That was a fortune for any coin, but astronomical for an 1877-S Trade dollar,” Salzberg said, noting that gem grade Trade dollars were going for $400 at the time.
“The coin is technically as perfect as any coin of its era could be,” he said. “It is universally recognized as MS-69. It’s perfectly struck, and has the most incredible color, like an angel came down and painted it. The whole combination takes your breath away.”
But the Miami dealer wasn’t inclined to sell it.
“I kept putting Krugerrands on the table and he said ‘No, so I kept putting Krugerrands on the table. When I got to so many and told him I would give it to my son if I ever have one, he finally said I could have it. I promised him I would never sell it.”
And he won’t. Someday “The Coin” will belong to his son, Andrew.
Salzberg’s fascination with coins began as a child back in Oyster Bay on Long Island when a little girl handed him an Indian Head cent. He was only 7 or 8 at the time. He showed the coin to his father, who then bought him a book on how to collect coins. His mother encouraged him by taking him to coin club meetings and visiting garage sales that advertised coins for sale.
“I loved coins,” Salzberg said. “The combination of history, the value of them, designs, all the different aspects – numbers, dates – it all made sense to me. And the beauty of them.”
Then Salzberg met John Albanese. Salzberg was 11 and Albanese, founder of Certified Acceptance Corporation, was 14.
Salzberg’s mother and Albanese were haggling over the price of a silver dollar. She asked him how it could be priced at $30. So Albanese told her how it was one of the best ones out there and talked about its grade and how that affects value.
At the time, Albanese was working at Randy Block’s Raab Coin Shop. He offered Salzberg a job and the two boys became weekend coin dealers.
“We were very young,” Salzberg said. “We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. Many times we would be left running the shop when Randy went to a show. We learned the hard way. In some ways, we learned how not to do business.”
But they loved coins and meeting people with great collections. They both were drawn to the very, very best of a particular type of coin, Salzberg said.
An avid collector, Salzberg would raise money to buy coins by selling corn from his family’s farm in New Jersey on the side of the road.
“I was 12 or 13 at the time and used the money I made from selling corn to buy a 3-cent piece. It was very exciting.”
It wasn’t long before Salzberg, still a teenager, became a vest pocket dealer, starting with silver dollars.
“I would buy gem type coins or better-date dollars, hold them and then resell them. Randy would let us do that. John was more advanced. He would guide me on how to grade.”
Ed Hipps Sr. of Pennsylvania was another great mentor to Salzberg and Albanese.
“We would go to his shop and he’d show us the best of the best, like a 1796 quarter. He would try to show us what was rare. He’d laugh when we said we liked Mercury dimes. But we got a perspective that you can only get from someone who’s been in business a long time.”
By the time Salzberg was 15, he was making more money than his teachers by buying and selling coins.
“It would just consume me,” he said.
He decided to attend college at Drexel in Philadelphia to stay near home. But Albanese would leave messages on his door while he was in class telling him he needed a certain number of commemoratives or 3-cent nickels. So after class, Salzberg would go to coin shops and find some coins.
But he knew he couldn’t go to school and deal coins both, so after nine days he dropped out of college and in 1980 became a full-time coin dealer.
It was a good year to begin his career.
“1980 was red hot,” Salzberg said. “It was good and terrible. Gold and silver were flying. Coins went through the roof; 3-cent nickels in proof went from $300 to $3,000 in 18 months.
Consequently, there was a lot of money to be made in the coin business, but it contracted almost as quickly after gold dropped.
“There literally was a collapse at a coin show. It went from 100 miles an hour to going in reverse.”
And it took a while for the hobby to bounce back.
“I remember going to a coin show in the fall of 1982 when you could roll a bowling ball down the aisle and you wouldn’t hit anyone,” he said. “Dealers were playing cards with each other. Nothing was happening.”
Salzberg calls 1982-83 the depression years. He was a young dealer with expenses and his net worth had diminished significantly. He had a decision to make. Should he stick it out?
Not sure, he filled out an application to attend gemological school. Then he went to the 1983 Florida United Numismatists show. He had $9,000 in his checking account, and made about another $9,000 at the show.
“There was life again in the coin business, so my decision was made to stay in the coin business.”
It was a good decision.
Later that year he went to work for Tom Noe in Toledo, Ohio. Salzberg would handle the wholesale end of the business and Noe would handle the retail company.
