USA Coin Album: Top 10 Things to Look for at a Coin Show - Revisited

Posted on 4/15/2014

A little over 20 years ago, my column in The Numismatist took a whimsical look at 10 sights most likely to be witnessed at a typical midsize or large coin show — but the hobby has changed quite a bit since that time. I thought it would be interesting to see how much of what I wrote then is still relevant, so let’s go to the coin show …

Then, as now, everyone’s favorite topic was grading. Number 10 on my list was “Ridiculously over-graded coins.” In 1992 the ratio of raw to certified coins was much higher than it is now. The percentage of uncertified coins that are over-graded is seemingly even higher than it was then, perhaps because what are left in the raw arena are mostly those coins that would never be numerically graded by the major services. I summed it up back then by saying: “It would be fascinating to learn how many persons acquire such coins knowing they are vastly over-graded versus the number who simply let the price do their grading for them.”

Number 9: “Greysheets, Red Books, eyeglasses and other paraphernalia left at dealers’ tables.” Aside from the addition of cell phones, I would say that nothing has changed in this area. I’ve yet to see anyone leave their teeth behind, but it’s just a matter of time. In 1992 I was still debating whether to begin suspending my loupe, since I had a tendency to lose it every few months. Now it hangs from my neck on a lanyard. Lesson learned.

Number 8: “Slabs not being broken open with hammers.” From 1986 through 1990 it was hard to have a conversation over the sound of encapsulated coins being beaten into submission against the concrete bourse floor. Every dealer worth his salt carried a hammer on his hip like a six-shooter in the Old West. This lasted until someone who had taken metal shop in high school revealed that there existed pliers and snips that did the job much more cleanly and with far less racket. By that time, of course, the superheated coin market of the late 1980s was but a memory, and the lack of hammering only revealed how deathly quiet the bourse floor had become by 1992.

Number 7: “Overpriced food concessions.” Back then I mused, “How is it that two years of recession have had no effect whatsoever on the price of hot dogs?” Oh, how I long for those prices of 1992, when nowadays a coin show hot dog is edging toward the double digits.

Number 6: “Finding the coin you want the most after you’ve spent all your money on something else.” I labeled this phenomenon “Mehl’s Law,” after the famed Texas coin dealer who seemed to have something for everyone. This problem is ageless, and nearly every collector has known such pain. I wonder whether it happened to the recent buyer of that $10 million coin which made such a splash.

Number 5: “Lots of pizza.” I love pizza but, alas, pizza does not love coins. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop collectors and dealers at coin shows from purchasing an overpriced slice (see Number 7). What has changed since 1992 is that very few show managers will permit pizzas to be delivered to one’s table from outside the show venue or let you carry in your own. If you try, I recommend holding the box lovingly in both arms wrapped within a fuzzy blanket, pink for girls and blue for boys.

Number 4: “Baseball cards.” Flashback 20 years to when sports collectibles in general, and baseball cards in particular, were a very hot area of collecting and investing. So much so that many coin shows combined the two fields to the extent that the card section threatened to overwhelm the coin area of the bourse. Cards remain popular, but the speculative mania is gone.

Number 3: “Whitman coin folders.” This is a sight that has changed little in 20 years. Brands other than Whitman were scarce back then, most having dropped out in the late 1960s, but a new golden period of coin folders and albums blossomed when the 50 States Quarter program debuted in 1999. Now there are several competing brands well represented at supply dealers’ tables, and this can only be good for the hobby’s future.

Number 2: “Bored spouses and offspring.” While women have made significant strides in numismatics over the past 20 years, the typical coin show is still mostly a man cave. The familiar sight of a bored wife or child of a coin dealer reading a paperback book has since been replaced by the sight of a bored wife or child playing with a laptop computer or smart phone, but the story is largely the same. The ordeal of supporting an activity that is of interest only to the loved one has not lessened with the passage of time.

Number 1: “Frustrated collectors buying duplicates.” What do you do when you love a particular coin series but have already finished it? You start a second set, of course, this one in a different grade range. Variety collectors who can’t afford those Rarity-6 and -7 pieces may resort to collecting die states of the more common varieties through a combination of fanaticism and frustration. To anyone but a numismatist such behavior is indicative of OCB (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and merits medical attention, but you and I know what it’s about, don’t we?

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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