Jim Bisognani: An Auction House Innovator

Posted on 6/2/2022

Ian Russell, founder of GreatCollections, talks about his winning formula when creating the online numismatic powerhouse.

I can hardly fathom that it’s June already. This year is almost half over, and it seems like we were just ringing in the New Year. I guess I’m showing my age. I swear everything seems to be accelerating at a faster rate. It’s not only time, but of course, prices for most US, world coins and other collectibles are on blitzkriegs of their own.

Although my time may be limited, as far as I can tell, the sky’s the limit for the coin market when choice, rare and otherwise eye-appealing examples come to the market. As interest rates and inflation also accelerate, individuals not wanting to have an abundance of paper-based assets are now turning to collectibles with greater vigor and determination.

As I was going through the house for a much-needed spring cleaning, I happened across many items that had been boxed away and out of sight for many years. The bounty was indeed diverse. I rediscovered toys from my youth, comic books, sports cards, record albums, vintage hi-fi and stereo equipment, and yes, beta and VHS tapes. As I reviewed and assessed some of the “classics” and ferreted out the valuables, I found some significant collectibles in my proud possessions.

A sealed copy of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record album! In the summer of 1969, I paid the princely sum of $5.87, and the price sticker is still in place on the top right corner of the still shrink-wrapped album. I had the foresight to keep it sealed and, today, that album is easily worth 100 times my original cost! Also, various Matchbox cars and trucks I had bought at a local department store on sale at 10 for a dollar, in their original boxes, are now worth well over $150 each! Not bad for a dime! I won’t go on as I think my fellow collectors get the gist.

Collectibles are hot. Yet for all the joy, satisfaction and reminiscing these treasures bring, coins are still my number one.

For one thing, a few hundred coins (slabbed or raw) take up much less space than any other items I had saved. The portability, visibility and instant market valuations make coins the most enjoyable hard assets and the most liquid. 

Ultimately, I had to get a large storage unit to house all this stuff. Obliging family members carted storage box after storage box. I have scribed the basic contents of the boxes now stacked well above eye level in a 10x30 storage unit. Like that closing scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I immediately had images of some of my “rarities” getting lost in the shuffle and somehow exiled to some forgotten location. Let’s face it: Coins are easier to store and lend themselves to a much more enjoyable visitation after work or on the weekends!

Just this past Memorial Day holiday weekend, I was keenly watching the Sunday night GreatCollections auction with great interest. Scores of coins were racking up incredible prices. Yes, the numismatic market is enjoying extraordinary success, especially on Sunday nights.

The recent results of Ian Russell’s GreatCollections auctions got me reminiscing. Below is an excerpt of my first report of that newcomer fledgling: GreatCollections. The firm was founded in late 2010, and I believe the first “live” auctions were conducted in late March 2011. I spoke with Ian as he set up at the spring 2011 Baltimore Whitman Show. Below is my report from that 2011 meeting:

“After much preparation and foresight, GreatCollections, a new Internet-only venue based in Irvine, CA, is up and running. Ian Russell, president of the firm, was thrilled to inform me that the first two auctions are in the book and realized over $100,000. Featuring no hidden reserves and modest premiums, this site should prove to be popular with novice or seasoned numismatists.

“From classics through modern issues, there were several NGC highlights. A lightly rainbow-toned 1850 Seated Liberty Half Dime in NGC MS 67, a population seven coin with only one graded finer, realized $2,915. The 1863 Three Dollar graded NGC AU 58, a popular and low mintage Civil War issue, captured $4,240. A flashy 1903 Liberty Double Eagle graded NGC MS 64 reeled in $2,200, and the still extremely popular 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle reached $2,541 in NGC MS 69.”

Over 11 years later, GreatCollections has sold over 1 million coins, with prices realized from $1 to over $2 million! Last year alone, GreatCollections’ auctions reeled in over $235 million, placing them second in the industry!

If there was ever a winning formula, Ian and his wife Raeleen have certainly captured it and know how to engage in this electric market. I was compelled to give my friend Ian a call and talk shop.

Well, Ian, you’re the number two numismatic auction house in the country. Did you expect that type of acceleration or even envision that?

“I think that anyone who starts their own business is confident that it’s going to succeed. Even though many businesses don’t, anyone who starts a business is always super confident that they’re going to work. Both Raeleen and I were highly confident that it was going to work. It’s exceeded our best-case predictions. We did four or five different scenarios or predictions on sales. Obviously, our businesses far exceeded even our most optimistic prediction.

It’s really been a steady increase over the years. Since 2011, there’s been an increase in sales every year, and it wasn’t really any one thing. We’re obviously continuing to improve our systems. We continue to increase our advertising, but it wasn’t just one thing that changed overnight.”

Did you model GreatCollections from TeleTrade?

“We wanted to be very different than TeleTrade. We took ideas from inside and outside the industry and combined them with how we would want an auction house to function, how we do our sales, how the bidding ends and how the bidding happens. We also wanted clear images of the coins’ look without enhancements or any funny business. We wanted it to look like you’re holding the coin in your hand.

“In addition, we wanted to ship quickly and have the lowest fees. All these things that we would want, as collectors ourselves, to see in an auction house, and that’s how we came up with it. It’s our focus as we grow and as we’ve grown over the years. We don’t want to change the level of service. The business is built for the collector and always will be. Collectors want their coins quickly. For us, it’s a simple priority.”

What were your sales like for the May 29 sale, which just concluded?

“Our sales this past Sunday exceeded $4.56 million, just for that one sale. As you mentioned, our first sale had just exceeded $100,000. So that’s 46 times that inaugural sale!”

Ian did express great pride in having GreatCollections selected as the official auctioneer of the ANA. He also alluded to the plan of expanding to other collectibles in the next few years. At present, GreatCollections is listing and selling between 3,000 to 3,500 US, world coins and paper money collectibles each week via their Sunday night auction. Very impressive indeed!

What effect has the pandemic had on your business?

“Since COVID-19 started, we were fortunate enough to be well-positioned because our business excels with online bidding. We were fortunate, but our business had already increased to a substantial rate before COVID-19.”

Have you seen any weakness in any particular series?

“No, we see continued strength. We have many more buyers than sellers, and we continue to get more and more buyers each week. Of course, gold coins from all series are extremely popular. One of the hottest areas of the market is the Standing Liberty Quarters. We have a silver commemorative set selling in the next few weeks, and we’re getting more interest in that than anything we’ve ever offered! It’s the toned Great Bingham Silver Commemoratives Registry set.”

1920 Standing Liberty Quarter from NGC Coin Explorer
Click images to enlarge.

You have coins for a few dollars up to a million dollars, so really something for everyone’s budget. When you started getting the bigger consignments, did you think about changing the rate structure?

“We wanted to build a business that scales well, and we are rewarded by an increase in business. We don’t have to increase fees because we are selling more coins. I’ve seen so many auction houses do that over the years. As they increase market shares, they’re increasing their fees to increase their profits even more. We don’t need to. We are rewarded by an increase in business and that’s what’s happening. Clients appreciate it when they bid, and they remember us when they sell. That’s a key to our business. And no, we don’t have plans to increase their fees, and I can’t imagine that changing.”

Your formula certainly does work, my friend! It reminds me of an old advertising slogan, which I take the liberty to adjust: When you’re only number two, you try harder.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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