By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
To hear some veterans of the industry tell it, the coin hobby of today is a much different creature than the one they found themselves on top of 20 or 30 years ago. That was a time when a dealer with a suitcase full of silver dollars could set up shop at a weekend show and never have a moment to themselves. The money was good, the Cartwheels were plentiful, and there was no shortage of collectors and investors lining up to spirit some of them away.
Those days aren’t coming back, but the institutional memory remains. And it is that lingering feeling for what the hobby could and should be that no longer lines up with the current market, divorced from the reality that the structure of today’s hobby is different and requires different approaches to grow and to remain viable.
This is our perspective, and it’s a perspective born of thousands of hours of focusing on the myriad ways the hobby and industry present themselves to the public and what they expect from the very collectors they exists to serve.
We don’t expect everybody to spend too much time thinking about these things. Most collectors are satisfied when the cash hits the dealer’s hands and is exchanged for a very nice coin. This is generally the point of the hobby and we would like to see more and not less of this as time goes on.
The point is, we live, eat and breathe the coin market in a way few in the hobby do.
We see the deals, we study the auction catalogs, and we travel around the country and even the world to participate in many of the industry’s biggest events. It’s an amazing life and we’re immensely grateful. And although long hours at the office are the currency of our trade, our hearts and minds are committed to creating something impactful and viable for today’s collector.
We listen to them. We talk to them. And we want to do our part to represent them as an independent voice in the coin media. We accept collectors for who they are, whether young or old, working class or mega-rich. In our view, everybody has a place at the coin counter. And whether you can afford a major rarity or not, in today’s hobby the only cost to you to learn about it is time (CoinWeek is free, anyway).
So when we hear others talking about the nature of the market and things that can be done to improve our hobby’s position in the public eye, we take a keen interest because want to be active participants in that process.
At the ANA World’s Fair of Money last week, we took a few minutes to chat with longtime dealer John Highfill, who is as colorful a character as you will ever meet on the bourse. John has just published a two-volume update to his 1992 omnibus The Comprehensive U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia. A lot has changed since that “yearbook of the hobby” was published.
John spoke of the old days. He is just as passionate about silver dollars today as he always was. But even he took a look at the bourse floor and knew that today’s hobby was much different than it was years ago.
One bright point of our conversation came when he wanted to introduce Charles to an ANA page. “This kid is brilliant,” he said, “and you should get to know him. He came to my table and talked about 1893-S Morgan dollars…”
Imagine the sight: Charles with a giant camera rig, scurrying across the bourse to catch up to a 13-year-old page that wanted nothing to do with talking to either of them.
The moment was innocent but awkward, and it really made us think about whether all of this effort and discussion about how to attract young collectors to the hobby is misguided. Not that young people shouldn’t be part of our community, but that we put undue (and unfair) weight and attention on them.
Instead of letting them be and grow into themselves, we give them the moniker “young numismatist” and place all of *our* hopes and aspirations for the future of the hobby on their shoulders.
Imagine how off-putting that would be if you were a teenager. By avoiding us, that 13-year-old kid made his point as eloquently as we deserved.
But before you cast this encounter as an isolated incident and not a sign of a larger “disconnect”, let us describe two other well-intentioned efforts of gearing the industry towards a future with a massive influx of new generations of collectors.
At the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) Symposium, we sat on a panel and tried to describe and discuss the “disconnect” between the coin business and today’s collectors. The question on our minds was whether we, as a hobby or an industry, are doing the right things to convey the passion many of us have for coins to the public. By our count, six people sat in attendance. We knew them all personally, and with the exception of possibly one person, all were older than us by at least a few decades.
One panelist, coin dealer and longtime consumer advocate Scott Travers, lamented the fact that a classic high-population quarter that he owned had lost significant value (from $34,000 to $6,000 USD) in recent years. He pointed out that the United States Mint had a customer base approaching one million people and proposed that somehow the coin industry, through better outreach, could bring those buyers into the classic coin market–thereby firming up the market for his coin. Charles asked to see Scott’s coin and commented on how nice it was and that he wished that it, and all other coins like it, had maintained their value but then offered a riposte: the U.S. Mint customer is not a classic coin customer because classic coins are now too expensive for them!
