NEW COLLECTOR INFO
This is personal opinion only,
an appropriate perspective in the field of numismatics, where opinion,
unencumbered by any facts other than the existence of the specimen, is
often all there is in the discussion. The author has found himself
fixated on numismata for half of his childhood and all of his adult life.
He has attempted to wrest profit from his obsession for about 35 years.
That's where his opinions come from.
This presentation is divided into sections:
1. Why collect?
2. What is collectable
5. Storage & display
6. The business
1. WHY COLLECT?
Don't know. I remember being acquisitive toward small, shiny round, flat discs before I could read. I started out with washers and tiddly winks. 55 odd years later I notice that every class of object has it's aficionados and that each is served by a market. I don't know why for some people it is coins rather than cars or chocolate moulds. All I know is that certain people find themselves attracted to money as a collectible, and want to spend time and substance on the objects of their desire.
If you've collected something for a while you've undoubtedly noticed that most people are not collectors and don't care about your collection. If your collection has gotten to the point that you've spent significant time and money on it you will have met a few people who think your devotion to your hobby is nuts. Relations occasionally get strained. You can kick back in the sure knowledge that for at least the past century the objects you collect have increased in value, and that during that period a well-put-together collection has repaid both the time and the capital outlay involved in it's assembly.
Coins, etc. are treated with in a variety of manners ranging from their conversion into jewelry to involved scientific study for the purposes of historical reconstruction. Money having been part of the world scene for 2500 years, the collectors of money-objects develop automatically a deeper understanding of the place of economics in human history than do those who merely get and spend the stuff.
2. WHAT IS COLLECTABLE?
Metal coins are the mainstay of most numismatic collections. These were first made about between 2700-3000 years ago, with either China (probably) or Turkey being the home of the first issues. A subset of metal coins are bullion ingots, such as the American Eagles, Chinese pandas, South Indian fanams, etc., made primarily for the convenience of hoarders. Next most popular field is banknotes, which have been in regular use since the 18th century, and whose at-the-moment unobtainable earliest issues date from 500+ years before that. Plenty of cheap banknotes are available to make a nice collection. Token collectors are a growing cohort. Many types of these unofficial coins are readily available.
Objects other than metal discs and pieces of paper have been used as money, and the collection of "Odd-and-Curious" or "Primitive" or "Traditional" money objects is the passion of a small and practically religiously dedicated group of collectors. The O&C people sometimes end up being world class experts in some aspect of a culture whose valuable objects they have collected, performing first class anthropological work.
Commemorative medals also form a large and coherent field of study, but their size makes them a bit harder to deal, and therefor to come by. Most dealers will have a couple of medals in stock. Very few will have hundreds lying around. They're too big.
A bit farther afield, but still intimately related to the core idea of money, are award medals, (which are made the same way as coins), and by extension various other insigniae from military ranks to uniform buttons to license tags. On the paper side of "exonumia" are checks, chits and "good-fors," bond and share certificates, etc. And of late we have collectible plastic: credit and ATM cards, phone cards, etc. Finally, you will find that "coin-dealers" have made a market niche for themselves in other collectible fields: fossils (small ancient objects), sports cards (general size and shape of banknotes), and as bullion dealers.
In numismatics, as in every other merchandise line, there are "regular" items and "specials." In numismatics the regulars are the coins, etc. issued to general circulation. The specials come in these categories:
1. Commemorative issues. Most, but not all, are sold by the issuing government as a collectible for more than their face value,
2. Nummiae, commemorative or not, done up by the government in a fancy package and sold as a collectible for more than its face value,
3. Manufacturing mistakes of various kinds.
It is the author's opinion that many governments have been turning out too many frothy concoctions for collectors of late. 100 ounce gold coins, forsooth!
And it turns out often that the secondary market, where you go to sell your coins when you get tired of them, will not support the government's price on those coins, and the original purchaser loses money. Example: with a few exceptions, every modern USA commemorative dollar is easily available from dealers at up to 60% off its issue price. One of the jackpot coins goes for about 2x issue, the other about 125%.
Just my opinion.
Some of what you can collect is easy to identify, but a lot of it isn't. How do you decide if it's a good deal (if you're going to buy it) or worth anything (if you found it)? You need references. For the field of "modern world coins" the standard reference in English is The Standard Catalog of World Coins, Colin Bruce II, ed., Krause-Mishler (KM) Publications. Currently there are five volumes covering the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Revised editions are published frequently (perhaps more frequently than necessary!) They have in them about 99% of the 20th century coins declining to perhaps 50% of the 17th century, with suggested prices in several grades of preservation, not all of which necessarily exist . Prices range from reasonabaly accurate to guess to hopefully optimistic, with some extremely undervalued keys. Most people use them.
