HomeCoinWeek PodcastCoinWeek Podcast #158: Dr. Don Kagin, a Life in Numismatics

CoinWeek Podcast #158: Dr. Don Kagin, a Life in Numismatics


CoinWeek Podcast #158: Dr. Don Kagin, a Life in Numismatics

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This week on the CoinWeek Podcast, Dr. Don Kagin joins us to talk about his life in numismatics – especially how he fashioned his own academic program and got a doctorate in numismatics. We also discuss his work with pioneer gold and what the future of the hobby will look like. All this next on the CoinWeek Podcast.

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The following is a transcript of Charles and Chris’ conversation with Don:

Don Kagin: One of the things really challenging is that my generation of coin collector have some resistance or just no understanding of the new technology, and we’re afraid of using it. Either issues come up like privacy, who’s going to be looking at this, who will know that I collect coins or something. Issues of, I just don’t want to deal with the technology, I like going face to face and going to coin shows. As a result of that people who would have been involved in coin clubs, for instance, or have been involved very much so, are resisting using virtual technology, when actually this is going to be an adjunct to the– when we get back into physically meeting again, we’re going to want to incorporate this technology so that coin clubs will no longer know any kind of geographical limitations.

Not only that, how about young people getting involved? You won’t have to even have a driver’s license to get involved in a coin club. You don’t have to today. You can join a coin club and be there and present and be part of the camaraderie, the show and tell, the auction, the presentation, without having to drive there, have your parents drive you there and back. Of course, it is the young people who are used to this technology. How do we get to the old people and how walk them through it? How do we let the young people know about this technology? Sorry, you didn’t ask a question but–

Charles Morgan: Right. Well, anyway, let me just get this conversation started. I’ll continue it with what you’re talking about.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Don Kagin, scion of Art Kagin, a family that’s been involved in numismatics for almost a century at this point. Don is a very knowledgeable guy, one of the few American numismatists with a PhD, probably the first one in America who is a practicing professional numismatist with a PhD. It’s funny to me that what you were bringing up in our cold open talking about bringing people online and these relationships. I felt like in some respects that I had a quasi-relationship with you before I even met you because I had your book, your pioneer gold book, which was a standard reference for the time it was published, is probably about 10 or so years old when I got my first copy of it. At the same time, I grew up reading Dave Bowers’ books. My grandmother bought me Norman Stack’s US type coin book that was put out in the ’70s. I had my relationship with numismatics through some of these institutional figures were born through literature. I didn’t have the good fortune of growing up, like you did, probably sitting around the kitchen table putting auction catalogues together with your dad and your uncle.

Don: Literally. [laughs]

Charles: Literally doing this, but we come into this community as many collectors do without the benefit of that interpersonal contact that I only have, and Chris has because we’ve become professional writers, and then we cover the industry and we go to the coin shows. You’re a road dog, you’ve got quite a few coin shows, maybe probably more than I do. Now, we were developing this personality in this relationship but because of computing technology and the ability to talk to each other in a virtual setting– We’re in Virginia, in Massachusetts, and you’re in California, [incoming call] and now I have Scott trying to reach me from Florida.

It’s one of these things where we have the opportunity to have different types of relationships that we couldn’t have had unless we had the time and the resources to travel around the country to see each other. The numismatic hobby, if anything is proven in this time of the COVID pandemic, this is the most bustling, hoppingest coin market we’ve probably had in 20 years. It’s been born not from coin conventions, it’s been born because we’ve built an infrastructure to be able to trade coins online. There are people at home who want to get out and do things, but they can’t, so they’re buying a lot of coins.

