CoinWeek Podcast #149: Collecting Coins with Bulfinch and Rossi
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CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan got two of our newest writers, Chris Bulfinch and Tyler Rossi, to sit down and discuss how their childhood friendship–forged through their local scouting program–sparked a lifelong love of numismatics.
Bulfinch and Rossi have accomplished much as writers and are part of an emerging generation of younger collectors and experts that will carry the hobby forward.
This hour-long discussion gives you a seat at the table as Charles, Chris, and Tyler discuss their experiences with coins.
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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Chris and Tyler:
Charles Morgan: Hi, everybody. Welcome to the CoinWeek Podcast. This week, we have a very interesting conversation with two of CoinWeek’s writers, Chris Bulfinch, who has co-hosted last week’s episode of the CoinWeek Podcast with me, and Tyler Rossi, who writes mostly about ancient coins and world coins for CoinWeek. Amazingly, Tyler and Chris have been lifelong friends and they got to know each other and the hobby when they were scouts proving that investment in young numismatists sometimes pays off and allows for a new generation of collectors to enter into the field. I would like to introduce you to Chris Bulfinch, and Tyler, and allow them to describe what it was about coin collecting that got them involved in the hobby and how thinking about coins as writers has changed the way they approach the hobby. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.
Tyler Rossi: Thanks for having us.
Chris Bulfinch: Yeah, thank you so much. This is going to be fun.
Charles: Tell me how this happened. So, you guys grew up in the same town, you didn’t know each other, except for sort of the community scouting scene, or did you guys go to the same school?
Chris: Yeah, our older brothers are the same age. Though they went to different high schools, they were in the same class for a period of time and they knew each other probably a little bit. The town we live in is fairly small, so people tend to get to know one another or at least aware of one another. Then when I joined Boy Scouts, I got to know Tyler a little bit. Tyler’s two years older than I am, so he was a couple years ahead of me in school and scouts. We got to know each other, and our families got to know each other a little bit through scouts and just through living in this relatively small town.
Tyler: Yeah, and then we would bump into each other at the beach or at the local park or whatever. Through scouts, we both apparently decided to do the coin collecting merit badge at the same time. I’m not sure about Chris, but my dad had already given me some stuff, a handful of 1800s Matron Head cents basically. Then, I started getting involved with the coin collecting merit badge, and Chris joined me. We started doing the badge. I don’t really remember much about that, but I do remember one of the requirements was we had to go to a coin show. There was another scout, Nikhil Patel, I don’t really know where he ended up, I think Chris– [crosstalk]
Chris: He lives in Arizona and he went to college in Texas. I still talk to him fairly regularly, so I’m going to send him a link of this– [crosstalk]
Tyler: [chuckles] Yeah. Then, his dad took us to the Boston area, the Bay Show.
Chris: Yeah, the Bay State Coin Show. What year– would that have been 2007 or 2008?
Tyler: I wasn’t high school yet, so it was before ‘12, that’s all I know. I remember that. We got some really awesome coins. I remember I was just flabbergasted by how big it was, how many cool coins there were. Granted, there are always the surly dealers, but the nice ones, like, we’ll look at all their stuff. As like a little kid looking at this table full of gold and silver coins from the 1500, 1600s, it was so freakin’ cool. I remember I ended up with like a Morgan dollar. I ended up with a cheapo $5 Roman late bronze coin. Then a broken El Cazador, I think it’s it two or four Real.
Chris: We all bought one because they had them for five bucks each [crosstalk] certificate of authenticity and then they clip the two by two. Maybe I clipped the two-by-two sheet but I remember buying those.
Tyler: I still have the COA.
Chris: Yeah. Me, too. [laughs] It’s funny, you brought up the late Roman bronzes, that’s one of my most vivid memories from the show was whichever dealer– I don’t know if you and I actually went to the table together, but I remember going to the table and buying for 10 or 15 bucks, a pretty decent-looking Constantine I, Jared bronze piece, and then the guy threw in a much-lower-grade bronze piece with Constantine II, and I just thought it was kind of cool to have the consecutive emperors.
Tyler: Mine, literally, I don’t even know if I could identify it today. I probably could if I spend time on it. With collecting, you asked us earlier about how we collect and how our experiences through the industry and the hobby have impacted our own collecting styles. I’ll get into that more later, but I think the one thing is, I try and keep kind of mementos of my collecting journey. While I’ll buy and sell most of my coins, there are a few I’m attached to, ones my dad gave me because he gave me a bunch more after I got the badge, but then ones that are important to me from events. Like, I’m never going to sell the coins from that show, because they’re basically how I got into the hobby. There is like a tetradrachm that I got from a guy a couple years later that I really love and that represents my move from American modern to ancient and I’ll never get rid of that one. I don’t know if Chris has that, but I definitely have coins that I will hold on to that have sentimental value well beyond their numismatic or just financial value.
Chris: Yeah, I would never part with the coins in either of my grandfather’s collections. That’s how I get into it. Tyler mentioned that his dad had given him a few coins to get him started. I had a similar experience, but with different family members having sort of introduced me to it. My paternal grandfather was an officer in the Navy during World War II. He was a second lieutenant, I believe, in the Naval Reserve. He served on a destroyer escort, he eventually rose up to become its commanding officer, I don’t know that they ever actually promoted him, I’d think that they probably were just shifting– I don’t know the story behind that, that we do have the history in my house, which I should probably brush up on. He served on the ship that operated in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He would get mementos from all the different places that he went. And he read postcards, and he took a lot of photos, so we have those, but he also tried to get coins from the different places he went and tried to bring a few back.
