Learning from the Simpson Collection

Posted on 12/17/2007

Last month’s 30+ million dollar sale of the Simpson Collection of Pattern Coinage was a historic transaction that numismatists will be studying for years. Find out what it teaches us about building a great coin collection.

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When first reported, last month's $30+ million sale of pattern coins was certainly newsworthy. It is the largest single private treaty rare coin transaction to date. For many collectors, pattern coins typically fall outside the mainstream of US numismatics. They are, however, always lauded for their beauty and rarity. But this sale is even more special because of how long it has been since there was a similar transaction of pattern coins to which it can be compared.

In fact, one must go back nearly 100 years to uncover a similar sale of pattern coins, which, as it turns out, is one of numismatics' most storied transactions. In 1909, prominent collector William H. Woodin purchased two $50 Half Union patterns struck in gold for a then unprecedented sum of $20,000. The seller was the former coiner and superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, Col. A Loudon Snowden. Some controversy surrounded the private ownership of these coins, which were unique and now the world's most valuable. Mint Director A. Piatt Andrew wanted the coins returned to the Mint's collection.

To reacquire the coins, the Mint offered Woodin two large cases filled with pattern coins in exchange. At that time, many patterns were sold by the Mint for double face value, and one can easily see how a transaction of this magnitude could have included thousands of coins. He accepted and thereby acquired the largest and most comprehensive collection of pattern coins of its day. The Mint subsequently destroyed the dies and hubs for the production of pattern coins so that no more could be produced, freezing their mintages and making Woodin's acquisition all the more significant.

Now, a century later, astonishingly, we happen across a similar collection of pattern coins. NCS was selected to review the collection for conservation, and NGC was chosen to grade and certify the collection in its entirety. For the professional graders at NGC, this comprehensive evaluation led to one overwhelming insight: The Simpson Collection of Pattern Coinage presents an incredible learning opportunity for numismatists. One reason for this is very obvious: the collection is the most complete assembled in decades. The sheer number and diversity of pieces allows for comprehensive study of pattern coinage, an opportunity not available since the early 1960's. This type of study will be conducted over many years to come.

"This collection was exhilarating to view and grade," comments Mark Salzberg, Chairman, Certified Collectibles Group. "Every coin told a new story of what coinage could have been. It's a thrill that Mr. Simpson has given NCS and NGC the task and tremendous responsibility to preserve and display this historical collection for the betterment of the hobby."

Salzberg continues: "Beyond the pleasure of examining these coins, from the perspective of a certification company, working with a collection of this scope is monumental. A basic tenet of grading is that one needs to have a frame of reference, meaning you need to see the very best in order to rank everything else. Well, now my frame of reference has been recalibrated. I have seen the very best collection in terms of eye appeal, grade and rarity. This is a valuable reference for NGC."

Even from this first look, we can garner universal and valuable lessons for collectors, even if they are very general. In this case, we can discern clear rules about how a collector pursues his passion and builds his collection. With Mr. Simpson we see a very deliberate collector who operates by observing a fundamental set of ground rules. He possesses a vision of what a collection should be, and he replicates this vision by seeking out specific pieces in the marketplace. The vision of a collector, we concluded, is ultimately more important than his resources.

Three Keys to Building a Great Collection

  1. Work with a trusted advisor, mentor, or group of advisors to give you a sounding board to review purchases, expand your knowledge and stay focused.
  2. Develop firm rules and structure for your collection. Buy coins that show off your preferences.
  3. Have an end goal that you seek to accomplish with your complete collection which gives it purpose.

The formation of any great collection begins with the same critical step—working with a trusted advisor or advisors. Regardless of a collectors experience or budget, this should be the foundation of his collecting. An advisor may take the form of a dealer or a fellow collector, a friend at a coin club or a numismatic author. Most collectors strike out on their own to build their collections, which leads either to a number of costly mistakes or a hodgepodge of randomly assembled coins that only roughly form a collection. The advisor need not be limited to one person, but can take the form of several dealers or experts in particular area of numismatics.

To fulfill this criterion, Mr. Simpson works closely with Laura Sperber and George Huang of Legend Numismatics. Together they developed a framework for his collection and acted as a sounding board for his purchases and values. Working with full-time dealers also gave him access to material that might otherwise never have come to his attention.