Don: I hope it’s not mutually exclusive in the future when we open up again. But you’re absolutely right, this industry has turned a lemon of a pandemic into a lemonade of amazing possibilities of getting together virtually, of bringing new people into the industry, of alerting them of a lot of information, technology, and possibilities. We know now that we can have coin shows, tradeshows, and we can have virtual learning to go along with those coin shows, as well as hopefully soon being able to meet face to face. The possibilities, we’re just trying to still figure out how many potential possibilities there are. We talked earlier or I talked about the coin clubs. Another possibility now is, gee, there’s still a lot of presentations to be made at coin clubs. But there’s also coin clubs that don’t have the people involved that time and again, come up with presentations. But now with Zoom, with the technology, YouTube being able to record some of these presentations, something managed by the ANA perhaps where you can go to money.org, the ANA and look at 40 different themes of numismatics and 100 or 200 different presentations that have been given and/or people who are willing to give one live. You can pick.

Coin clubs no longer have to be wondering if they’re going to have a presentation down the road. They can pick and choose and get a lot of these already in the can or volunteers to make their presentation for them and don’t have to be members of the coin club. So that’s another result of this technology and we need to embrace it. We need to manage it, and we need to inform and communicate to the hobby world, not just numismatics, but the whole collectible world that this is available.

Charles: Well, speaking of technology, we’re enjoying it right now having this conversation. I think Chris and I were talking before we had the opportunity to get you on some things that we wanted to discuss, some numismatic things actually, if people want to tune into the podcast and learn a little bit about coins and paper money. I’ll let Chris ask a few questions, I’ve got a few for myself, and I think it’s going to be a very interesting, off-the-cuff discussion about topics that are very near and dear to you. I think our audience will definitely enjoy the next 30 or so minutes as we go deep into the coins.

Chris Bulfinch: I’m glad that we opened this episode talking about communication technology because I actually had a couple of questions for you, Dr. Kagin, I guess about your path through numismatics and whether you think there’s kind of a comparable path today. Charles mentioned earlier in our discussion that you had earned Northwestern’s first bachelor’s degree in numismatics, which incidentally is a degree I wish I had earned. [chuckles] Had I known that there were numismatic bachelor’s degrees in numismatics, I might have sought one out. I majored in history, which is sort of a related field, but nonetheless, a bachelor’s program in numismatics must have been incredibly enjoyable. In your experience, are there many university programs for aspiring numismatists and did you find charting that particular academic course difficult?

Don: No, there aren’t too many. The only two that I know of, and only two people have gotten a BA degree in numismatics is the University of Kentucky, which was the second one, and mine at Northwestern. The one at Northwestern was just serendipitous. I was a member starting my junior year, a senior of the Honor Society at Northwestern University. We were having a luncheon with the provost of the university, head of academics, and he asked the typical question, “What’s your major?” And I said–like you, Chris–“I’m a history major, but that’s really not what I want.” And he says, “Oh, really? What do you want?” I said, “I like numismatics.” “Oh,” he said, “Coins?” I said, “Yes.” He says, “You can get a numismatic degree from us.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah. You open up the book, the academic book of what possibilities are. There’s something called ad hoc majors.” I said, “Oh, really?” He says, “Yes, if you can find the professors who are willing to mentor you in various classes and you write things about independent studies on numismatics that correlate with the class, you can get a BA degree in numismatics.”

I went and that’s exactly what I did. I obviously did the normal work for a class, and I added on, to give you an example, for my Spanish class, I wrote an article on using Spanish resources about the first emperor of Mexico, Iturbide, and his coinage, or in a class of probability and statistics, I talked about the very divisive political campaign, William Jennings Bryan, where you could draw, literally draw a line on the map, and add one straight line and separate the countries. And that has so many similarities to today how divisive they were. William Jennings Bryan ran four times to be the nominee and, of course, he lost the couple times he did run for president. But he had a series of coins that you may know of that were used as promotional pieces for his 16 to 1 silver to gold. I used that opportunity to create my own BA degree in numismatics. That’s a matter of circumstances, no university that I know of today advertises or offers a numismatic degree. It’s something that you need to create. Hopefully, with ANA’s help, we’re going to come up with a curriculum that’s online, 24/7 that you can take, and maybe through ANA, and maybe down the road, offer it as coursework or curriculum at universities with credit. So, that’s the long-term goal.

Chris: Who are some of the professors and mentors who you think of as most critical to your development as a numismatist?

