Jeff Garrett: The Future of Coin Shows

Posted on 5/7/2020

In the new normal, coin shows may be different, but they will return.

Leaders around the United States are struggling to find a way to open the economy. Some regions have loosened restrictions in just the last few days. I’m scheduled to finally get a haircut at the end of the month. If all goes well, many other small businesses will soon have a chance to catch their breath financially. The struggles around the country for nearly every business have been the most severe in my lifetime.

The rare coin business is resilient and will survive the COVID-19 crisis. Many times, I have told people that one of the reasons I like my business is that all of the rare coins in existence never disappear. They will be bought and sold at some price level. The same business proposition does not exist for many other segments of the economy.

For me and many of my close business associates, the cancellations of coin shows around the country have been the biggest shock to my business model. I have attended a coin show every few weeks for over 45 years. I dearly miss the excitement of running around the bourse floor looking for deals, selling coins at my table, looking at auction lots and meeting old friends. Fine dining after a busy day of bourse activity is something that I will never take for granted again.

A delicate balance

Rare coin dealers around the country are discovering how crucial coin shows are to the supply chain of the hobby. The supply of fresh material has dried up for dealers of all sizes. Hundreds of coin dealers used to attend coin shows each week offering material they had recently acquired in their area. This supply of fresh material is essential to every segment of the hobby, including grading services such as NGC.

The closure of coin shops, which supplied much of the material mentioned above, has also created a shortage of new items coming to market. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed to many rare coin professionals the delicate balance of commerce that takes place in our hobby.

The World’s Fair of Money held each summer by the American Numismatic Association (ANA) is one of the organization’s largest revenue sources. It is also the face of the organization to its many thousands of members who attend each year. Clubs from around the country hold meetings at these conventions and the educational opportunities offered to attendees are almost endless. Additionally, many millions of dollars’ worth of rare coins are sold in that short week. I would estimate that sales last year exceeded $100 million during the ANA convention. In short, the importance of the show cannot be overemphasized.

As a former President of the ANA, one of the most frequent questions I am asked lately is about the status of the World’s Fair of Money scheduled for the first week of August. Most of the major coins shows scheduled for June and July have either been canceled or are likely to be. The World’s Fair of Money in August is possible but, even if staged, will probably be much different than in the past.

The numismatic community will probably not know about the fate of the Word’s Fair of Money for some time. The American Numismatic Association cannot cancel without incurring massive fees and loss of income. The convention center, city of Pittsburgh or the state of Pennsylvania will need to make that decision.

Untangling the web

This all leads to the question: What is the future of coin shows in the United States? In recent years, even before the COVID-19 crisis, several major shows have seen significant declines in attendance and the number of tables sold. A case in point would be the Central States Numismatic Society’s annual convention (CSNS) held each spring in the Midwest. Twenty years ago, the CSNS show was considered one of the largest in the nation and a “must attend” event. The large bourse area sometimes exceeded 400 tables! But last year, the show sold closer to 250 tables and other shows around the country have experienced similar declines.

The reasons some shows are succeeding and others are faltering can be complicated. Many believe the internet has been a gamechanger for rare coin conventions. The theory is that collectors don’t need to attend a coin show when coins can so easily be found on the web. There is much truth to the fact that at any time of the day or night you can shop for rare coins around the country. Why go to a coin show when so much is available at the push of a button?

I actually believe the opposite is true about the internet’s impact on coin shows. The internet has created millions of new coin collectors. The recent shutdowns and quarantines have seen record numbers of individuals surfing the web. Many of them have discovered the hobby of numismatics. Last month, the ANA attracted over 3,500 new members — a record for the organization in one month.

Thus, those who attend coin shows for a living should not fear the tremendous rise of internet interest in the hobby. These new collectors start on the web but may eventually find the idea of attending an actual coin show to be an exciting proposition once the dangers of the COVID-19 crisis have passed.

My analogy for this was the spread of legalized gambling in the United States. Many predicted that a casino in every large city would destroy the gaming industry in Las Vegas. However, the opposite proved true as local casinos introduced millions to the excitement of casino gambling, causing these folks to want to experience the “big time” — a trip to Las Vegas! Hopefully, this excursion will also be possible sometime in the not-too-far-off future.

The airline industry has been decimated by the COVID-19 crisis, which means getting to any prospective coin show may pose serious challenges. Likely, there will be far fewer flight options in the new normal. Coin dealers do not travel light, and most hate going to a show if it means a commuter flight. Many dealers will probably only attend coin shows within driving distance for quite some time.

Filling the void

Before the COVID-19 crisis, most coin shows were generally in good health. If a coin show was run well, the public and collectors would show up in large numbers. In the past, one of my favorite sayings was: “Anytime I get concerned about the health of the market, I look around at the thousands of collectors at a typical coin show and feel better.”

That being said, attendance at coin shows for 2020 and 2021 may not be nearly as robust as in the past. I’m afraid social distancing, gathering restrictions and basic fear will give many dealers and collectors pause when considering show attendance. Coin shows are most likely going to revive slowly. There will be no “start switch” that gets things going, same as before. Even though it will be a slow process, coin shows will return and, I’m quite certain, will be well-attended in the future. They are too important for our hobby to fade from the numismatic scene.

Hobby leaders sincerely hope that once the COVID-19 crisis passes, collectors and dealers will once again be drawn to attending conventions. The shows may be different but will still provide dealers and collectors an opportunity to interact in person.

Soon, I predict that smaller venues will be created to fill the void left by the cancellation or restrictions placed on large conventions. Coin dealers and other numismatic organizations will figure out how to adapt to the new world we are all getting used to living in. The road may be slow and bumpy, but coin shows have survived world wars, depressions and many other obstacles. I have faith that the rare coin conventions that were such an important part of my life will eventually make their way back.

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