The second critical element, which is abundantly clear in the Simpson Collection, is to develop a concrete framework for the collection. This is where a collector's personal preferences shine. Whatever you like, whatever is important to you, can be the foundation of these rules. More than anything, it should be clear that your purchasing decisions conform to these rules. When people look at your collection, they should see the active participation of the collector. Your likes, dislikes, preferences and personality should be obvious. When a collector establishes a core set of principles to guide his purchasing decisions, he makes a critical leap. This is the move to becoming an advanced collector.

Mr. Simpson's rules are rigid. He seeks to fulfill three important criteria. First, a collection must be complete. When Mr. Simpson sets out to assemble a collection, he strives to complete it. It is a commitment to a long term goal, as in areas such as pattern coinage, this can involve a wait for a single specimen tied up in a collector's hands.

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Second, Mr. Simpson seeks to find coins with extraordinary eye appeal. For him, this includes coins with both vibrant toning and, for proof coinage, highly contrasted Cameo and Ultra Cameo devices. The NGC Star designation is a useful tool to determine if a coin might meet his criteria, as these coins have been determined by the NGC graders to exhibit exceptional eye appeal. NCS conservation may also play a role when collecting proof coinage, as removal of surface contaminants such as dirt, grease, and PVC will often reveal a coin having stronger and deeper contrast. NGC's strict requirements for the Ultra Cameo designation also serve to identify an acquisition candidate for Mr. Simpson. Uniformity is also a consideration, as some pieces by nature of grade or designation attributes "just go together," and this means that high grade or otherwise exceptional specimens become duplicates.

The third element that a coin must possess to be considered by Mr. Simpson is that it be of high grade. Mr. Simpson will upgrade his collection with coins of higher grade when his criteria for eye appeal can also be met. As this is a constant work, the insight of a knowledgeable dealer is also strongly advised. Several times, Mr. Simpson has had to purchase intact collections to seek out individual pieces that improve his core collection. The sorting process and sale of duplicates is conducted with the aid of a professional numismatist.

This most recent pattern acquisition has yielded a number of duplicate pieces for Mr. Simpson, and these will be sold off by Legend Numismatics. A number of these pieces would stand out as individual highlights in another collector's cabinet, but for reasons of grade, eye appeal, and uniformity, they don't fit in the Simpson core collection.

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The final tenet of building a great collection is to have an end goal. Again, this can be discussed and cultivated with an advisor or mentor and can critically inform purchasing decisions. This will also take many forms to cater to the individual collector. Some seek to compete on the NGC Registry and to showcase their collections favorably alongside others. Others want to build a collection for eventual sale upon its completion or corresponding with their retirement. Mr. Simpson is very long-term focused and aspires to keep his collection intact indefinitely. For this he relies on NCS conservation to assure that his collectibles are stable and optimized for long-term collectability. Harmful residues and other contaminants are removed from his coins' surfaces when necessary, so that they may be maintained for future generations. He also relies on the NGC holder, the most thoroughly and rigorously tested holder in numismatics, to assure an ideal storage environment that simultaneously contributes to their visual display.

The unparalleled scope of Mr. Simpson's collection also endows a unique responsibility. His collection becomes a resource for the numismatic community at large. It can inspire fellow collectors and become a cornerstone in building our numismatic knowledge. For this, one thing is needed: exposure. To make the contents of his collection known, Mr. Simpson will have it listed on the NGC Registry, an online tool for collectors to display their collections of certified coins. The collection will be online for viewing by anyone desiring to do so. Only a few years ago, such an opportunity would not be available, and now it is available to anyone with an internet connection.

The lessons gleaned from the Simpson Collection are particularly poignant, because the collection strongly merits being examined in this critical way. Theses simple tenets should be internalized by every collector because they must be followed to build a truly great collection, regardless of size and value:

  1. Work with a trusted advisor, mentor, or group of advisors to give you a sounding board to review purchases, expand your knowledge and stay focused.
  2. Develop firm rules and structure for your collection. Buy coins that show off your preferences.
  3. Have an end goal that you seek to accomplish with your complete collection which gives it purpose.

Phenomenal coin collections are built every day, making this hobby unique among collectibles. Feats that some thought could never be accomplished, such as the Simpson Collection of Patterns, prove that there is opportunity to accomplish great things in numismatics. What's more, the rules to follow are very accessible and apply equally to all collectors.