Don: When I went on then to get a doctorate in numismatics, I had to come up with– there was only one university in the– I went to ETS, Educational Testing Service, out of Princeton, who does the testing for college entrance exams, and I asked them, was there a university that I can go through that will give me the structure to create a doctorate of numismatics, and there was only one university that was a potential. It was called the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. It started out as something called “University Without Walls”. The concept was, if you could find the professors, once again, find the experts who are willing to mentor you to be on your committee, especially who will help you create your own degree, and that’s what we did.

Walter Breen, who wrote the encyclopedia of rare coins, a brilliant numismatist, was on my committee. Dr. Douglas B. Ball, one of the leading authorities on paper currency, another person who is absolutely brilliant. His father was Undersecretary of State, Ambassador to the UN, Mr. Ball. I went and moved to New York so I could study with him about paper money in numismatics and paper money, took courses at the grading ANA grading service, I took courses on detection and metallurgy, besides history, and of course, wrote my doctoral dissertation on coins of the gold rush to private gold coins. So, yeah, again, it’s being proactive, finding the professors who were willing to teach me.

Another one was Henry Clifford, one of the foremost authorities and collectors in pioneer gold, which was my major. Later, interestingly enough, I became a member of the Alumni Board for that university, which still exists today. That’s how you find the people who are willing to teach you and amazingly, in our numismatic family, you will find that most people, writers especially, and dealers who are willing to mentor you. And you give them the time and show them your passion, and they’ll give you their time and expertise.

Charles: Well, amazingly, like you’re mentioning your PhD work– the aforementioned pioneer gold coins and patterns of the US was pretty much born out of your doctoral work. In my opinion, just from a standpoint of pros, I mean, it’s probably one of the 10 or 15 best books written in the last 40 years. Which means, after I set you up with that, you owe us a new edition. What’s happening with that?

Don: Well, actually, I’ve been working on a new edition for some time. I also run a company and an auction house. So, it’s been in the backburner, now the front burner. Actually, my associate, David McCarthy, and I are writing a transitional book to my second edition. It is a coffee table book on all the gold issues of varieties of pirate gold coins, starting with the Brasher Doubloon, and then with Templeton Reid and on through Colorado. It will have a lot of new information, population, how coins are struck, as well as new information that we have found and discovered, and a timeline, especially of how different dies were made, and when and why, and additional information that will be in my second edition. I hope to have the second edition out by the end of the decade and this book on pioneer, which should be out by June or July of this year.

Charles: What was the reaction within the trade? Obviously, you were a known quantity before you went to college to learn about coins. What was the reaction within the trade when you release that books? I want to be clear to people, it’s kind of harder to get these days, it’s been out of print for a while. But this book is different than your standard, here’s a coin, here’s the next coin, here’s the next coin reference. There’s pros here. What was the reaction you got?

Don: Remember, I came into it as a history, and not just the catalogue of all the books and varieties. There’s two parts to it. I started in 1975. Well, actually I started in 1974 and 1975 when I started on the actual formal doctoral program. I had already started working on this because I found it to be the most interesting series of numismatics there is. Now, I had a structure in 1975 with this University Without Walls at the time and a total of six years to really write the book. It’s been reviewed by my mentors and it had to pass muster as my doctoral dissertation, as you pointed out, as well as a book that encompassed all the information. There are books out there on California, books on Colorado. I did a lot of traveling. I went to see people who had written manuscripts, and go to the archives in New York and Washington DC, and Salt Lake City, Utah, to see the journals of Brigham Young, etc., and to put that all together.

You want to present a book in a way, for I was told and that seems to work out, on a sixth-grade level. That’s easy. That sounds young, but it’s not, sixth graders are pretty sharp these days or even then. But it has to be on a level that people can understand easily, and yet be in a good academic level that it gives you a lot of good information, and not just be a catalog of coins and what they’re worth. Actually, my book did not have values. I had a supplement to go with it. There wasn’t any reference book per se that showed all the coins as well as patterns and ingots and other items that are related to this field. I was lucky that there were other people who had started on something like this, but hadn’t gone the route I did or as quickly, and I was able to get it out before Dave Bowers or somebody else who could probably put it out in tenth the time that it would take me.

