Jim Bisognani: Employing Due Diligence

Posted on 8/3/2023

As the numismatic community gets ready for the ANA World's Fair of Money, Jim sends a reminder to check and recheck prices on the floor.

Excitement is brewing in the numismatic community as this article posts. That’s right, fellow coindexters — we’re less than a week away from the opening day of the 2023 ANA World’s Fair of Money. This year’s event will be offering a break from the Rosemont, Illinois, stronghold that has been its home for the last three years. Instead, this year’s edition will be held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was supposed to host the 2020 ANA World’s Fair of Money, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For yours truly, the last time I attended an ANA Show in Pittsburgh was the fall edition held in 2011. That’s right; in addition to the spring National Money Show, which made its inaugural debut in 1978 in Colorado Springs, the ANA introduced the fall National Money Show in 2011. It was a short-lived venture, as the next year’s fall show was the last time it was held.

Yet for me, the ANA World’s Fair of Money is what our hobby is all about. A huge bourse, tables staffed by world-renowned dealers and showcase exhibits, including an elite collection of Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles, the finest of the series ever assembled, along with the Tyrants of the Thames 2.0, featuring nearly 300 of the finest English coins outside of Great Britain. And, of course, collector exhibits showcase more than three dozen submissions by ANA members! In a word, WOW!

Waxing nostalgic

I can always recollect my first visit to the ANA with the fondest of memories. It was the 82nd ANA convention, held in Boston during August 1973. Just like now, I was excited and overjoyed to attend the show. Having a chance to rub elbows with the elite dealers of the day and learning about the subjective nature of coin grading! Of course, back then there was no third-party grading by NGC to take the major guesswork out of grading. I mean, back in those dark days prior to 1987, collectors and dealers had to rely on one another and become familiar with the various idiosyncrasies of various dealers and how they graded coins.

Some specialists knew more about a particular series, whether it be Morgan Dollars or Walking Liberty Half Dollars or Lincoln Cents. The key was to gain a consensus of what various dealers were looking for in a coin. Perhaps back then, more than now, we newbies all took our lumps by buying a not-so-worthy coin for our respective collections.

I recall, a few years before I visited my first ANA show, I had decided to attend our local monthly coin show. I remember that I had saved up enough to buy a Mint State Seated Liberty Half Dollar, and I also had my eyes on an uncirculated Draped Bust Half Cent. I ended up at the table of the dealer who would always set up at the event, and this particular dealer had one of the coins I wanted. There was this dazzling quartet of Liberty Seated Half Dollars all in white cardboard 2x2 stapled holders, proclaiming their grade as “BU” (or brilliant uncirculated) and a price tag of $35 on each. I bought a bright, clean-looking 1877 from the quartet. Happy with that purchase, I scanned around for a nice Draped Bust Half Cent too, but with no luck.

However, the next month at the local show, the same dealer had some earlier type coins. Lo and behold, there was an 1806 Draped Bust Half Cent — red and brown uncirculated and rather nifty looking. The dealer wanted $75, but I was able to knock that down to $60. I was feeling pretty good in that early summer in 1971! I had acquired two of the coins that I wanted in relatively short order and at good prices.

1806 Draped Bust Half Cent from NGC Coin Explorer
Click images to enlarge.

About a week after the show, I went to my local coin shop in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I had brought my two new coins with me, thinking I might want to trade up for something even better. After scanning the four large showcases, I gravitated to the one up front near the desk. The dealer had acquired a dozen or so 1904 and 1907 $20 Liberty gold coins. They were all in the nice, easy-seal flips at the top of the showcase. What flash and mesmerizing luster! The price on each was $67.50. These gleaming Double Eagles got me thinking; maybe I could trade my two coins for a pair of these nice $20 gold pieces.

I pulled out my Half Dollar and Half Cent and took them to the dealer (called Dick). After asking if he would be interested in trading, he took a quick look, checked the coins with his magnifier, and then looked back at me and said: “I really can’t use these.” I asked why, and he asked me what I had paid for the Liberty Seated Half Dollar. I said $35.

Dick then asked me to come to the other counter, where he pulled out a copy of Coin World. He said, “I advertise in this magazine each week. See, my buy prices for Liberty Seated halves in BU are $40. So stop and think, Jim: Why would a dealer sell you or anyone coins for well under what I am paying?”

Dick answered for me, “The coins are not real BUs.” My coin had been whizzed. He gave me a magnifier and instructed me to look at the fields and see the fine lines. I gulped — he was right. Dick pulled out a few more coins for me to compare — one was polished, while another was “really whizzed.”

Whizzed 1880 Indian Head Cent. To learn more about whizzed coins, click here.
Click images to enlarge.

“As a minor consolation,” Dick said, “your coin is certainly more presentable than what’s in the lot I just got in.”

I braced myself for more bad news as he looked at my Draped Bust Half Cent. He proclaimed that it was a nice, extremely fine coin with some nice, artificially applied toning. I was devastated that the two coins I had spent $95 on were worth less than half of what I had paid. So, from that time forward, I became very, very cognizant of the coins that I was contemplating for purchase in dealer showcases. Until then, I had assumed that if the coin was marked BU, Choice Uncirculated or Proof, that indeed, it would be. I didn’t realize that there were ways to artificially enhance or misrepresent coins. From that point on, I learned quickly and said to myself, “You have to learn before you buy.”

Making the grade

The main grievance I had while growing up as a collector was that, unless you knew particular grades and grading standards employed by a particular dealer, you were at a disadvantage. Grading at the time did vary greatly from dealer to dealer, and thus the retail prices of coins that may have been whizzed or otherwise altered could be selling differently from what an actual dealer was paying for the same correctly graded coins at the wholesale level.

Heck, a dealer could buy a coin at a show that was marked BU or UNC and just put it in a new flip and proclaim it “Gem Uncirculated.” They literally “made” the grade!

Of course, some dealers back then even graded coins using the Sheldon Scale; yet those who did so were in the minority. So third-party grading has helped enormously in this regard. However, even this great enhancement and security measure has left many new collectors with other issues.

My expert collector friend, Dave, touched on this subject in a conversation we had:

“Jim, one thing to be aware of is unfounded rapid acceleration in prices. I’m referring to several mid-20th century regular series silver and gold, as well as modern Silver, Gold and Platinum Eagles, especially those in Proof Ultra Cameo. All I can say is, keep an eye out on census versus price.”

It's true that many dealers with significant overhead have to increase their profit margins to stay viable. Collectors must employ due diligence, and if you can buy a like coin in like grade for less, all the better. That's where the NGC Price Guide and Auction Central are major allies. So remember, any collector or budding coindexter, do due diligence.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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