My older brother and I, when we were growing up, were fascinated by this little box that our uncle had. Our uncle had sort of taking custody of them for a little while, my grandfather died in 2000. My uncle sort of took custody of the coins for a little while and then gave them to my older brother. Then my older brother shared with me. When we were young, we would just pour them all out onto the carpet, or out of the floor and just go through them. Even though we’ve seen the same coins time after time, we were still just kind of fascinated by it. I remember the dark circulation toning of the silver coins, particularly a couple of silver pesos from Mexico of the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. There’s something about their appearance that really stuck with me, for whatever reason. As I got older, I got more and more interested in coins, though somewhat passively, and people would give me coins as gifts. The same uncle that took custody of the coin sent an American Silver Eagle and a 2005 mint set, and just little odds and ends that I just put together.
I got a whole bunch of Susan B. Anthonys from my parents because when they were living in New Orleans in the ’80s, they somehow got roped into going to a timeshare presentation that promised to give them money. They sat through the whole thing. Apparently, anyone who’s ever even heard of a timeshare presentation knows that they keep finding ways to loop you in. My parents sit through this thing and it takes them like hours to extricate themselves because they have all different people trying to sell them Timeshares. Then when they got to the end, their compensation was given to them and Susan B. Anthony dollars. My parents were so fried and annoyed that my dad swore, he’s like, “These are going to be worth something someday and we’re going to be so glad we did this.” As I got more and more into coins for years, my dad would ask me, “So, what are the Susan Bs worth? They worth anything yet?” [chuckles] They’re all in 1979s, too, [chuckles] they weren’t even any of the slightly less common dates. They were all super common.
Tyler: My family also– after I did the badge, my dad gave me his collection. It was pretty good. It had a bunch of mid-1800s, late 1800s US silver, nothing crazy, but it definitely sparked my interest in American silver especially like the trimes, in the three-cent nickels because he had a good chunk of those, which were really cool. What was more interesting for me in general and looking back on it now is my grandparents, whenever they traveled, they would bring back like just pocket change from the countries. Then one time my grandmother, she must have had this from before because she hadn’t been to Russia in a long time. She gave me, I think it’s from like ‘76, mid-70s Proof mint set from the USSR, which is insanely cool. I just got the cardboard box and everything. I’m doing that now myself. When I travel, I try and pick up the general pocket change, some of the bills, but then also I try and visit a coin shop in every place I go if I can.
When I was in Poland, I picked up some Polish three pokers, I picked up a really cool commemorative silver coin from Chernobyl when I went there. I got a really cool 10 poly paper bill from Rome from the Napoleonic Republic he set up, stuff like that. I’m trying to build up alongside my just pure collection, I’m trying to build up like a collection of memories with it, which I find really cool.
Chris: Yeah, I did something similar, but in a much less considered way when I was studying abroad, too, because I was in Vienna and I went to– there are two or three, I think two, coin shops in the city that I went to a couple of times and I bought a few things. When I was in Salzburg, I found another coin shop and I bought some small– I think they’re referred to as silver pennies of–[crosstalk]
Tyler: I’m pretty sure we went to the same shop in Salzburg.
Chris: Yeah, well, if it was right on one of those really narrow sort of alley streets not too far from the church, near the hill, or near the mountain or the mountain or the Capitol. Anyway, I can’t remember the name of it. It used to be the wallpaper on my phone. I have a couple of Salzburg little silver coins that I bought when I was there. I bought some coins in Vienna. I didn’t have the presence of mind to when I was in Amsterdam, or Paris, or Prague. I didn’t have the presence of mind to seek out a coin shop. I wish that I had, but I do have a few coins from my numismatic travels.
Charles: I was going to say the euro being adopted early 2002, I guess when it started circulating. I mean, that really was the end of the road for a lot of those very individualized, modern coin issues for the different European countries. I’ve been to most of Europe since then and getting Eurozone coinage just doesn’t feel the same as having a pocket full of whatever you couldn’t spend and can’t use, and the next country you go to and on and on.
Tyler: That’s why I– [crosstalk]
Charles: I’m sure if you lived there, that would be annoying, but as a tourist, it’s a different experience.
Tyler: Yeah, that’s why I like Eastern Europe so much because they haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I also found and I told Chris this and we both had a good laugh of it. When you’re looking for coin shops online, it’s not the easiest thing to do in foreign countries, because, A, different languages and, B, they don’t always advertise for obvious reasons. I would always search like coins, antique shops, numismatic shops online. There is a department store chain, like clothing Macy’s-type store chain in Eastern Europe in the Balkans called Coin, The Coins. Whenever you’re googling or Google mapping, coin shops, that pops up, so it’s kind of a pain.
Chris: I’m so sad that I didn’t accidentally– do the same thing that you did, but I accidentally stumble into an Austrian cash-for-gold seminar. I would have had no idea what was going on, but it would have been really fun.
Tyler: Yeah, that would have been cool.
