Jeff Garrett: When at Auction, It Pays to Have An Expert by Your Side

Posted on 4/28/2022

Professional advice can go a long way when buying rare coins at auctions.

As nearly everyone who buys rare coins these days knows, a large percentage of the buying and selling happens at auctions. The auction market has exploded in recent years. Twenty-five years ago, the total amount of rare coins sold at auction in the United States was probably less than $25 million. More recently, that number is closer to $625 million or more. That does not include the thousands of coins sold each day on eBay and other websites.

There are several reasons for this, the biggest being the tremendous rise in the prices for coins at the top end of the market. Years ago, a million-dollar sale made front-page headlines; today, these are a seemingly monthly occurrence, and barely mentioned.

The size of rare coin and currency auctions has also increased tremendously. At this year’s 2022 FUN show, Heritage Auctions was simultaneously conducting separate auctions of world coins, currency and US coinage. Thousands of coins and currency were sold during the week. The US section alone realized over $65 million. The sale was also held online one week after the show.

A 1860 Clark-Gruber $20 graded NGC AU 55 realized $600,000 at Heritage Auctions' FUN US Coin Signature Auction in January 2022
Click images to enlarge.

A typical rare coin auction will offer a wide range of rare coins and currency. Collectors looking for interesting and rare coins will be compelled at some point to consider participating in an auction. This is especially true when a great collection of seldom-if-ever-seen rare coins come to market. These types of sales sometimes offer a once-in-a generation opportunity to buy a numismatic rarity.

The recently conducted sales of the Bob Simpson Collection are a great example. Many of those coins had been off the market for over 20 years. The prices realized for many of the great coins in the sale stunned most market observers. The demand for top pop amazing coins has never been stronger.

This brings up the subject of this week’s article. For many collectors, these auctions offer a great opportunity to purchase coins that are nearly impossible to find. The problem is that these auctions also require a substantial financial commitment to be successful. Most collectors find the process of placing winning bids in an important sale to be nearly impossible. No matter how aggressive the bid, they lose out.

This is where the advice of a seasoned professional can be invaluable. Having someone to look at lots, figure bids and execute a bidding strategy is well worth the investment of a few percentage points. Without this help, collectors will often either miss the chance to buy the coin or pay substantially too much. Expert advice can be crucial in a pressure situation.

One of the greatest advantages of seeking an auction representative is to have someone screen coins for quality. As we all know, coins of the same grade are not always alike. Some collectors prefer nicely toned, original coins. Others, however, want coins with frosty white surfaces. An auction representative can also check coins for hidden marks, scratches or rim problems. With quality and eye appeal being the biggest driver of rare coins prices, the advice of an expert is extremely important.  

The photography used by most rare coin auction firms is excellent these days. With a few clicks, collectors can zoom in and examine the obverse and reverse of a coin with ease. Unfortunately, anyone with experience can tell you that seeing a coin in person is the only way to fully understand the quality of a rare coin.

Most dealers know their customers and have a good understanding of what kind of coin they are looking for. I tell my customers that my criteria is simple: I want to recommend coins that I would be happy to repurchase at some point in the future. Having someone on your side when it comes to quality is well worth the investment.

Once you and your advisor have decided to bid on a coin, the work really begins. You need someone who understands your priorities, budget and quality desires. Your advisor should also be an expert in the series you are bidding on. There is a fine line between making sure you secure the coin of your dreams and vastly overpaying. An expert can help you decide how far to go when figuring bids. Most will have access to previous auction records, private sales and years of experience.

Many collectors get very excited when something they have been looking for shows up at auction. An expert can help you weigh the value of such opportunities and decide how aggressive to be. Years of experience is a valuable tool in the rare coin market, and for a few percentage points, it can be the best investment collectors can make.

Most collectors know the dealers who specialize in the field of collecting they have chosen. Nearly all these dealers are willing to assist collectors at auction. The typical fee for auction representation is around 5%. The fees are obviously negotiable but remember that a considerable amount of time is required to properly represent someone at auction. A great place to start when seeking auction help is to work with someone whom you have established a relationship with. These relationships can be extremely valuable in the long term and well worth the investment.

The next time a coin sets a record at auction, make sure you have received some solid advice if you happen to be the winning bidder!

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