Scott replied, saying that the average Mint customer spends more than that over the course of the year. Without seeing the data Scott is referring to, one can assume that, given the fact that the Mint does not offer $6,000 coins, any collector that is using the U.S. Mint as a primary source for coins is spending significantly less than $6,000 on a per-coin basis. One also wonders, with a per capita GDP at just above $58,000, how many collectors in the United States have the resources to buy even one coin at such a price level.
If we are bemoaning how cheap $6,000 coins are compared to where they used to be, then you have to wonder: who is it, exactly, that we expect to sweep in and buy all this stuff?
We saw more of this disconnect at a club meeting held by the Early American Copper (EAC) Society, one of the hobby’s premier collaborative educational groups. We have taken great interest in introducing the EAC to our readers, many of whom are enthusiastic collectors who, statistically, have never joined a coin club, not even at the local level.
At this meeting, the discussion centered around two young numismatists in attendance.
The older members of the club (most were older than we are) were very much interested in how these two youngsters started collecting coins, specifically coppers. One of the collectors was recently featured in a video published by our friend David Lisot, recorded at the 2017 EAC Happening, which took place earlier this year in Philadelphia. In the video, the youngster expressed his enthusiasm for collecting die varieties and explained that his interest in copper grew out of his interest in early U.S. silver coins.
The other youth told the gathered members at the ANA meeting that he collected a diverse array of numismatic objects and that he felt, given his limited budget, that the EAC’s youth price of $5.00 offered a tremendous value (he’s right; even at the adult rate of $39, a membership in the EAC is well worth it).
The senior members of the club wanted to learn from the two YNs how their club could better reach out to young people and their friends. The topic of social media dominated the discussion, with Instagram and Snapchat being the primary platforms that young people use to communicate to each other. Facebook, it seems, has increasingly become the social media platform of older generations.
Of the three platforms, the young collectors were very enthusiastic about Snapchat, a file sharing social media site that people use to share pictures and videos with one another. The platform’s original gimmick was that the images were shared only for a limited period of time, after which they “disappeared” from your phone. This lack of permanence is probably a good thing for young people, especially given how damning an unfiltered social media account can appear to the prying eyes of parents, teachers, and potential employers.
But as a way of spreading the hobby to a new generation of collectors, we have our doubts.
An admittedly old study (2014) from the University of Washington shows that most users employ the app to send humorous photos and videos to one another. In the past few years, the platform integrated the ability of users to pay one another using Square. This technology is interesting and popular and has far reaching implications of its own, but it hardly seems like the best venue to attract waves of new collectors. Especially if this plan is to be executed by an older cohort of non-social-media-using collectors trying to reach out into the technological void.
We said as much at the meeting, adding that social media from a business or institutional perspective requires an immense amount of time, interaction and money to properly develop.
Social media personalities are influencers and mini-marketers. The best present themselves to us as regular folk, but the reality is one of dealmaking, crafty production and the implementation of psychological tricks and triggers. And while said personalities are undoubtedly effective at what they do, today’s youth are growing up inoculated by constant exposure to their techniques. The young people that we’d hope to introduce to our hobby using these means would probably see right through the pitch despite its good intentions.
At any rate, the one thing absent from this discussion and the earlier symposium at the NLG was how we can better communicate to collectors already in the hobby that don’t feel like they are part of our community – that is, the community of collectors that would join organizations like the EAC or take up the challenge of writing the next great numismatic article or book, replenishing our ranks with new blood and new ideas.
It is our belief that some collectors drop in and out of the hobby over the course of their lives. Others may collect for years–their whole lives, in fact–and never advance their knowledge to the point where they would feel comfortable calling themselves “numismatists”. Still others see the hobby as having great potential. If we are lucky, these people are provided the opportunity to grow and mature as true numismatists and future leaders. It is on us to always present a welcoming environment, a call to participate, and a community worthy of their talent and time. If anything, what we have failed to do in recent years is to offer a compelling alternative to self-directed collecting, detached from the social ties that have long bound the hobby together.
Coins are interesting things collected by interesting people. Our website’s focus is discussing coins and the lifestyle of collecting. It is our belief that the industry is best served by taking this to heart and leaving the gimmicks at the door. Prices do not dictate the viability of the coin market. The fascination of coins and related objects does.
Even our youngest “numismatists” know that.