Charles: You guys ever have a chance to get any of the coin shows while you were in Europe?
Tyler: No, I was a Peace Corps volunteer the second time. My travel was way more restricted than I would like it to have been. I kept trying to place myself in Germany during the big shows, but no, I’ve never managed to.
Charles: The shows are actually quite amazing. If you imagine like the American shows, tend to have sort of the– I guess they’re more based on the high-profile auctions if you go to a national show, and then each of the dealers are selling whatever their specialty and uncertified coins usually, but paper money and the other types of objects. Then the European shows, especially like the bigger ones, like the World Money Fair in Berlin, which is usually held the end of January, early February each year, in the old East Germany part of town. That show is every bit as much a trade show for the industry, the minting industry is it is a rare coin show vintage coin show. They have a big conquer auction, and that’s definitely cool to go to and see those coins and metals. The dealers tend to be on the– I would call it like almost the vestibule of the show floor, they’re sort of on the outside, and you get the sense that like what they’re doing there is less important to the show than the money they parry or the Italian Mint, the Rome Mint, the Mint of Poland, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Royal Mint of England, the Royal Australian Mint, the Perth Mint, and all of those modern coin manufacturers.
Then, there’s a haul for machinery, the service industry that produces the heavy equipment for the mints. As somebody who’s numismatically oriented and trying to consider what this industry is, like, seeing the fact that so much technology in R&D and effort in marketing, even like the perspectives I think the European mints have about coins, places them in sort of a luxury goods category, if you will, like a lifestyle brand, and contrasting that to what it’s like in the American market where the mint has many things, but I don’t think it projects itself to be a luxury item type of producer. Coin shows in America, you can find some of the most expensive coins imaginable, but they’re never presented in a way that is aspirational. They’re in slabs or they’re at dealer tables and bourse floors with no carpeting on the floor. We don’t dress it up whereas at the World Money Fair in Berlin. I mean, that’s an elegant show floor if you ask me.
Tyler: -just different viewpoints that people have about what coins and coin collecting and numismatics in the industry is supposed to be and who it’s supposed to be for. In the US, for a while, there seems to have been a sea change from– Chris and I have talked about this from, it’s being an everyman kind of industry or hobby to being more for the elites. I feel Europe has been there for a lot longer. We, as the nouveau riche country we are, shot up into the millions of dollars for a coin. I mean, the EID MAR Gold, EID MAR that just sold insane dollars. Then Europe has had this just entrenched class of collectors for thousands of years. I think there’s a difference in perspective that comes with age.
Chris: Well, what would you both said, reminded me of a conversation I’ve had with Charles. Tyler, I think you and I have talked about this, too. It strikes me that the lack of pomp and circumstance that you described, Charles, do you think or do either of you think that that’s a product of the kind of financialization of numismatics over the last number of years, last few decades? Do you think that [crosstalk] product of it?
Tyler: Yeah, 100%. Charles and I’ve talked about this about the slabbing of coins and how it’s generally become an industry or an industrial way for people to be assured of the value and it’s an easier route into the collector market and whatever, whatever. I still think it’s fascinating that the only two coins you can put in a Roth IRA or Silver Eagle and Golden Buffalo.
Charles: Well, I think with coins– United States in some respects, we’re behind in certain areas, but as far as the monetization of coins, I think we’ve been way ahead. Essentially, since probably the mid-to-late ’70s. Obviously, the grading of coins created tremendous amount of arbitrage for these objects and allow them to be more liquid than they would have been. If you think about like that EID MAR coin had sold for a couple million dollars, I don’t think that coin would have sold for couple million dollars if there wasn’t 1794 dollar that sold for $10 million, if there wasn’t a 1933 Double Eagle that sold in 2001 for $7 million. If there wasn’t a drumbeat of very valuable US coins that have sold for the past several decades, going all the way back to like, I think the 1930s nickels almost the first coin to sell for a million dollars, I think it sold for one bid under that. I think that that led the US coin industry to revolutionize the way collectors are able to look at quality. I think slabs are important in that respect.
Talking about going to European auctions, a lot of European auctions and they have lot viewing, the coins are susceptible to like handling. It’s almost for at least for modern machine-made issues, you want to definitely make sure you’re the last person or one of the last people to look at the lot before it goes up for sale, because somebody could get a fingerprint or do something to it, it literally can look different when you bid on it than when you saw it on a lot viewing because they are in the raw. I know like the Europeans are reluctant to adopt American grading practices, but I explained to them that if you’re a professional coin dealer, the way you sustain your business, is by making sure that not only can you sell the coin to a client, but that that coin is worth selling to the next client. You want to make sure that when you get that coin back, it’s as close to the state of preservation that was in when you sold it the first time. It doesn’t do you any good to give, like, let’s go to the ’70s, when people are using PVC. To sell a collector thousands of dollars’ worth of coins that get put in a PVC pouch, the pouch starts to disintegrate, the coins become start to disintegrate along with the pouch, and then some of the coins you can rescue and some of the coins you can’t. If we allow that attrition to happen through the way collecting usually was done, then that reduces the amount of material a dealer can sell, and that puts a finite limit on the growth potential of the industry.