Charles: Well, I would say about your book, before Chris interjects, the thing about the way it’s laid out, is it’s a book that knows the value of the coin– Well, it’s a book that’s not concerned about the value of the coins, it’s concerned about the worth, their worth. Many times, I think, we get too tied into what the current market level is something, we lose complete sight of, or what makes the thing interesting to begin with.

Don: The value is related to the story. There isn’t any better story than our nation’s first pioneers. They were entrepreneurs, problem solvers, hustlers, con people, as well as geniuses and propagandists. It’s a great story, and it reflects our nation and the growth of our country.

Chris: That segues really nicely into one of my questions. The Gold Rush Era has taken on a mythic quality. Such historical myths sometimes will ascribe attitudes to participants or describe apocryphal stories. Once those stories start circulating, though they might capture the feeling that a certain audience might have about an era, the apocryphal stories can fail to describe the event or the era accurately, and can sometimes muddy the waters and not help people understand the significance of the era. Do you see any of those myths surrounding the coinage of the gold rush of 1848? What are people getting wrong or what do people often misunderstand about that era?

Don: Well, luckily, Chris, we have contemporary reports, not only in newspapers, but we have letters from people who were there. In the case of the US Assay Office, for instance, we have mint records, etc. So, we have a lot of contemporary information. Especially when you are working on a doctorate, you need to not just regurgitate what’s been written, you need to go to original references, archives, museums, individuals who might have information carried from the era and distill that. And then, you have to think, how much of this is hype? [laughs] How much of it is real? And there’s corroborating evidence. It’s standard when you’re working on something of an academic level that you have to be very critical, and take a jaundiced eye to it first, and then distill it, and again, communicate in a way that people won’t fall asleep when they read it.

Chris: Well, how do you strike a balance between accessibility and academic rigor? Did you find that difficult to write, as you put it earlier, to write at a sixth-grade level or to write such that someone reading at a sixth-grade level would be able to understand it? Did you find striking that balance difficult with the level of academic rigor that you were just talking about?

Don: Actually, I misspoke. It’s eighth-grade level.

Chris: Eighth-grade level. Okay.

Don: I was one of those grammatically uneducated dummies when I got my BA degree. I really didn’t know how to write well. I had to learn. I was slammed a few times with some of the first things that I wrote even after college, [laughs] although many of those papers from my undergraduate work ended up in the numismatist and other journals. To get to that rigor, you really had to know how to write and communicate and I had to learn because I didn’t take the necessary courses in college to do that undergraduate. So, yeah, you have to balance that with being able to communicate too, and I knew the level of typical people at a coin show or at a coin club. Not all of them have done postgraduate work. I had to put it, and you want to involve as many young people as possible. So, it is a balance, you’re right, Chris. You go back and forth to get that Goldilocks area where you’re applying academic literary rigor with easily communicable stories.

Charles: Did you find when you were going through this process that you had read a lot before you went into this? Obviously, you’re a practicing numismatist, your dad was a nationally known numismatist, handled many rare coins. You’re around this your whole life. Were you reading numismatist magazine every month and other types of literature? Did you really have a grasp on this from a historical level reading about why things are made, why things are done, understanding the mechanics of numismatics before you went for this degree? Or, were you surprised at how much more you actually needed to learn to go from a professional numismatist to a PhD numismatist?

Don: Good question. Remember that I was born into this industry, I doubt if I would have been a coin collector if my father hadn’t been in the industry. I come at it a little bit differently than some others. I like to say that I became a numismatist in spite of my father. He certainly wanted me to be a coin dealer. He wanted me to adopt his passion. I might have been an attorney. I didn’t get into Harvard Law School, so I thought, “Gee, if I can’t get into the best law school, maybe I’ll go the numismatic route and see what that’s like on a higher level than BA.” I wanted to do what I wanted to do, not what my father wanted me to do. I came at it from the stories, not in the minutiae. There are so many more brilliant numismatists than me, they can run circles like David McCarthy, my associate, who you know. It helps to have a photographic memory as so many coin dealers, professionals do and collectors. I have to work at it.

