Jim Bisognani: The Past and Present of Numismatics

Posted on 1/27/2022

An overview of the transforming numismatic hobby and advice to newcomers.

Between my last report and this installment, something happened to yours truly: I found myself turning 65. How did this happen? It seems like it was just a few years ago that I was first falling off to slumberland with my newly treasured Red Book at my side, ogling images and sucking in statistics.

Notwithstanding technological marvels, I reason it is not much different today, as I now nod off with my iPad open to all the latest auction results at the beck and call of my touchscreen. I guess I can look at my age of “65” equivalent to the numeric value employed by the Sheldon grading scale — and assert that I am a full Gem.

I have learned and experienced a lot about the coin world since my wayward youth, and as any true numismatist will assert, there is so much more to learn. Unfortunately, the wide-open window will be closing sooner rather than later, and I must take advantage of this joyful hobby with more vigor, if that is possible.

The past

The coin business has radically changed since I first began frequenting my local coin shop in the late 1960s. While many balked at the notion of standardized grading, I embraced it. I witnessed scores of well-meaning dealers who did not grasp the art of grading coins and parceled together “investment” collections for their customers. On the other side, the more unscrupulous dealers, who indeed knew what they were doing, were placing untold mountains of over-graded and artificially treated coins into such portfolios.

It still makes me boil today to think of it. I vividly recall one enlightening occasion. It was early February 1990 when Craig, a friend of mine, brought one of his buddies, Bill, over to my house to look over a coin portfolio, which was put together for him during one of the big coin booms in late 1979 to early 1980. Craig instructed me to please look at his friend’s coins and price them at what I would value them today.

The coins were housed in a familiar red cardboard storage box made for 2x2 holders. All the coins were in standard vinyl flips. Each insert had a hand-written adjective-laced description via a fine point red Sharpie. I think each coin was described as Fabulous, Ultra Rare and Remarkable MS 70 GEM++. Nothing in this lot approached MS 70.

There were about 20 coins in that box: several artificially-toned Buffalo Nickels; a few whizzed Morgan Dollars; some better-date Barber Quarters and Half Dollars, which had been dipped; and a polished Gold Liberty Quarter Eagle — Arrgh! After the mild torture to my eyes and insult to logical grading standards, I announced that the lot was worth $1,850.

Craig then glanced at his dejected grimacing friend and asked him to tell me what he paid for the group. “$50,000!” proclaimed Bill. He was furious. I tried to rationalize what I saw and make some sense of the price paid. Even adjusting for an inflated 1980-era market, there was still no justification in the price Bill had shelled out. “The dealer was a big crook!” Bill exclaimed.

Unfortunately, this was a familiar refrain for many, and it left more than a gaping hole in your savings. It left a sour taste and a pain in the middle of your stomach, which never goes away. Thinking of it today makes me cringe. I did try to console Bill and advised that the new third-party grading was eliminating much of this type of practice, preying on the gullible collector, the wannabee collector or the investor.

If only I could have turned the hands of time about a decade later and have NGC holders to replace those utterly useless raw coins like the ones in Bill’s “portfolio.”

The present

Today, if a collector wanted to put together a modest mid-grade collection, NGC certification guarantees grade security, integrity and authenticity. Plus, there is an extremely active network of ready buyers.

The only other consideration is the collectors’ taste or the eye appeal of the coins. While numerically all may meet the same technical criteria, it is the intangible “look” and strike of the coin that often causes bidding wars at auction — especially now.

The question today, brought to me by many veterans and newbie coindexters, is what is a “good value.” Although the guarantee of grade is in place, the possible exuberance, bordering insanity, of prices realized at auction puts a bit of fear in the average and intermediate collector.

I understand that the sale statistics produced in the last few years have dictated that coins with “quality and eye appeal” generate substantially higher and, often, record prices. This is the present lament of numismatists who have modest means and do not want to be driven away from the hobby.

Truthfully, even for yours truly, the criteria for what is sustainable are unpredictable and don’t seem to bend at the knee to logic.

The truth is out there, friends. I suggest due diligence and research. This is where the NGC Coin Explorer, US and World Price Guides and Auction Central will make sense of what price a particular coin or type is bringing. It is then up to the informed collector to remain in the ballpark when bidding at auction or buying from a dealer.

The good news is there are many series and types of coins that, while in demand, have not yet become out of reach to the modestly budgeted collector.

Starting a new collection

The new collector would obviously like to think the time and effort put into their collection would make it relevant for years to come. Coins and the business of numismatics are still curiosities to many of those folks who have not yet had exposure to the numismatic nirvana of the hobby. Just last week, a friend, who has been toying with buying a few coins, asked me if he should wait before taking the plunge.

I said, “Joe, what are you waiting for? What is your concern now?”

Joe responded, “I am a bit leery that people may abandon coins and move on to something else. I don’t want my money to go down the rat hole.”

My suggestion to him and for any new collector is to accumulate coins from a series or type you personally find appealing. Coins with historical background, low-mintage, design or whatever else piques your curiosity should be the foundation of starting a collection. A well-rounded, carefully curated collection will always be a joy and will, in turn, provide you with a fine investment.

I am not recommending a particular coin or series as a starting point. However, I will impart a few of my favorites. In the US coin category: Classic Silver Commemoratives, Capped Bust Half Dimes, Seated Liberty Type coins, Gold Indian Half Eagles and early Lincoln Cents. For world coins: Great Britain circa 18th to early 20th century, British India (a passion since my youth), Australian Proof Half Penny and Penny “Kangaroos” and many other Commonwealth countries. I also particularly enjoy Pre-decimal Fiji coins.

1909 Indian Half Eagle from NGC Coin Explorer
Click images to enlarge.

Well, my friends, as I am now eligible for Medicare, I should probably take a nap — Nah!

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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