Specializing In Numismatics

Posted on 8/27/2015

The advantage of specializing in a narrow range of numismatic products is the ability to become a true expert in the field.

One night during the ANA World’s Fair of Money I had the opportunity to share an adult beverage with one of the legends of numismatics, Ken Bressett. As most of you probably know, Ken is the editor of the Guide Book to United States Coins (the “Red Book”). Ken has been doing this job for decades and his knowledge of United States coinage is amazing. I work closely with Ken each year on the Red Book, and I currently serve as price editor. The job is quite the task, and Ken’s insight is always helpful. Dave Bowers is research editor, and working with them each year is quite an honor.

During our conversation that night we discussed how the market for rare coins has changed so much over the decades. Collectors now have so much more information to use when collecting. A big part of this information is provided each year by Whitman Publishing, which does a great job inspiring collectors with in-depth research and great stories. When I began my collecting journey in the 1970s, the Red Book was the go to source for information. Much indeed has changed.

Another interesting subject that came up was how rare coin dealers have also changed over the decades. Ken described to me how in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s many of the largest rare coins dealers dealt in anything that could have been used as money. Many catalogues from the era list everything from Colonial coins to Territorial gold pieces and everything in between. They also listed paper money, ancient coins and world coins. The areas of numismatics that were covered were vast. One has to wonder how they acquired the knowledge to deal in so many areas of the market. Rare coins were extremely cheap in those days, so the learning curve was not as punitive.

Contrast this to today’s rare coin market and most of the national rare coin dealers. With the exception of Heritage and Stack’s Bowers, none cover all of the bases of numismatics. These two companies can only accomplish this task with a huge staff of experts. Resources such as these were unavailable decades ago. Most of the big dealers of the time had a little bit of knowledge about everything. Today, many rare coin dealers try to focus on a much narrower range of numismatics. Lots of dealers buy and sell nearly all of the coins listed in the Red Book. Others concentrate on United States currency or world coins. There are also dealers in a broad range of Ancient coinage.

Some dealers only handle inexpensive coins and others specialize in high end material. Interestingly, there are also quite a few rare coin dealers who specialize in only one denomination. Silver Dollar dealers are quite commonplace, and the same can be said for United States commemoratives. The extreme of this are the dealers who make a living handling only one series of coinage. Among those are dealers specializing in Indian Head Cents, Lincoln Cents, Buffalo Nickels, Standing Liberty Quarters (miss you, J.H. Cline) Morgan Silver Dollars, and American Silver Eagles. My son, Ben Garret, is one of the individuals who deals almost exclusively in Silver Eagles.

The advantage of specializing in a narrow range of numismatic products is the ability to become a true expert in the field. All of the series mentioned above may seem simple on the surface, but becoming an expert takes years of study. Each coin in the series has multiple layers of interesting facts, such as true rarity, strike characteristics, condition rarity, grading nuances, and much more. Also, developing a serious client base that will support a numismatic business for just one series takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. I admire anyone who has devoted their entire career at becoming the best in their field. The high value of many numismatic items makes this kind of specialization possible. I doubt anyone ever considered trying to make a living selling Indian Cents in the 1960s.

Collectors can also learn from the experience of dealers who specialize in one series. You will have a much better chance as a collector if you pick a series and try to learn as much as possible. The more you learn, the better your results will be. Start by learning to grade. Even though the vast majority of coins in the marketplace have been graded by a third party (such as NGC), knowing the basics of grading will enable you to purchase attractive coins that will be more desirable when it comes time to sell. The ANA offers many seminars around the country on coin grading and this would be a great place to start.

Specializing will also give you a chance to study a series in depth. You may not become a world class expert, but you will be a much more informed consumer. You will also enjoy the hobby more. Many series have fascinating histories and understanding the story and background will give a much fuller appreciation. It’s easy to become obsessed if you have the collecting bug. Many dealers who specialize in a series started as collectors and became rare coin dealers. You may not go to this extreme, but by specializing you are nearly guaranteed to enjoy the hobby!

Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to wmr@ngccoin.com.

Jeff Garrett bio

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