By Charles Morgan for CoinWeek…
The first day of the Whitman Baltimore Winter Expo, which runs from October 30 to November 2, kicked off quietly at 9:00 AM, with auction lot viewings by numismatic literature sellers Kolbe & Fanning and rare coin auction house Stack’s Bowers. A steadily increasing number of Early Birds soon began to roam the bourse floors.
As I did the same, I had the privilege of speaking with and listening to numerous dealers and collectors. Some I already knew. Many I met for the first time. All had a story to tell.
State of the Hobby
We’ve heard over the past few months that the coin market is slowing down. We sensed this even before the ANA World’s Fair of Money in August, but most dealers that we spoke to then blamed the poor showing on the release of the 50th Anniversary Kennedy gold half dollar proof. Now that the market’s been slow for awhile, especially in regards to collector coins, things are starting to come into sharper focus.
“It’s the worst coin market I’ve seen in 12 years,” said one prominent industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
During the course of our conversation, other key figures approached us. All of them seemed to have the same thing on their minds: When are things going to turn around? Another asked, “In your experience, how long does this downturn last?”
Problem is, there’s no clear answer to that question. Maybe tomorrow, maybe never. More than likely, it’s somewhere in between.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, at least according to Legend Numismatics’ Laura Sperber. In her most recent market report, Sperber says that excellent material still finds a buyer. I sat down with her briefly at the Legend table and asked her what she thinks is going on.
“Middle of the road stuff has been dead for a while,” Sperber said. “There aren’t buyers for that stuff right now. Quality still sells, though.”
Getting back to the gold Kennedy half, several dealers we spoke to (again on the condition of anonymity) said they got buried in it.
“I bought 55 of them at more than $2500 each,” said one. “I have 36 of them left.”
Others, like prominent dealer Lee Minshull, had better luck. Minshull reported that he sold through his stock of show-graded coins but took a hit on the ones graded after the ANA show.
“The market for the coin tanked immediately,” he said.
The modern coin mania kicked off in March of this year when the U.S. Mint launched the Baseball Hall of Fame coin program at the Spring Expo. The Mint skipped the June show but has returned to Baltimore to close out the year.
Well… sort of.
It seems that the Mint is in something of a cautious and reflective mood. Instead of a nice display (the Mint has consistently had the best booth of any dealer at any show I’ve attended in the last two years), they have a small, one-table booth manned by a single solitary employee. The only material on display? The newly-released Kennedy silver coin set, brochures, and a touch screen kiosk.
“We have no material here to sell,” the Mint representative told me. “This is because of the ANA show. We didn’t want a repeat of that here.”
David Fanning on the State of the Numismatic Literature Market
“The market for numismatic literature is strong, and picking up,” says David Fanning. He and his partner George Kolbe operate Kolbe and Fanning, the premier dealership for rare and antiquarian numismatic books in the United States.
When I caught up with them, they were sitting in a room on the third floor, holding a lot viewing for their Saturday sale. On display were hundreds of books, including many great rarities.
A collector of numismatic literature myself, I found many offerings to be of particular interest.
But, I wondered: What makes the numismatic literature market in the United States tick?
“It’s a three-part market for us,” Fanning explained. “Ancients, which [are] always strong, Medieval and Modern Foreign, and U.S. The U.S. literature market is getting hot right now.
“Most of the lots here are U.S.,” he continued, picking up an attractive volume bound in full morocco entitled The Early Coins of America by Silvester S. Crosby.
“This first edition Crosby catalog has a complicated publication history. It has the original 1873 title page and intro plus the 1875 title page. In addition, it has a rare Edward Maris Woodburytype Plate, Plate XI, which is found in perhaps one out of every 10 copies we see. Also, the piece has a handwritten key to the plate, written by Maris, and a handwritten review of the auction, also by Maris.
“We can’t say for sure, but based on this and other evidence, we believe that this might have been Maris’ personal copy. This catalog was bound, probably in the early 1980s by Alan Grace for Armand Champa. It sold in 1994 to a collector, who recently sold it to us.”
“You don’t really see the use of plates much anymore,” I said, and the two partners tried to think back to the last time that they had seen an auction house produce them with any regularity. Kolbe thought one might have to go back to old Superior catalogs to find ones of a more recent vintage.
Despite their disappearance, collectors still find the inclusion of plates in older catalogs beneficial.
“It’s about determining provenance,” said Fanning.
“For an ancient coin collector, someone with a high-end coin–maybe a $25,000 or a $250,000 ancient coin–numismatic plates are essential. [They’re] essential because, for many of these great rarities, you have to be able to show provenance, for protection. Otherwise, some government might say that you dug it up out of the ground last week and try to seize it from you. If you can show that the exact coin was sold before and here’s a plate of it from a 1904 catalog, then you are good to go.”
Kolbe & Fanning’s Baltimore Book Auction (Sale 137) will be take place Saturday, November 1 at 3:00 PM Eastern Standard Time.
Anthony Swiatek’s Commemorative Pins
Coin shows not only give collectors a chance to rub elbows with fellow hobbyists and reconnect with their favorite dealers, they also provide ample opportunities for surprise. It’s amazing to contemplate that on any given day a collector or collector’s heir might approach even the most veteran dealer and present something exciting and unfamiliar.
For seasoned collectors of classic American commemorative coinage, the Whitman Expo offers something quite rare.
“I’ve been at this for 40 years,” Anthony Swiatek, otherwise known as “Mr. Commemorative”, explains. “And I’ve only seen one other example in this condition and that was purchased by Hy Brown for his own personal collection.”
The item in question is a deeply-toned 1916 Illinois Centennial half dollar, mounted and made into a commemorative pin.
“I don’t know how many of these were actually made,” Swiatek explains, “but they must have been made for special people in connection with the commemorations. When I have seen them, the ribbons are typically frayed.”
Swiatek’s example, though heavily tarnished, is fully intact, ribbon and all.
“I also have a 1936 Rhode Island commemorative pin, also with its original packaging. I bought it at auction for $2,900.”
Photographs of both specimens can also be found in Swiatek’s excellent Encyclopedia of Commemorative Coins.
That wraps up my first day on the floor. I’m beat and heading back to my hotel. Be sure to check back with us over the weekend as we file part two of our coin show coverage. Big coins will be bought and sold and CoinWeek is here to cover it.
Thanks for reading,