Chapter 6 The Hunt
I don’t care what you collect, every collector dreams of that “Big Find,” that is the (put in your own value) dollar rarity that falls into your lap for a steal and it is all legal and aboveboard. Does this really happen? Yes and I want to tell you about mine. But let’s first discuss what makes such finds possible. With just a couple of exception all my successful hunts took place at local auctions. Some were estate auctions that had a few coins in them, some were regularly schedule coin auctions held by local auction houses that could routinely (once a month or so) pull together enough coins and related items to hold an auction and some were better known local auction houses who happened upon a large holding of coins in good enough condition to justify holding a special auction or incorporating the coins into a two day auction. Please note that all these coin auctions were well attended by all the local coin dealers and for larger auctions dealers from neighboring states would attend. So how does a nobody scoop the dealers? I wish I had an honest answer for you. In the accounts that follow when I think I know why I was successful I will tell you.
Either Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel make a comment that went something like, you would be surprised at what you can see if you just look. I know for a fact that I had many good finds simply by studying every lot up for auction. This approach landed me numerous proof and mint state Doubled Die Washington Quarters, Franklin halves, Kennedy Halves and a really nice 1946 DDR Walking Liberty. All I needed was a good magnifying glass and a willingness to spend a little extra time to look at what was up for sale. My first successful hunt came when I was 5 years old. Every Saturday before my mom went shopping she use to let me go through her change for those coins I needed to fill the holes in my Whitman folder. I got to check her change before she left and after she came home. Would you believe I found a 1921-D walking liberty half dollar!!!!!!!!!!! I ran to my mom and asked if I could have the half dollar. She said no. If you remember from Chapter 2 my parents worked in mills and 50C represented a half hour of labor before taxes. I kept pleading & telling her how few were made and when I pointed out it was $8.50 in one grade and $16 in another grade she decided to let me keep it. That coin was my lucky charm and I took it to every coin show I set up at until one day a fellow dealer stole it from my cash box. I say dealer because only dealers were allowed behind the tables. By the way I completed an entire set of Walking Liberty Halves from pocket change (I never purchase a single one).
To support my hunts I had a “go box” ready, it always had the basics one or two standard generic references, magnifying glasses, note book and two pens (one wrote in red) I would then add other books based on the material listed to be included in the auction. The only items I would take into the viewing was a red book, magnifying glass & note pad. The rest I would leave in the car. After viewing the lots I would take my notes and go out to the car and check my notes against info in the appropriate reference book. Sometimes I would have to go back and check for additional characteristics. This was my preparation for the auction.
Have good references for detecting counterfeits because they also tell you what to look for on the genuine coins. Whether you know it or not many, if not most, of our rarer coins were produced from one set of dies, thus the low mintages. But also the easier to verify it is what you believe it to be. Here is a mini test - where must you look to authenticate a 1942/1 dime? If you didn’t specify a particular location on the reverse of the coin please go back to class. Because only one die pair was used to produce ALL 1942/1 dimes, a genuine 1942/1 must have a die scratch on the reverse. No scratch no 1942/1 dime. The first lead authenticator for the ANACS (originally this was an authentication service only – no grading) told me when they got in 1942/1 dimes they always examined the back first and this check was always correct. You have a similar situation with the 1937-D three legged Buffalo Nickel. Both the obverse and reverse dies were rusted and the obverse surface produced by that rusted die is as important as the missing leg. Well I was at an auction in a firehouse west of Frederick, MD and I was impressed by all the key and semi-key coins in that auction. I was studying the list of items up for sale and there all by itself was a 1937-D nickel. I said to myself why in the world are they selling a 35c coin all by itself? Then the light bulb went on, this has to be a three legged nickel. I started to get up to check it out and I looked at the table where the coins were on display and it was surrounded by all the dealers from Frederick and surrounding areas and as far away as Baltimore. And any coin a bidder picked up to check out they immediately rechecked after it was placed back on the table. So I walked up to the table and didn’t pick up a single coin all I did was look at the obverse of that nickel and it screamed 1937-D three legged buffalo. The bidding started at a quarter and when it got to a dollar the chatter picked up and when I won the coin for $1.75 there were some snickers. When I looked at the back I saw the scratch in the area of the missing foot. I smiled sent it into ANACS and it came back a three legged buffalo. Had the other bidders looked at the entire coin and all its genuine characteristics the selling price would have been higher. I sold that coin for around $125. A strange example of how just looking happened to find me a good coin I was going through my own junk box. One day I decided to go through a box containing well-worn coins as well as world coins I could not identify. I was pulling out the silver coins to sell them for melt. As I pull out what looked like a slug I gave it an extra look to see if it was really silver and was amazed at how well-worn the piece was. Just as I was to let fly into the melt pile I realize there was actually a design on it that I could make out. It was a John Chalmers’ short worm shilling (1783) I had no idea where or when I acquired it. But since at the time I was living in Maryland I could only assume it was part of a box lot I picked up at one of the back woods country auctions I frequented. After sending it to ANACS I was able to sell it for about $100.