For paper money the core reference is also by KM: The Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, (3 volumes).
These catalogs give each item a unique number, and the numbers are used by most dealers to identify their offerings. If you don't have these catalogs you'll have a problem reading many dealer lists, mine for instance.
Many specialized catalogs are available by country and time period. Thousands. I have about 100 books in my reference library, and I use about 20 of them all the time. A numismatic cliche with which I wholeheartedly agree: "Buy the book before you buy the coin."
Here it is: straight and simple.
Poor. Coins in this condition are very worn. They are recognizable as to type, but large portions of the design will be worn flat. Secondary identifiers such as date and mintmark may be missing, or there may be bad damage.
Fair. Most of the design will be seen. At least part of the lettering around the rim will be visible, including the date and mintmark. Coin is thoroughly identifiable.
About Good (aG). The outer half of the lettering around the rim will be worn. The major design elements will be visible, but there will be very little detail.
Good (G). The outermost part of the lettering around the rim will be worn. Some of the detail of the major design elements will be seen.
Very Good (VG). All of the lettering will be visible, though some may be quite worn. There will be more internal detail in the major design elements, and some fine detail may be present in the deeper spots.
Fine (F). The rim is complete, and there is some detail on the highest spots. In England they sometimes call something "good fine" (gF) to describe a mid-grade.
Very Fine (VF). Most of the fine detail is visible, but there is wear on the highest points. Coins in this grade have some wear all over, and lack the luster of higher grade coins. "gVF" is used by Anglodites and Anglophiles.
Extremely Fine (EF or XF). There will be wear on only the highest points of the design. The coin will have some, but not all, of its original luster (original sheen).
About Uncirculated (AU). There will be only slight wear on the high spots or slight scuffing of the fields. The coin will have almost full luster. The wear may be so slight that you will have to play with the light or use a magnifying glass to see it. A lot of AU coins are passed as Unc by scuzzball dealers. English equivalent: gXF.
Uncirculated (Unc - pronounced "unk"). There is no wear. No matter how carefully you examine the coin you will not see any. There may, however, be a few small marks caused by the coin hitting other coins after it was ejected from the minting machine. These are called bag marks. And there can be toning. In some cases you will find a bronze coin completely toned to dark brown described as "toned Unc." Not by me. An Unc coin should have some luster, at least a trace. And you'd better to be able to explain where the rest of the luster went. You'll also find silver coins with so much toning you can hardly grade them.
Proof (PF). These are specially made coins. The blanks on which they are struck are polished, and the dies used to strike them are specially treated. To make a sharper impression, proofs are struck several times. The result is a coin with mirror fields and (usually) frosted devices. Modern proof coins are usually put in fancy packages and sold by the mint to collectors for more than their face value.
Modifiers. Scratches, nicks, rim bruises are detractors and should be taken into consideration. It is appropriate to mention hairlines and fingerprints if the coin is proof or Unc. Heavy toning should be mentioned. Jewelry mounts or spots indicating removal of same, holes, heavy polishing, etc. are considered damage and should significantly lower the price.
Cleaning coins with chemicals works sometimes and sometimes it doesn't. When it's done well and luck is with you you end up with a significantly nicer coin. But the road you'll follow will be littered with the mangled corpses of the coins you destroyed on your road to that level of expertise.
Caveat: Some coins are not well struck. Other coins are made with worn dies. This is common in coins made before the middle of the 19th century, and still occurs today. Worn hubs were used to make the dies for USA coins of the 1970s, and the 1993 Azerbaijan aluminum coins are so crude that many come from the mint looking "VF." You have to take this into consideration when grading these coins, thus dealers may use phrases like "VF for type," which means the coin looks like it's VG.
Numerical grades. 30 years ago it was considered sufficient that a coin be merely uncirculated. Things are different today. There is now a numerical grading system that is used for expensive, high grade coins. In this new system, AU is called AU-55, and Unc is called MS (for mint state), with numbers ranging from MS-60 (which dealers will often call "commercial Unc") up to MS-70 (absolutely perfect and completely unbelievable). The difference in value can be dramatic. A given Franklin half dollar in MS-60 might sell for around $10.00, but the same coin in MS-65 may go for $100.00, and in MS-70 it could approach $1000.00. Naturally there is a lot of disagreement when a good coin is given a high grade number. People can loose a fortune on a bad day.
Slabs. These for hire, prestige professional grading services have sprung up of late. You send your coin to them with a hefty fee and they send back your coin in a fancy plastic holder with their opinion of its grade. It is important to bear in mind when looking at such coins that grading is purely subjective personal opinion, even if hidden behind a faceless "board of graders." You need to look at the coin itself, not the holder it comes in, and make your own decision that it is or is not as advertised.