I had to come at it that I find it interesting, I love the story, I like the beginnings, and I’m always asking questions. I knew that I don’t know a lot. If you know what you don’t know, that really helps. I came at it that I don’t know much, and I had to learn. Yeah, I had to read a lot, I had to look at a lot of what we call microfiche. You might not even know what that word means.


Don: You had the libraries back in the day and you go through contemporary newspapers from the mid-19th century, and you’re looking at lot of stuff. You don’t have the computers and access that you had before you had. Like I said, I had to move to New York, I had to do a lot of research in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. So, yeah, you’ve got to do the work and you’ve got to be ready for a lot of disappointments, too, just when you write something and you think it’s great. Well, the first time out, you’re probably not.

Chris: Your path in numismatics is very familiar to me. You’re describing my last three years fairly well.


Chris: So, that resonates pretty powerfully with me.

Charles: Got to embrace the mediocrity.

Chris: [laughs]

Charles: [crosstalk]

Don: I don’t know about mediocrity, but I don’t take anything for granted either.

Charles: Well, Don, one of the things, I think, would be interesting to talk about with you relates to just that feeling you had when you go from being in an industry where your dad was the big figure. How did you feel when that transition happened when it went from the Art Kagin Show to the Don Kagin Show? You came from a generation of some of the most brilliant coin dealers that we’ve had in this industry. Did you find a lot of camaraderie, a lot of people on that sort of that generation of young Turks ready to do things in a new way? Or, is it like, “How am I going to do this?”

Don: Certainly, my father probably forgot more than I’ll ever know. He was a consummate numismatist. Since he was churning out auction catalogs from 1940 through the 1980s, he knew what the market was, he remembered, he had a great memory for numismatics. I don’t have any of that. I’m still Art Kagin’s son in the minds of some of my contemporaries or people that are still older than me, getting fewer and fewer. But, I guess, I established myself as– actually, when my book came out, I wasn’t my father’s son anymore. I haven’t consciously thought about when I became Don Kagin and not Art Kagin’s son. But clearly, it was a leg up because I was Art Kagin’s son. I guess I had my fair amount of resentment and challenges, as well as access to other great numismatists because of my father. I’ll tell you this, it’s kind of cool that when I travel around the world, and my last major trip was to Egypt, by having a doctorate and numismatics and a history and a decent bio, [laughs] and CV, I get to go into the museums, I get private tours, I get to see their numismatic material. I got to go into the Kremlin, and see their numismatics in St. Petersburg at the Hermitage, and in China to their numismatic holdings in Beijing and Shanghai. That’s kind of cool. But I also take with me, my books, [chuckles] and the Library of Alexandria, which at one time was the greatest library in the world now has a copy of my book, Pioneer Gold.

Charles: It can’t be a great library without it.

Don: Well, I told them that and they’re trying to recreate the old, greatest library in the world there. They have a fabulous, fabulous building.

Charles: Well, I’m not surprised to hear some of your conflicted opinions about coming into your own. But I do remember in Orlando in 2017 at the National Money Show, you were putting on your first auction in some time. I mean, of course, you go back to the ’80s, you have that Peter Max catalog, it was really groundbreaking. You revived your family tradition of doing auction catalogs by going into the art on the covers as a major point. You were a very emotional person that night. I think you probably had a whole swathe of emotions thinking back to what the auction business had meant to your family. You must have taken with you some sort of sense that you are carrying on a family legacy that this may be Don Kagin and Kagins doing this auction, but this was about more than just you at that moment. That’s a sense I got by being in that room.

