By Louis Golino for CoinWeek….
Steves Estes is a Portland, Oregon dealer who has run a mail order business for over 50 years. He specializes in classic U.S. coins, both graded and raw, and probably knows more about Morgan silver dollars than most dealers. As he told me back in 2011 in an interview for CoinWeek*: “In the early 1960s I would rush to the bank on my lunch hour, purchase a $1000 bag of silver dollars, scan the contents for better dates and grades, then sell the remainder back to the bank before returning to work. The “good stuff” was quickly shipped off to dealers with buy ads in the back of coin publications. I learned a lot about Silver dollars very quickly!”
Mr. Estes is probably best known for his 1-10 scale that assesses a coin’s overall eye appeal and has also published a lot of educational material over the years recommending certain series and coins for their long-term potential and explaining what to look for in specific series that is available on his retail web site. He is an “old time” dealer in the best sense, someone who knows quality, values his relationships with his customers, and grades and prices his coins fairly. He is one of very few dealers from whom I would purchase raw classic coins since I would feel confident I was not getting an overgraded or problem coin.
His wife, Debbi, has helped run his business over the years.
I recently learned that he is retiring from the coin business and decided to see if he was available for an interview. I have known many dealers over the years, and there are very few even at the top of the industry who I feel can teach collectors as much about what really matters as he can.
LG– Steve, my first thought upon hearing you are retiring from the coin business is that collectors will lose a dealer’s dealer, someone who really has the collector’s interests in mind and who looks for quality coins with good eye appeal. Then it occurred to me that you have been at this for 51 years and can probably use a break.
As you prepare to retire from the field, I thought it would be helpful for the readers of CoinWeek to pick your brain a little about your many years of experience.
Apart from the desire to take a break after all these years, was there anything else that led to the decision to retire from the business?
SE- Not really. After 50+ years, it’s time to kick back and relax while I am healthy and able. In the mail order business, it’s often necessary to work about 340 days a year to keep up with buying, selling and other tasks required to service the collector.
LG– How would you assess the state of the coin market today, especially the classic collector coin segment? Most people seem to think this segment has been lagging for several years apart from high-quality and very scarce coins, but even an improving economy does not seem to be helping much yet. Do you see these coins doing better at some point soon?
SE– In my opinion and current experience, the demand for nice looking, accurately graded collector coins far outweighs their supply. With a continued steady improvement in the economy, I expect demand for the classic collector coins to increase over at least the next 5 years. One must remember that all segments of the market are cyclical, subject to interest and demand. What’s lagging today may be the hot series of tomorrow. At least that’s how it has historically occurred.
LG– Looking back on your half century in the business what are the key lessons you have learned that you think collectors can benefit from?
SE– One of the key lessons I have shared over the years is this: Rather than look at the grade of the coin first, instead contemplate the eye appeal of the piece. If the coin does not have good eye appeal, the grade is of little consequence. Clearly eye appealing coins are all the rage, with emphasis on pluses, stars and extra seals attesting to visual quality.
LG– What coins would you recommend to the collector/investor looking to buy and hold for the long-term?
SE– My favorite series for long term holding have always been these: Mercury Dimes (XF to MS-65); Morgan Dollars (VF to MS-63); Indian Cents (VF to MS-63); and Proof Set of Franklin Halves (PR-65 to PR-68).
LG– Do you think classic U.S. coins like Morgan dollars and Walking Liberty half dollars will always be in demand even as modern coins become more popular all the time?
SE– I feel the hobby has divided itself into diverse compartments. We have collectors of new and old, modern or classic coins. We have those who prefer and can afford super high quality scarce coins and those who enjoy creating collections of accessible and affordable coins.
LG– How did you learn to grade other than seeing a ton of coins with your own eyes? Do you have any tips for people learning to grade?
SE– I had to learn grading via study, mentoring and the “school of hard knocks.” Today more options exist. I strongly recommend the ANA’s summer seminar, which offers a variety of courses to improve skill. For example, I can think of a collector who has now become a dealer. In the early days of his numismatic endeavor grading was sorely lacking. After several summer seminars for himself and staff, their grading skill and confidence have dramatically improved.
LG– Why is it that in today’s market it is close to impossible to buy raw classic coins that are fairly graded unless one knows an old-time dealer like yourself? I find this to be a hindrance to building collections of decent quality, moderately priced raw classic coins. Do you have any advice in this area?
SE– My only advice is to be a truly savvy collector. It’s imperative to be thoroughly informed and educated before committing substantial funds to any hobby. The coins collector must: understand their series of interest and all its nuances; be knowledgeable about contemporary grading – whether collecting certified or raw coins; and understand how the coin market operates. Attending regional or national coin shows is a helpful resource for exploring all of these factors.
LG– Finally, I know you were collector when you were very young. Do you still collect coins, and if so, which ones?
SE– While it’s true my interest began with a small group of inherited coins, I have always been a dealer. While many professionals are both dealer and collector, I personally found the dual role problematic. For instance, when one finds a wonderful specimen, does it become part of a personal collection or is it offered to clients? That said, for a time Debbi and I collected U.S. and foreign medals, truly enjoying items with history and great eye appeal.
CoinWeek appreciates Mr. Estes taking the time to share his insights with its readers and wishes him all the best for his retirement.
*I first interviewed Mr. Estes in May of 2011 about Morgan silver dollars, an area in which he is a recognized authority. In 2012 I talked to him about his blog that relates interesting stories and experiences from his years in the dealer trenches. You can read that piece here.