Unc - Absolutely no wear, no folds, no bent corners, no dirt, no nothing.
AU - One soft fold or wrinkle or bent corner.
XF - Two soft folds or one hard fold or one small smudge.
VF - Up to 4 hard folds, bit of dirt.
F - Plenty of folds, wear, dirt, but no holes or breaks.
VG - Lots of wear up to and including breaks and holes. Usually limp. An XF note with small tear will usually be priced as VG.
G - The whole note is there, but significant damage.
aG - Can have a piece missing.
poor - Barely identifiable rag or piece
Modifiers - A pair of staple holes or paper clip rust mark should be mentioned and will usually drop the price to the next lower grade. Unremovable glue or ink spots are severe detractors and can drop the effective grade 2 or more notches. Cleaned and/or ironed notes are occasionally found and should be acknowledged by the dealer. They will drop the grade a notch or more. Tip the note to the light, hold it up to the light, sniff it, etc. Paper proofs are special printings and are mostly rare.
5. STORAGE & DISPLAY
Uncirculated and proof coins stop being pristine very quickly if they are handled. If you want to keep them perfect you need to protect them. This is how you do it.
First, handle the coin only by its edges, using clean hands so you don't get your corrosive sweat all over it. (A greasy finger on a new penny will produce an unremovable fingerprint within a few weeks.) Then put the coin into one of four possible containers: a polybag which is then inserted into a paper envelope; a mylar & cardboard sandwich holder; a hard plastic holder; or a plastic tube if you have enough coins to make a roll.
Circulated pocket change does not require this degree of care. While just one rub will drop a coin from Unc to AU, weeks of circulation are needed to get it to XF , months and years to go to VF and F, and decades to get into the VG range. Today's coins are tough.
Today, ready-made storage materials are available. We have basically three choices:
1. Put the coins in little envelopes or holders in a standard sized box.
2. Put them in compartmented trays.
3. Put them in an album.
Boxes provide the simplest method of storing coins. Your coins will be easy to get to, and you'll be able to fit a lot of them in a small space. If you want to take your coins to a show or a club meeting you can carry a large number of coins in a closed box. They won't fall out or slide around.
Special boxes are made for coin collecting. The standard size box has a 2" x 2" face (5 cm x 5 cm), and comes in various lengths from 9" to 14" (22.9-35.6cm). This size will accommodate coins a little larger than the old US silver dollar. For special purposes both larger and smaller size boxes are available. Cardboard is the material normally used, and although these are adequate for most purposes, heavy duty versions in plastic and metal are also available.
Coins of any value to their owner should not be thrown loose into the box. They need to be protected against wear, and you, as the curator of your collection, need to do the protecting. There two kinds of products made for use with standard boxes: envelopes and holders.
Envelopes are available in either paper or plastic. Paper envelopes are the cheapest, of course, and the easiest to use. Just put the coin in and fold over the flap. They come in different colors, and there is plenty of space to write down any notes you might want to make regarding the coin that's in it. Their convenience is unmatched when there are a large number of coins to be processed.
There are two drawbacks to paper envelopes. You can't see the coin unless you take it out, and each time you do take it out you're handling it, which can eventually cause wear and reduce value. Also, the envelope itself might damage coins of certain metals, because of the sulphur in the paper. Sulphur will cause silver and copper to tone, and can produce corrosion on the aluminum and zinc which are used in many foreign coins.
A solution to these problems is to put the coin in little inert plastic sleeves inside the paper envelope. The sleeves used to be made of cellophane, but now are made of polyethylene (polybags.) They are a good idea. There are also some special, chemically impregnated paper strips that are supposed to retard corrosion, but I don't like them. They wear out after a while, dissipating the chemical into the air where you can breathe it.
Plastic envelopes are usually called flips. They come in numerous styles, and are usually made out of soft vinyl or harder mylar. Some styles have 2 pockets, one for the coin and the other for a little paper insert on which you can write your notes on the coin. The obvious advantage is that you can see the coin, but there are some drawbacks. The hard ones can break, and the soft ones can release corrosive fumes which can damage the coins inside. Despite their fragility, hard plastic flips are all right for most purposes. I do not recommend soft plastic flips.
Holders come in two categories. One is a foldable cardboard frame, usually 4" x 2" (10cm x 5cm), with two holes punched side by side and a mylar sheet glued over them. You put the coin on the mylar over one hole, fold the holder in the center, and then seal the edges, either with staples or tape. Occasionally they come pre-glued, but most of these are inferior products, and should usually be avoided.
If you're going to staple the holders, try to find a stapler with a "flat" contour anvil rather than a "curved" contour. Or you could flatten your curved staples with a needle nose plier. A silver coin in a holder leaning against a staple protruding from the next coin's holder will develop an "iron stain" which may not come out.
