My first job in the industry was in the back of a coin shop. The store had a “bid board” where collectors put up their coins for sale. Other collectors wrote in bids and the store took a small percentage for its troubles. Today most of the bid boards are gone from brick and mortar shops, and have migrated to the internet.
Huge auction houses have flourished with giant full color catalogs online. Websites like Ebay, and Amazon, or industry focused sites like Collectors Corner or Collectors.com have given rise to the new “virtual bid boards”. But despite all this and the efforts of PCGS and NGC, rare coins remain a sight seen purchase item. They are, after all, tangible assets.
So absent the big board of coins stapled in flips, the technology that drives these online sales portals is digital photography. While not all dealers have mastered the art, the quality of images has improved overall across the web. The lower cost of this ever improving technology has put digital photography into the mainstream with thousands of dealers and collectors selling coins online.
Each coin has some sort of image posted in an array of quality that can make buying from just the image a tricky proposition.
The smart collector seeks out a particular coin that suits their collecting interests. They view it and judge the luster, strike and surface quality. All of these can be controlled and manipulated in a digital photograph.
The luster is simply the light reflecting back off the surfaces while rotating the coin. A photograph does not allow for this rotation displaying only a static image at the photographer’s discretion.
Strike is the quality of how well the metals flowed into the recesses of a die. The judgement of this is often made by inspecting a particular design line or crevice or by gauging the fullness at a high point.
We detect these and decipher them in our mind’s eye with a mental algorithm using light, color, shadows and experience. However, these focal points can be accentuated or concealed by crafty photographers (or less crafty Photoshoppers). And, the surface qualities can also be masked by a variety of “tricks” some as simple as rotating the coin when photographed or adjusting saturation, lighting and exposures to alter color. Some just post overall poor image quality making the surfaces impossible to judge.
Experienced collectors can sometimes infer what a coin may look like. But until the coin is in hand for final inspection, it is impossible to get more than a good feel for a coin.
With good photography, a collector can deduce if the coin is worth pursuing. Experience will teach you whose pictures to trust.
Here a few rules that can help you from making a mistake when buying a rare coin from a photograph.
- Try to look at as many coins physically that you can. Attend shows, join local clubs, and visit your local shops to hone your eye. Nothing improves your numismatic abilities better than actually looking at coins.
- Continue to browse coins on the internet. Looking online may not be as valuable as physically holding them, but finding a few sites that provide quality images of the type you collect will help build a mental library and wish list. Look at other collections posted at PCGS or NGC Registries, or on coin forums.
- Compare coins you buy back to the images that may have prompted you to have a coin sent out. Note color and luster depictions. Compile a folder of these images or build a PCGS or NGC Registry sets and share these with others.
- Consider the coin when looking at an image. Don’t expect a three-cent-silver in MS62 to look like a gem Morgan Dollar when enlarged 100x its actual size. If the coin is toned, look to experience and imagine the coin in hand. If the coin is certified, understand the photo was shot through plastic. Sometimes these show lines in the picture, but are not on the coin.
- If buying from an auction you will be unable to attend, pay an dealer to represent you. Having someone look at an item to alert you to unseen blemishes or lacking diagnostics is second best to viewing it in hand yourself. The fees this incurs far outweighs the uncertainty.
- Only buy online from a company that provides a return privilege. If the coin doesn’t live up to its images, you can return for your money back. Some fees may apply, but paying a restocking fee is far better than living with a coin you aren’t in love with.
- Look for companies that provide large coin images and not just slab shots. Slab shots can hide small blemishes and problems. Their images usually don’t allow the actual coin to be enlarged well and lighting is limited or may not effectively illuminate the coin’s surfaces. Best bet is a company that provides both – large coin image AND slab shot.
- Find a dealer you are comfortable calling and asking specific questions about a coin. Finding a trustworthy dealer is probably the most important factor to successful collecting.
Every rare coin exhibits a mastery of arts. It is a loose blend of design, condition and nostalgia that catches our eye and draws us in. With the proliferation of internet sales portals collectors can view thousands of coins daily on a variety of virtual bid boards. But in the end, coins are a tangible asset. Until the coin is in hand, the smart collector should remain vigilant.