Business was good, but as Salzberg said, “It was Toledo.”
“Unfortunately going to Long Beach and then back to Toledo in January is a reality check. I hated it. I hated Toledo.”
He thought about leaving the company in 1984 when he got a call from Noe while out visiting a friend. Noe told Salzberg he had to come back and look at the deal he had.
“He said it was 57,000 silver dollars,” Salzberg said. “I thought he meant a $57,000 deal. But it was 57,000 silver dollars.”
A bank in Toledo had purchased a small bank in the center of Ohio that had the silver dollars on the books at $1 each. Noe had the chance to buy the inventory. Salzberg said he couldn’t sleep for days wondering what they would find.
It turned out that the bank had been supplying a casino in Las Vegas with silver dollars in the 1960s. It kept a large quantity of silver dollars on hand so anytime the casino needed them they’d ship them. These were leftovers, most in the original sealed bags.
“I spent the next month or so looking through the bags,” Salzberg said. “It was the biggest deal of my life at that point. It changed my finances.”
But soon after, Salzberg decided he’d had enough of Toledo. He moved to Miami to work for another coin company. A short time later, he began working part-time for Professional Coin Grading Service.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “I knew how to grade and certification was coming in with new standards.”
On his own time he’d visit coin shops and shows, buying high quality coins.
Before long, his old friend John Albanese gave him a call. He said he was going to start a competing grading service and asked Salzberg to come work for him. Salzberg and his wife, Donna, who also worked for him, were expecting their first child.
So they packed up and moved back to New Jersey.
“I joined John at NGC on Jan. 1, 1988, and the rest is history.”
Salzberg said he’s been “very, very lucky.”
“It’s humbling to do something you absolutely love and make it your profession.”
Now he tries to support the hobby. He was named the American Numismatic Association’s Numismatist of the Year in 2006 and received the ANA’s Presidential Award in 1998. A member of the Professional Numismatists Guild, he helped create the U.S. Mint’s H.I.P. Pocket Change Program, designed to educate youths and spark interest in collecting.
Salzberg is also a major supporter of the Smithsonian Institution and its coin collection. NGC, and an affiliated company, Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS), have sponsored exhibits and provided expert services to the Smithsonian.
“In 2012 alone we donated $100,000 to support the Smithsonian Institution,” said Salzberg. “I think it’s vital that our nation’s most treasured coins be on display for everyone to enjoy.”
It’s a matter of giving back for all the help he’s received over the years.
The names of those in the hobby who have influenced him, helped him, guided him, sound like a Who’s Who of numismatics: Jim Halperin, Kevin Lipton, Q. David Bowers, Art Kagin. They are people of knowledge and integrity, he said.
As for his own coin collection, Salzberg calls them “freaks.”
“I collect coins that are so mind boggling that they exist in these conditions,” he said.
Like an 1864 $2.50 gold piece in MS-67+ from the Reed collection.
“It has gorgeous color, original, with this great skin. I call it a freak because the closest coin to that grade is six or 7 points less,” he said.
Most Civil War era quarter eagles have incredibly low mintages, he said. They were heavily circulated or damaged and are worth quite a bit, even in lower grades.
“This coin shouldn’t exist. It’s as if someone caught it as it came off the press and put it away the day it was made,” Salzberg said. “It is that kind of coin when you show it to people who have a lot of experience they are in awe of it. Those are the sort of coins I have in my collection.” And if there was one coin that Salzberg could add to his collection, no matter the price, what would it be?
“A 1907 Judd-1905 $10 pattern high relief that’s in a private collection [formerly cataloged as Judd-1776]. It’s probably the most valuable coin – a unique 1907 ultra high relief gold pattern with a $10 Indian design. It’s got everything.”
It is perfection, he said.
But there is still that special Trade dollar, which has never been graded and is not in a holder. Recently Salzberg has also become fascinated with ancient coins, an area he’s become interested in with the guidance of NGC Ancients expert David Vagi.
NGC began certifying ancient coins in 2008 and it has allowed Salzberg to study some of the most important specimens when they are submitted. He appreciates the mythology and history that these coins offer.
“They literally tell a story of the world,” he said.
“When I hold those coins, I feel like they radiate some sort of energy.”
Article was originally published in the May 7 issue of Numismatic News.
This is a guest article. The thoughts and opinions in this piece are those of their author and are not necessarily the thoughts of the Certified Collectibles Group.