Whereas with a slabbed coin, it’s not foolproof, it’s not perfect, but it does give that coin something to save it from careless handling or from elemental issues. I think that if I was a European collector, it’s not so much the grading that would be the important thing for me. It would be the preservation of the object. I do think that the grading is interesting too, though, because the interesting thing about grading is, if you look at it as shorthand and not like the gospel truth, then it allows you to start seeing the coin in different ways and sets up the potential for you to develop a knowledge of the condition census. You may not agree with the experts, you may be an expert yourself and not agree with another expert. Or, you may not agree with the grading services, but you can develop a skill to say, “Well, this MS-66 taler, it’s weakly struck in the top left. These other two are better struck. I don’t like the color of the coin, but the grading service says it’s an MS-66, and these two that are MS-65s, I find better.” Still, at least you’re kind of winnowing down the population to make it more discreet so you can have those conversations. Whereas if nothing got graded, then it requires an individual or a researcher to just have better knowledge of what’s out in the market than what might be possible.
In the last 15, 20 years with the way a lot of online coin trading has a lot of records for online coin transactions have been preserved that we can know more about what survives in the market than we ever could in the past. Then the thing that we asked about why the US market might be a little different or the way we present coins is different. I think a large part of that in America is because coin dealing, like the trading of coins essentially takes place with sole proprietors and we think of ourselves as having an industry, and by definitionally it is, but we conduct this industry by sole proprietors setting up their own thing and their focus is dealing the coin, it’s not so much setting up an elegant booth or presentation or maintaining the facade of sophistication. It’s also a knowledge industry, like, the better dealers tend to be the ones with the most knowledge. How do you dress up knowledge? It’s very difficult to dress up knowledge. By and large, it’s just the way coins are traded in America that puts us in that position, and maybe to some extent, and I’m not trying to denigrate anybody, but it could also be a lack of imagination on the part of the way we present ourselves, that goes all the way from the coin publications to the coin clubs, to the coin conventions, to the coin dealers, to the marketers or whatever. It’d just be our own lack of imagination.
Tyler: Most modern coins need slabs of some variety, yes. One of the reasons why I love ancient coins so much is I love holding them. I love feeling them. I love moving them back and forth in the light to see the toning, weight of them, and you don’t get that with this slab. That is why I personally don’t have any coins in my collection, I have slabs.
Chris: Yeah. I’m a little bit less European in my taste, I guess. I have a number of slab coins. Some of the more expensive coins I own are slabbed though. I got a couple of the more expensive coins that I have are– Charles, few things you said, made me think of conversations that I’ve had with both of you before. The first of which has to do with the collector view of the hobby versus the insider or professional view of the hobby. I certainly wouldn’t class myself in the insider camp by any means. I came into numismatics from a wide-eyed and it’s childlike in the most literal sense, kind of sense of wonder at how fascinating coins are, but what you’re talking about Charles and what you said about analyzing certified populations, and being able to analyze, looking at coins through a deeply analytical lens, and the more knowledge someone has, the more sophisticated their analytical lenses become. They’re more able to perceive things like, first, you can check for cleaning, or you can look at strike quality, or you can gauge whether that toning looks real or not or looks authentic.
One of the funniest things, and Tyler, I know, you’ll get a kick out of this, a dealer that Tyler and I both know, once kept a coin– and I don’t think it was a major company slab, but it said questionable toning, which I just thought was a really– it’s just kind of a funny label and a funny grade to assign to a coin. What you’re describing, Charles, is this inside baseball, insider market knowledge. I think that for some people who are just wide-eyed, that have fascinating coins can be, I think it can be not deflating, or disillusioning, necessarily, but I think that it can be a little bit daunting when confronted with, not only a dealer who’s incredibly knowledgeable and can just rattle off a list of interesting factoids and displays really detailed market knowledge, but it can be a little bit daunting to understand that there are all of these layers of complexity, that sort of the “every collector” doesn’t get to see. It’s not to say that those layers of complexity aren’t worth learning about. It’s to suggest that there’s a dimension to it that I think some people who are just pure collectors don’t necessarily see. Though, of course, the most experienced or sophisticated collectors do become familiar with those dynamics because once you get to a certain level, and you’re collecting a certain quality material, or you’re trying to complete certain sets, eventually you do run up against that, but I think that for particularly less experienced collectors, there’s not that degree of inside knowledge, or there’s at least not a sense of how deep it actually goes. I’ve been thinking about a lot since I started working professionally in the industry about two and a half-ish years ago.
Tyler: I’ve also run up against that myself when I was first starting. You go to the shows, and I tagged along with a local dealer to a couple shows six, seven years ago, and I was just blown away with how do I make a decision on what to buy, what to get, what to trade for, blah, blah, blah. Now, while I’ve learned a bit more, and thanks to Chris, I’ve gotten into the “industry”. I write for you guys and I’m trying to do a little bit of a dealing thing on my own side. I purposefully more than most put myself out there and say to people, young collectors, young numismatics, “I’m always there if you have questions, don’t worry about reaching out to me privately, I will always answer your questions. If you need help identifying a coin, I’m more than happy to help.” I think that we need more people who are willing to be open and available for collectors. I know there are definitely some who are asking questions for just to take up your time and there are people who are too busy legitimately, but I think in general, we need to make a bigger effort to be welcoming to the new collectors in the new segment–
Chris: That makes me think of that the second thing that I was going to mention that Charles said that had kind of made me think of conversations I’ve had with both of you, which is, what seems to be a lack of imagination, and I don’t know that I would couch it in those terms, specifically, but I hear a lot of people asking how do we appeal to a broader cross-section of people? Or, how do we make this more engaging, whether it’s for younger people or just a broader audience? I don’t have any concrete answers, but I can’t help but think that one of the best podcasts, when I was hosting the Coin World Podcast, one of the best interviews we had was with a guy who ran the– Oh, God. I have to look that up now.