Don: And your sense was correct. If you see my auction catalogs from 2017 to just recently last month, you will see we devote a page to that numismatic history, and that this is a family affair, a family business. And that’s different. We’re not like the firms that have thousands and thousands, lots and hundreds of employees. We got about 11 altogether doing the work. So, I’m very much intimately involved in most aspects of the auction business. When you can put it together, it’s nice. I wasn’t looking to get back in the auction business after 1986, but I was on the Board of Governors of the ANA and the president, Jeff Garrett said, “Look, we don’t have any bids for the National Money Show, our spring show. And without the revenue from the auction house, we’re going to probably have to close the show.” He suggested I get back in the auction business after 20-some years. I said, “No way.” But we happen to serendipitously have a couple of million-dollar collection of pioneer gold that I had, and I was going to come out with a price list and I said, “This can be a win-win for everybody, if the consigner is willing to do it and if I can come up with the personnel to help me with the new technology of online bidding, not the old mill bid that we used to do, but I’ll do it.”

Then, I had a contract with ANA, which ran out in March of this year. ANA got the revenue, we got back to the auction business. I said, “If I’m going to do this, I want to bring in some new ideas. Not a cookie-cutter type of auction catalog that has some of the coins on the front and the back.” 1983, as you pointed out, I hired an up-and-coming artist by the name of Peter Max. Actually, he had done some very worthwhile things. He had just lost a lot of money because his manager absconded with a lot of money. He had gone to Japan, he was just coming back and was reinventing his career, and I knew somebody who knew somebody, and I said, “Let’s merge art with numismatics because it is a form of art. It just hasn’t been promoted.” I commissioned Peter Max to do the cover my catalogue. I told him, “Lady Liberty is a theme on so many coins, why don’t you do her?” And he did. We made these lithographs, one of which just appeared on Pawn Stars, and that was such a hit.

Peter was in his 80s when we went back into the business in 2017, so he wasn’t into doing that sort of thing. I said, “With the money I would have paid Peter, why don’t I pay a big amount of money, typically, a large amount like $5,000 just as an international contest, for creating original work of art for the cover my catalog?” And I worked. I put together a commission to vet artists who gave us ideas, and it can be any medium, including digital. We got a wonderful response, over a hundred and some responses, and the person who won it is a major artist now in, I think, in Boston, he was then– Chris Costello who recently did a coin for either the UN or the US or whatever. Another one who was second place became first place the next year. She won a few times. She has worked for the Italian mint. So, we got a lot of artists involved. We got numismatics. It was a win-win for everybody. So, it is coming up with these ideas of bringing excitement and aspects of numismatics together that I like. That was one of the innovations, a loyalty program that had never been done before, things like that. We tried different things, some work, some don’t.

Chris: You were interviewed on the CoinWeek Podcast shortly before you jumped back into the auction business. The podcast episode was published in November of 2016. You said something that I found really interesting. You talked about how, for lack of a better way of putting it, the corporatization of the rare coin industry was a threat in some ways to the character of numismatics. You said in that interview that– I’m paraphrasing, but you said, “We’re not dealing with widgets.” And then, a hope of yours was to make coin dealing and numismatics more personal. Do you think the hobby has become more personal or impersonal since then? What could collectors and researchers and writers and anyone who’s involved in the hobby and industry, what could they do to kind of bring back a little bit of that personal touch?

Don: Gee, I’d forgotten I said that. Thanks for reminding me, but it’s absolutely true. I’d say it again today. Yes, this is a very personal business. It isn’t just widgets. We’re not just in it to make money. There is that aspect, growing up in the business, there was a lot of us versus them, collectors versus dealers. But dealers, most dealers I know are collectors. [laughs] As my father would say, I have to be a dealer to support my hobby [chuckles] still pay for it. We need to accept all those aspects of numismatics, the professional and commercial aspect, as well as the personal and collector of passion that we bring to it as collectors. Like I said, I’m always looking for new ways to create excitement because I find it so exciting.

Again, I developed it, not because of my father, but as I said in spite of him because I love the stories. I love the history, how can I— and you know what? Most collectors want to share. They want to share their stories, sometimes a lot longer than you might want to listen. But my father was very good at sitting down, didn’t matter how much money you had to spend. One of the wonderful things about him, he’d love to share his stories with anyone and everyone, especially young people, but not just young people.

