It all comes down to profit margins,
and collectibles is almost entirely small potatoes. In every field
there's one Michael Jordan and a whole bunch of whatsisnames.
I will tell you a story. Guy calls me up on the voice phone. He's interested in ancients (coins that is), he's going to be in town, can we meet. "Sure," says I, and a couple of days later there he is. Mid-40s, handsome, well dressed, nice car, close shave, maybe a bit overfed. Firm handshake. I usher him into my parlour, offer him some ice water.
He starts off by showing me some fakes. Totally egregious. Denarii cast in white metal instead of struck in silver. Some completely bogus coppers with stupid artificial toning. These were the kind of things they used to make to put on junky ladies' handbags to jingle as they sashayed. He gives them to me as if he really doesn't know they're fakes. So I tell him, but I figure I'm dealing with an absolute neophytic newby, and there's perhaps a tiny chip in my esteem. I mumble the old saw about "Buy the book before you buy the coin," and he goes like "Yeah, yeah, right."
He starts looking through my stock of real ancients, in real condition, with real flaws, etc. As he picks up and puts down one real coin after another he starts talking about the internet. He's bid on some items in some auction, and he's waiting to see how he did. He intends to spend several hundred $ each month.
None of my coins is really what he's looking for. I show him the major references. Not interested right now. We talk a bit about our lives. He works out of his home as well. What does he do? He sells automation packages to factories. Him and I think 5 other guys. Last year, he volunteers, they split a 5% commission on $30 million in sales.
Inside, I'm like, "OK, I'll stop selling coins immediately. Show me how to do what you do." I imagine the lovely oversized house he lives in, the various well-to-do habits in which he indulges, the assumed gratitude his wife feels for him for being such a wonderous provider. I feel small, shrivelled.
I don't tell him how much I made last year, but my physical situation and the scope of my business operations reveal to him that I make far less than he.
As soon as he realizes this he loses all respect, and leaves pretty quick. I ask around later among some of my local coin buddies, and some of them have seen him too. Same kind of experience. None of us have heard from him again, and some of us have ancient coins that are real wows. Perhaps he's off on the internet, dealing with people he can respect, because they are hidden behind a corporate structure.
I wish I had told him that the percentage collectibles dealers who can match his income is approximately 1, or maybe ½. They are in their business because that's what they want to do, or because they love the stuff and can't help themselves, and almost all of them are poorer than their average client. This is true at every level. Do the owners of Sotheby's outshine the diamond studded rubes they tout their stuff to? Of course not. Collectible collectors have disposable income by definition. If I had disposable income I might collect something too, who knows? And if I really wanted to be where the money was I'd be there, wouldn't I?
Respect sure is a funny thing, isn't it? People can't seem to help themselves when it comes to making distinctions between themselves and other people. And everyone without exception judges everyone else according to the yardstick of themselves. The great prophets of the various religions have proclaimed that it is possible and desireable not to do that, but nothing in life is more difficult than to admit, pretty much every other second, that I might be, probably am, missing the important point about whatever is going on.
And yes, I submit that there really are mental and behavioral bad habits that afflict the wealthy that are different than those that torment the poor and those in between. All of us are narcissists, but it becomes a more virulent fever if we can look at ourselves and pretend that we're being "successful." It's an illusion though, that success. We are all mere organisms on a planet. When we look at ants we don't notice that one's different than another. Why would whoever stands over us staring down at our comings and goings have any regard for our supposed differences?
(Which reminds me of an incident last week. We have 3 cats, which is another story. Two of them are eating and then the big one comes in. His bowl is hidden, from his point of view, by the other cats. So he starts to horn in on the little one and push her away from her bowl. I pick him up so that he can look down and of course he sees his bowl. I put him down and he goes right to it. I then get to explain 2 and 3 dimensions to the 7 year old, who understands, because he just saw the whole thing. Then we get to wonder who's looking at us from the 4th dimension. I get to pat myself on the back for a good nugget of teaching. A couple of days later the little cat comes in late, pauses, looks at the situation, and goes around the other 2 cats to the empty bowl.)
Well, that was one guy, probably he'll read this if he's a web surfer, maybe he'll get mad, couldn't probably have gotten him as a client anyway, guy who insists on being bamboozled, and me constitutionally incapable of misrepresenting a product or taking advantage of the ignorance of a client..
But I was intending to talk about the web, and my point is this: the coin business, and by extension the collectible business, has been for decades a forum that you entered through a well-established set of doors: local shops and shows mostly. Within that system a recognizable price structure developed over the years that allowed the successful production of catalogs and trends. In the business we have been occasionally troubled by promotions to an ignorant general public which temporarily disrupted the normal price structures. Us dealers would gladly sell out to the promoters when we could, and then we'd dis them and complain that they were turning off a lot of potential coin addicts, I mean enthusiastic collectors, who were getting burned by the promoters and who would thereafter be sour on the hobby forever. Then we'd gladly buy back their no longer wanted coins at a big discount later.
The premise that potential collectors will get turned off is hogwash. Everyone in collectibles is aware that collecting is a genetic disposition, either you have it or you don't. If you do, getting ripped off every now and then won't bother you. If you're a horse person you won't mind the thought of getting thrown, even though you know how if might end up. If you're a collector you know you'll get swindled occasionally. Part of the fun, and basically, you really want to get the stuff.
Us hobby dealers are secretly jealous of the promoters, who can successfully sell things to people who aren't really interested in them for more than they're worth. The people active in the hobby markets operate at a higher moral level in that they encourage education in their clientele. I'm not kidding. Even the worst of us prices things in relation to the market, not to some poofy dreamland ad campaign.
But the web has screwed up the old hobby relationships. Thousands of people are dealing in all kinds of stuff, and most of them are ignorant of the old rules of the old market systems and are making up their own rules, and their own prices, as they go along. Which is to say that the "Standard Catalogs," for those collectible fields that have them, are becoming less standard as time goes on. I find that there is a tendency for prices to rise on the web. Do you?