Charles: Well, let me chime in, and then you can answer back.
Charles: One of the things I would say is, I didn’t have the scouting experience when I got into coins, but I was aided or brought into the hobby completely by chance, discovering my grandmother’s coin collection because I pestered her enough about it. She gave me a Red Book. It’s funny, because I was sitting on the couch earlier tonight, talking to my wife, and I was reading an article that was published in I think, the January 1970 Numismatist. I mean, it’s also how I’d nerd out. It was a profile of R. S. Yeoman. I was telling her, I showed her a picture of him, and I said, “This guy essentially changed my life because he created the penny board,” which I’m sure maybe all of us have used, but also the Red Book was still being edited by him when I got my first one in 1984. I remember just looking at that book and looking at every type of coin in that book, seeing all the pictures, seeing all the mintages, saying all the prices, and the great thing about it was that like, as a youngster, you saw coins, priced at good and very good and fine. Everything seemed to be a lot more affordable.
Now that we live in a market where I think most adult collectors aren’t buying good coins. You start talking about Mint State this and that, and the coins become very expensive very quickly. For me, as a collector, and also as a writer, I think it became apparent to me and important to me to put the Red Book away and to stop thinking about my own collecting in terms of building sets, or trying to feel like, “I needed this rarity,” or “that rarity,” or, “this type,” or, “that type.” I found that there were so many areas to collect that did not require set building that did not require a tremendous amount of money or rewarding because they allowed you to learn something important about a topic, a place, a time, and have a memento of it.
My own collection, this is not humble bragging or anything, but I have coins in my own collection, which have messages of like 10, 20, 30 pieces, that if they were American coins, they would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, but because they’re from Paraguay, or they’re from East or West Germany, or some other place that has a collecting culture but isn’t that driven by price? I have things that are very hard to find, and I was able to afford and if I would have stayed in that Red Book mode as a writer, I’d be writing about Susan B. Anthony dollars half the time or whatever it is that I could afford to buy. I think that that’s a mistake for writers trying to… hobbyists trying to go from being a hobbyist to becoming a writer.
Now, on the other hand, I do think that it’s important when we talk about imagination to present the coins people can afford and do collect and present them in mature sophisticated ways. I’ve always been somebody who believes that an Athenian Owl is an important coin, but so is a 1974 Lincoln set. If you treat coins as numismatic objects and take away the prejudice that you might have based on its rarity, or its recent mintage, or its commonness, then I think what you allow is for the collector to feel that what they have as humble as it is, if they’re just starting is important and interesting. When you guys were kids, and you’re going to your first coin show in Boston, sounds Tyler to me, like you came to play, you got some pretty nice stuff.
Tyler: I went with 30 bucks and I came back with what I got. [chuckles]
Charles: Yeah, but the point is that it’s okay. I want anybody listening to this podcast to realize, it doesn’t matter if you have $50 to buy a coin, or $5,000 to buy a coin, or $10,000 to buy a coin, you can make a great purchase for that amount of money, you can make a horrendously bad purchase for that amount of money. The fact is, the more you put into the hobby of your own self, in your own enthusiasm for learning about it your own appreciation for the object, it really doesn’t matter where you’re playing at because there are so many areas of coin collecting, or paper money collecting, medal and token collecting, there really is a spot in a pocket for everybody. I think that learning the standard way people do things is important to get you started and acclimated, but the sooner you learn what you need to learn from the Red Book, and the sooner you put it away to start like expanding the way you appreciate the hobby, the better off you’re going to be.
Tyler: While there are articles I write, which are totally glorifying certain coins or events like the shipwreck one that went up, all of those coins in that article are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you can’t get them because, A, either they’re looted coins or they’re in museums. I generally try and demystify ancient coins. You were just talking about how you are to raise the awareness that more common coins can be desirable. I’d like to go the opposite way saying that ancient coins can be more accessible.
There are tons of them out there, and most of them aren’t that expensive. While a lot of people I know say, “Buy the book, not the coin,” or, “Buy the book first, then the coin,” which is a very important thing to do, you need to know what you’re doing before you get into buying things, as you just rightfully said. It’s not that hard to get that information. There are definite sources out there and they’re easily accessible. Most of them are free, databases like WildWinds and ACSearch and Coin Archives. While they’re paid versions of those, the free versions are just as adequate for most people’s needs. They’re really good sources to study these coins, which for most people are beyond the veil of what they consider accessible because most of these coins, people are seeing examples in museums. I know, I used to be like, “How could I ever get one of those? That’s so cool. I could never own something that’s in a museum.” Now, years later, I have coins that again, not to brag, because that’s not the point of this is, is that are generally unique. Granted, it’s because there’s a specific device on the adverse or reverse and it’s not at all a specific coin, a special coin besides that. There are these coins that are generally accessible that most people don’t understand about that I’m trying to demystify through most of my articles.