In a nutshell, cardboard holders are a bother. But they are cheap. The other kind of holder is made of hard plastic, and comes in two halves, which are either hinged or screwed together. Some of these hard plastic holders are very good, but they can be expensive and they take up a lot of space.
Trays are the classic storage method, used by museums. The coins sit in little compartments in these specially made trays, which are then stored in a cabinet. Fancy trays are made of wood and lined with velvet, but cheaper products are available of molded plastic. Fancy trays and cabinets are very expensive and use up quite a bit of space, and the cheap trays will break with use. Also, if you should happen to drop a tray the coins will go flying. Unless you are a real traditionalist or have special needs you probably will not want to use trays.
Albums are available in two categories. One has cardboard pages with cut out holes. These are usually made for a particular series of coins, Roosevelt dimes, for instance. The cheapest cardboard albums have the holes backed with paper, while more expensive versions have plastic sleeves covering the hole on both sides so that the whole coin can be seen. These are adequate for forming pocket change collections, but the cardboard will usually cause undesirable toning on perfect coins.
The other type of album consists of vinyl pages with pockets to fit the standard size holders. These come ready-made, or you can get pages which fit a three ring looseleaf binder. Looseleaf binders can be convenient both for storage and display. The drawbacks include the time and effort required to put the coins in the holders, put the holders in the sleeves, rearrange the coins when you need to, etc. Also, as mentioned above, vinyl can cause corrosion on certain kinds of coins.
For paper the equivalent of paper envelopes is - paper envelopes. Usually people use regular gummed or special "glassine" envelopes and put their collection in boxes. An alternative would be in folders in a file cabinet. These methods are pretty inefficient for paper money. Vinyl album pages are available, but vinyl can damage paper as well as coins. There are various mylar products on the market. Most are for box storage, and none of them will hurt your notes. As for bigger items, the bigger they are the harder to store. Sometimes you have to improvise. Or maybe you can hire me to improvise for you.
As you can see from this discussion, there are no final answers to the storage problem. Even old timers can't make up their minds. But these are the possibilities, and you will have to decide what you want to do, because, if you want to have a collection, you'll have to do something.
6. THE BUSINESS
Dealers. Coin collectors are accommodated by a large number of dealers running small operations. In the USA there are several thousand dealers. Worldwide there are several thousand more. In USA coin collecting is relatively less popular than in some other countries. In Germany, for example, it has been estimated that as much as 20% of the general population has collected coins in the past 5 years. Here the figure would be in the 2% range. That's still a lot of people, and the market, though small in mass terms, is healthy.
Numerous countries have export controls on their current coins and banknotes, antiquities, etc. Other countries place no limits on the trading of coins. The commodities peddled by us dealers are often procured by methods which were illegal in the countries of origin, but are legal in countries of sale.
The numismatic market is essentially unregulated. This means you should know what you're doing before investing heavily. There are dealers who will shave a grade to make a profit. If you can't get a yes-sir-right-away-sir-no-questions-asked-within-a-reasonable-time return policy you should be wary of the dealer with whom you're dealing.
Prices - Are arrived at by reference to standard catalogs, dealer's assessment of market conditions (supply/demand), customer perspicacity and stubbornness.
The value of a given item is dependent on three things:
1. Its absolute rarity, or how many are available (supply),
2. Its desirability, or how many people want it (demand),
3. It's condition.
Absolute rarity starts with how many were made, minus the number which have been destroyed for various reasons, or are otherwise not available. For example, millions of some particular old silver dollar might have been struck. However, perhaps a large number of them were shipped overseas to China, where they disappeared. Perhaps another quantity were held by the mint and later melted, to be remade into quarters. Perhaps, too, the mint machinery was not in top condition that year, and most of the coins are weakly struck, making nice looking pieces of that date hard to find. Finally, of the coins which were released to circulation, most can be expected to be fairly worn. Thus, a coin which should have been common is actually scarce.
Desirability depends on how many people want a particular coin relative to how many examples are available. A coin may be extremely rare, with only a few pieces being available in the entire world, but if no one wants it, the dealer who owns it will keep lowering the price until it sells.
Condition is a critical element in pricing. A given coin in top condition can be literally thousands of times more valuable than the same coin in low grade.
This is tricky. Whether it's coins or banknotes or medals or whatever, relatively few pieces will pay back their investment, but those that do will often do so handsomely. Best general advice I have is to only buy the unquestionable best and preserve it in that condition. Can't go wrong that way. Beware of advertised "specials." The fact of the matter is that the dealers can only sell what they have. You need to snag a good deal when it comes along, but in general you should be looking for the stuff the dealers don't have.