My first true “hunt find” was at a fire station auction in Wolfsville, MD. I got there early on a Saturday because I did not expect to find anything and there was another auction I could go to. When I saw the coin component of this auction was only about 18 coins I wasn’t going to waste my time. But then I said I’m here there was only 18 coins take a look then leave. The only coin to catch my eye was an 1873 no arrows half dollar. The coin was totally undamaged and a very pleasing VG. When I checked the red book it catalogued for $20 BUT WAIT there is an open three and closed three and the closed three catalogues for over $1,000. At that time the red book did not have a photo of a closed three and if they did I probably would not have purchased this coin. Why? Do you know how small the opening is in the open 3? The opening is 0.4mm and the closed 3 is 0.2mm. Being half the size one would think that is easy to see but you don’t have them side by side and with just one coin to look at 0.4mm looks like it might be 0.2mm and 0.2mm might be 0.4mm. The only reason I did not pass on this coin was that I had once owned a closed three quarter and from what I remembered the date on that half dollar reminded me of that quarter. Because I got there early I drove 45 minutes back to my house ran down to my 450+ book library and guess what not a single photo of a closed three 1873 no arrows half dollar. Now I was almost out of time so back to car and back to the auction house. I decided to buy the half dollar. If I get it for $20 so what the coin was worth that and if I pay $5 or $10 more so what that isn’t going to brake me. I won the bidding at $20 and as I was handed the coin my hands were shaking and the person giving me the coin saw them shaking said you did good and I said “if you only knew.” Off it went to ANACS and I ended up selling it for over $1,000.
Now for my ultimate “Hunt Find” this one is mind blowing at least for me. It was a two day “coin” auction that was held in Williston, VT. There was a full day of viewing the day before the auction started. When I say a full day I was there over nine hours, I was there as it was being opened and I was there as it was being closed. The dealers showed up in teams splitting up the work of checking out the lots. I was there by myself. I found several lots I would bid on. But just as they were asking me to leave I opened a small box that contained 13 ancient coins and the first coin I saw was an Aes Grave Semis (1/2 AS) from 280 to 269 BC. When I got home I got out my ancient books and determined it was a Sear 535 which has a decades old valuation of $500. This was a massive coin and hard to miss with a weight of about 130 grams. There were other Roman and Greek coins which I estimated to be worth another $750 to $1000 and about three Byzantine bronzes worth about $50 each. That night I decided this lot was mine and was willing to go at least $750. I knew I was going to get this lot because this is Vermont and this lot may represent half of all the ancient coins in the state at that time. The lots were sold in the order they were displayed for viewing so this lot sold at the end of the second day which also help me win it because most bidders had left by then. The lot opened at around two hundred dollars then moved down to $150 > then $100 then > $50 then $25 at which point I won the bid for $25 + buyer’s fee so $28.50 in total. I sold the poorest condition coins first and that netted me a little over $1,000 . I then sent the remaining coins to NGC Ancients. A few weeks later I get a call from Dave Vagi at NGC Ancients and he started questioning me about my submittal. He finally told me that one of my Byzantine coins was not byzantine but in fact one of the most important Armenian coins in existence and worth about $15,000. You can read the whole story at https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/1258. The article includes a photo which is better than the photo you get when you use the certification number 2406902-023.
The results of this hunt was just dumb luck, but what I will take credit for is making sure everything in my collection is identified. I could have simply continued to assume that what I thought were three byzantine coins where just that and sold them for $50 each.
This again brings up the question when should a buyer tell a professional/dealer what he is selling is worth more than what he is selling for? Look, I have been to hundreds of these auctions and everyone starts the same way. The auction house makes no claims that their descriptions are accurate, they do not stand behind any grade you might find on a holder and it is up to the buyer to decide what the auction house is selling is real or a fake item. So if the coin is damaged, a fake or not as described and I find this out one second after I purchased it, too bad that is my fault!!!! Well I am sorry I am not obligated to tell the professional/dealer that an item is worth more than they think it is.