Chris: I’ve found myself gravitating towards material that anchors itself in a very specific place in time. Before I started working in numismatics professionally to the extent that I can be said to be doing that, before I started doing that, and before I became a member of a lot of Facebook auction groups, and before I started going to more shows and being exposed to more material, I had never really considered ephemera as something to collect, like, it never occurred to me to go and buy an old check, like, that had never crossed my mind to something that I would have been interested in. In the last couple of years, I found myself fascinated by, among a number of other things. Pieces of ephemera, like old checks and stock certificates, precisely because they usually have some identifying writing that anchors it in a specific place and time. If it’s issued by a particular bank, it tells you what city it’s in, it tells you on what day of what year it was made out for, and in some cases, there are also really cool revenue stamps on some pieces like that, and other sorts of similar, more philatelic items.
I find those things compelling to the extent that– one of my professors in college once– he talked about what draws people to history, and he talked about how having historical imagination, being able to put yourself in a particular location or a particular locale or particular period of time, and being able to visualize that is a quality that attracts a lot of people to history, whether as a discipline or just as something to read and think about. I find that’s easier with items that do have that specific that are, like, I said, anchored in a specific context. Very recently, I actually found out that my paternal grandfather, the one who’s collect the first collection that I inherited, I actually just found out that there are actually a couple of items from that collection that we hadn’t seen yet that my uncle had in his own coin collection. Short snorters that were made out by the crew of the ship on September 7th of 1945. Again, not only does that anchor it in a specific context, but it’s a context that has deep personal significance to me. Items like that really interest me more and more.
As far as to get back to the topic of imagination and how the hobby markets itself, I found the podcast by the way, guys. One of my favorite interviews that Jeff Starck and I did together in the Coin World Podcast was a conversation we had with a guy named Dave Norris. He and his son created a club at his son’s school called the Legacy Knights Numismatic Society. He talked about how the shortcomings that he saw and how the hobby traditionally markets itself to younger people. He talked about how he didn’t really start this club with his son necessarily because he wanted to teach kids to become really advanced numismatists, though he was certainly happy if he planted a seed of interest. If some of the kids eventually did get involved in the hobby, he was certainly excited about that. He brought up what I thought was an important dynamic where in terms of appealing, and this doesn’t just apply to younger people. I think this applies to people outside of numismatics, in general.
He talked about how when dealers approach particularly younger customers, and they’re trying to get kids interested, they go, “Hey, come here and check out these cool coins I have.” He said that’s all well and good. Sometimes that can be effective if your pitch lands or sparks interest, but he couched it in a different way. He said that his focus was, “Hey, I think you kids are really cool. Do you want to check out the stuff that I have?” His point was that it was trying to reach out and make a connection and sort of have that community or that sense of community or that sense of, we’re not just interested in coins, we’re interested in one another. I thought that deeper lesson that I saw in that was important as it is to have conversations like this, and to learn as much as we can about our respective fields and areas of specialty. It’s also important to create a community.
The lesson that I absorbed from that for the hobby more broadly, not just for outreach was, it’s important to create a social space where people can come together not only share their interest but create a sense of camaraderie in community, that that’s a really important part of having hobbies. It’s not just about buying objects, it’s about connecting with other people and seeing what we all have in common.
Charles: Well, I’ve always felt that coins or– I mean, I say coins as sort of a placeholder term for all of this. I’ve always felt that these were interesting things collected by interesting people. One of the biggest things, I guess, the biggest development in my experiences as a numismatist is probably, I’d say I wasn’t a numismatist until this dawned on me was that I started to really focus on learning about the way the hobby developed over the last century and a half and numismatic periodicals. If you’re an ANA member–if you’re not, you should be–the ANA has digitized every issue that numismatist from its beginnings, you can read over 100 years of it. If you go back to the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s numismatists, you see coin collectors communicating their love and appreciation for coins with other coin collectors. These coin collectors often would write articles, but they were writing articles for other coin collectors. If you’re reading it, you’re seeing a social space.
Today, I think maybe the numismatist feels commercial because it looks like it’s a very slick and elegant product professionally put together. Maybe to its detriment, it doesn’t feel coin collectors talking to coin collectors. Another magazine, it’s defunct, was Lee Hewitt’s Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, which is around for probably 1936 I think the first edition, and then Amos bought it in around 1969.
Chris: Yeah, it was late ’60s.
Charles: Yeah, late ’60s. Then David Alexander was the editor for a while before it was shut down, probably around the Bicentennial.
Chris: Yeah. I actually researched Numismatic Scrapbook couple of months ago. Yeah, it was in the ’70s when it shut down.
Charles: Yeah. I think I have every issue of that magazine from 1938, to when it ended. That magazine in its heyday, this in the ’50s, ’60s, it was coin collectors talking coin collectors, “I found this in my change,” or, “I found this variety.” Like the one guy who went to Asia and got some Asian banknotes, “Here’s everything I know about them.” I think in a lot of respects like this shows how much of the hobby benefited from people sharing their enthusiasm and excitement for it. The coin collecting scene was a very social space, you would see prominent numismatists throughout the country when you do their biographies, or would read their obituaries, you would always see that so and so was instrumental in establishing the Buffalo Numismatic Association or so and so as a founding charter member of Central States or so and so, set up a coin club in Palo Alto, or wherever it was. These collectors found the community aspect of coin collecting, as important as building their collections. They found exhibiting their coins part of their, sort of like a rite of passage for being a numismatist, a serious numismatist. They were all part of a scene.
We’ve gotten lucky in the sense that we have this great hobby that we’ve inherited from these people. I don’t want us to lose sense of the fact that this is a scene and whether it’s a discord if you’re on that’s talking about coins to get a little bit younger here, or you’re in a Facebook group, or if you do some coins on Instagram or whatever, do YouTube videos, or whatever it is, that expresses your experience in coins. It’s a continuation of what actually made this hobby, thrive and grow. To me, like, the social aspect is very important. We aren’t collecting objects, we’re really building relationships, not only with the objects and with history but with each other.
Chris: Yeah, I agree. I’m actually I’m curious to hear from both of you. I think social media has provided a venue to express the kind of enthusiasm that you’re talking about, Charles. The enthusiasm that you saw back in past issues of The Numismatist. Do you all see a similar level of enthusiasm and that exuberant just joyfulness that people seem to take in it? Do you guys see that? Or, do you think that’s something that’s faded a little bit with time?
Tyler: Well, so I can’t speak as much to the modern market because most of the groups I’m in and people I talk to are collectors of medieval and ancient coins. Yeah, it’s still there. Lots of people are just really excited about the cool coins they have or looking for or that other people post. It really is a nice community. It’s great to see people reaching out if they have questions or if they just want to show something cool they got. I know I love doing that when I get a cool coin, I always do a little write-up about the history and the attributions and all that stuff and the provenance if there is any, and then I shoot it up. I love having the conversations with people about that. If someone posted a coin from Antiochus from the Seleucid Empire, and then someone posted one from the Ptolemaic Empire, or wherever, and you want to compare and contrast and say, “Oh, here’s mine,” and they’re like, “Oh, here’s mine.”
A great thing about the Facebook groups is, well, you can do that in shows and in club meetings, not everyone brings their coins. You can say, “Oh, I have one,” but you can’t compare them, you can’t be like, “Oh, hey, look. See, mine’s got this, but yours has that.” While mine may not be as good a grade, it’s got a nice little bit of toning on the adverse and it’s really good to be able to share what you have. By doing so, you’re building the relationships with the other collectors. That’s one of the reasons why I like writing so much is because while it’s an awesome job to do, and you’re a good editor, and it’s flexible, and it’s really enjoyable in that aspect, I get to share what I love. It’s almost always interesting topics. I don’t think I haven’t had a topic yet that I didn’t like to write about, and it’s great. I’m learning new stuff, and I’m sharing what I love.
Charles: Every generation approaches its hobby, it’s going to have like its standout figures, and it’s going to have, it’s like, people who go above and beyond and create an impact. I don’t know who those people necessarily are going to be amongst the people I don’t personally know about already, but they’re coming, they will make themselves known. With CoinWeek, as the editor of CoinWeek, and having been involved in this project for about five, six years now, I just wanted to create the type of numismatic publication that I myself would want to read. I just took the approach that, do what you think would be interesting if you are reading it. When I assign topics, to writers I respect I try to assign them things that I want to read. I don’t know enough about this, but it’s interesting and I know you’re smart. So, tell me what it is I want to know, and I just hope that the audience finds those topics as interesting and compelling as I do.
Then, again, the other thing is that I think every single object in numismatics is worth being valorized to a certain extent. I think that, from the most humble to the most expensive coins, they all have a space. The most important coin I ever saw in my life. I’ve held like the Childs 1804 dollar, which is probably worth over $10 million. The most important coin ever saw in my life was that first magical coin that got me into coin collecting and it was the 1983 Olympics dollar that was loose and rustling about in my grandmother’s safe, which she had left open when I was visiting when I was in first grade. That’s how I discovered coins that she collected coins and that the mint made these like proof coins that were different than anything I’ve ever seen or spent. That coin is worth a little bit more than the silver that was used to strike it. For me, it was like the beginning of a lifelong experience. I don’t even own an example of that coin, but it had never left me. The idea that this is a really interesting and cool hobby. I’ve never had the discipline to build and build and build a collection. I always go through these cycles where I have like a potlatch where I get rid of things and I start over. That’s true for coin collecting and for any other type of collecting I’ve been involved with.
My current iteration of coin collecting is disparate areas of interest, a lot of metals, more world coins than US coins at this point. The largest and most important part of my collection is my numismatic library, which is really what connects me to all of this. The coins that I know the most about are coins I could never afford. I don’t feel like I’m missing something by not owning them. I feel like I’ve gained so much more by making them tangible for me, by doing so much work, researching them and appreciating them. Studying draped bust dollars by die variety, for that to really matter to you as a collector, you have to have some serious scrilla. If as a researcher and somebody who looks at it and finds that, it helps you understand the way they made dies, and then you carry that knowledge over to other series, and then you carry that forward and see how the mint develops over time. Then you think about the way the economy developed, then you think about the way politics developed and then eventually you get to the point where you start seeing changes and iconography. You go from Liberty to effigies of Native Americans at a time when America was still fighting wars in the frontier and denying Native Americans rights to getting rid of Liberty and those idealizations of American identity and replacing them with an imperial coinage where its Presidents and Founding Fathers. All of this, I think, is part of understanding America in a way that I think somebody who doesn’t devote a lot of time to numismatics will never understand.
Chris: You can understand other countries, and I know, Tyler, you’ve done some of this with some of the Balkan states, you do the same thing with world coins and other countries as well. I can’t remember who said it, and I’m sure I’m going to butcher the quote, but a fairly famous numismatist–again, who I apparently can’t remember–said that whoever owns the books on the series, if they’ve spent the time to study those books and to learn everything that’s in them, that person is as much as of a numismatist as someone who’s put together a spectacular collection of whatever kind of material. That’s something I’ve been working on, too, since I started working in the industry was, I’ve built a larger– I’m in the process of building a numismatic library, and I’m building it continuously. It’s a lot of fun because even if some of the material isn’t completely up to date, it’s really interesting to read essays that people wrote.
Charles, you mentioned the archives of the numismatist. I’ve had for research for different pieces that I’ve written, I’ve dug through a lot of back issues of the numismatist. I want to go through and read them more systematically at some point in the future. It is really interesting to see the way that people used to write about coins and compare that to how people write about coins now, the things that they chose to emphasize the way that they graded things, or the way that they were thinking about it. I find reading that evolution is really interesting. I found that really engaging. I definitely hear what you’re saying in terms of– it gives you a new way to look at the world, and that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is finding my eye for history and my eye for numismatics changing over time. I found that occasionally unsettling, but ultimately enjoyable.
Tyler: My version of that, I have a tiny little library and I maybe have like 10 books, I borrow what I need or what I want from Chris.
Tyler: What I’ve been trying to do is, so my main collecting kick and has been for a while is Greek tetradrachms or Hellenistic tetradrachms, but I’ve also tried to do on the side for a lot less money which this may also interest other collectors is, I’ve been trying to connect myself personally to numismatics. For example, I lived in North Macedonia for a while as a Peace Corps volunteer. I just recently picked up a 1991 first issue paper bill from them, a buck from my local coin shops $1 paper money been, but it’s the first one they issued after they got their independence. So, I got that. When I went to Belgrade, I picked up a key chain from the house of flowers which was Josip Broz Tito’s tomb, and I didn’t realize until a year later that it was actually like a pewter copy of a commemorative 50 dinar coin. I then, being me, decided I’m going to get that cool coin. I searched and I found the proof set with it in it for like 20, 30 bucks, and now I have that really cool coin and it’s connecting back to a place I really enjoyed visiting. I’ve done that with other coins and other numismatic items where I’m trying to connect myself to the hobby in a way that brings me closer to the history and the cultural importance of the pieces whether or not it’s a valuable coin or not, that’s not the point.
I just picked up my first English hammered coin the other day. It’s slightly smoothed, it’s been tooled, it’s got some toning, it’s not great, but it’s an Elizabeth I sixpence, and it’s a cool coin. It’s no great shakes, but that’s not the point. I’m trying to connect myself with places and historical periods I enjoy learning about. I feel people get to, especially with modern coins to pigeonholed into the type or the denomination that they collect. Yeah, just like you said, Charles, you can always just scrap what you’re doing and start afresh. There’s only so much you can do with modern US. You can dig into the nitty-gritty, but eventually, you’ll run up against parts of a collection that are just too expensive for people with normal budgets. With world coins, it’s infinite practically. Each coin is another level on top of that, and it allows people to customize their collecting in ways that provide personal enjoyment out of it. I just find that really important for myself.
I picked up a coronation medal from Queen Victoria recently, and it came in the original little paper envelope. For me, the envelope is cooler than the coin, because a coin will survive a couple 100 years, but a little paper envelope that was meant to be thrown away basically, that’s another thing. I’m also getting into collecting coin tags, the paper square or circular tags that come along with most ancient coins that you buy. The oldest one I have is a couple decades, nothing fancy. If you buy a coin, or somehow end up with a coin from a famous collection from a marquis or duke or king or whatever, or JP Morgan or whatever. Those are really collectible tags and they’re interesting. To me, that’s almost more important than the coin itself because one of my dream articles, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this. I have something similar in with The Numismatist for– they’re still looking at it whether or not they’re going to publish it, but is to do like a life of a coin and track it as much as you can from when it was struck to today.
Chris and I had this long-running project that we would love to actually start. It’s about chop marks. Basically, being able to track a coin, how cool is that? The story behind it. If I have a… I think it’s a Charles VIII or one of the Spanish silver real from the end of the 1700s. It’s got 30, 40 chop marks. I would love to be able to somehow figure out where those were made. Where were the chop marks were placed on the coin. I know where the coin was minted. I know where I bought it, but I don’t know anything else about it. How cool would it be to track a coin like that?
Charles: No, that would be a fascinating project, Tyler. Okay, guys, I think that’s a good summation of our experience, at least for this time on the CoinWeek Podcast, like to thank Tyler Rossi and Chris Bulfinch for joining me. We’ll be back next week with an interesting and insightful conversation with Ken Bressett about RS Yeoman, the creator of the Red Book, one of the figures I think maybe– one of the most important numismatists of the 20th century. For CoinWeek, I’m editor Charles Morgan, until next time, happy collecting.
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