I’m excited when I see young people at the shows, young people setting up, 13-year-olds setting up displays. Now I see them in virtual coin meetings, and giving them some show and tell. We can get a lot more participation by young people, because of what you do, because if you can reach hundreds of thousands, million people you say you guys have– I mean, in 2016, you guys hadn’t been around for very long, had you? But now look where you’re at, because of the technology, that’s what’s really exciting to me, is the reach that we can have. We can share these stories now, and you can pick and choose.

One of my initiatives, probably the biggest one I’ve had, and I started in the– when I was last on the board, and we almost got to the finish line, but we will, hopefully, if I’m elected president, we will do this, we will have numismatic curriculum online 24/7 so you can take your handheld device and say, “I’m going to take the class right now. I’m going to shut my door, and I’m going to go on here, and I’m going to take a class on the introduction to numismatic grading, to learn the terminology and some of these things,” and da, da, da. Then, oh, you can stop it anytime you want and come back to it. We don’t have that now, but we will have that, I predict, within a year. Then, there’s all sorts of possibilities as a result of that. That’s how you get more personal, because it’s for you.

Now, you can pick and choose. Now, “Well, should I go to this lecture?” Or, “Should I wait till Summer Seminar before I can take it?” No, I can do it now or I can get some guys together and put together something, or who knows what will evolve once we have that out there? You asked, Chris, how can we make it more exciting and personal? How about this? Something came to my mind was doing this virtual technology, a virtual coin club meeting where, hey, you don’t have to wait around until they’re done with the club auction, which might take a half-hour that you’re not interested in, you want to rather be listening to some presentation, you can go to a breakout room or a chatroom and listen to something else and come back at a time that has been set to come back to the club meeting. Think about all the things we can do to personalize the activity. That’s where I think we’re going and heading, and that’s how I think we can, in part, make it a lot more personal.

Charles: When I think about personal interactions that we have in the industry, I think about probably the most important relationship you’re ever going to have, besides your spouse and your children, is with your coin dealer if you’re a collector. What would you describe as the contours of a great working relationship between a collector and a dealer? What should collectors definitely look for in a great working relationship?

Don: Well, someone who will listen to what you are interested in and give you options and help you find– and be as transparent as possible and helpful, who will guide you on where to go to get information. I think most dealers recognize that the more informed you are, the better client you are. And that every sale is not a bastard sale, one sale, where you make your big money on this big sell and don’t worry about the guy later. These are long-term relationships. And a dealer who takes that attitude, usually somebody who’s been around for a while, he might be– There are some ways of differentiating dealers who certainly want them to be members of the American Numismatic Association. There’s some arbitration for complaints. The strongest arbitration and consumer protection is with members of the Professional Numismatists Guild. These are dealers who have to pass certain bars and requirements to be members. They also subject themselves to compulsory arbitration of any complaints without going to the expense of legal fees, etc. If you have an issue with them, they have to have it resolved by their peers. So, understanding who the dealers are, what their credentials are, where they’ve been around, and then finding somebody that you’re comfortable with, that’s probably it. Remember, 95% of these guys and women are collectors too. So, they know what your kind of issues are.

Charles: Well, I always think that if what you’re collecting is not interesting to your dealer, then your dealer’s probably not the ideal person to buy your material back when you’re ready to sell it. So, I think in some respects that having some sort of interest in the area in which you’re collecting is probably often an essential element, wouldn’t you say?

Don: That’s helpful. I have clients that are looking for things that I don’t necessarily specialize in but I have relationships with other dealers who do. Again, knowing what I don’t know, I know how to reach out. A dealer should have a lot of knowledge in a few areas, and some knowledge in every area. That’s an educated dealer, that’s somebody who can help you, even if they’re not an expert in a certain area. Yes, if you have the opportunity to– you only want to deal on pioneer golds, I can probably steer you to somebody who’s an expert in that, but if you’re also interested in pattern coins, or Roman coins, I can recommend people. Or, if you just want beginning coins to start filling your virtual Blue Book or whatever that we used to have when we were really into– when I was growing up, I could steer you to a local dealer who will help you develop your interests. It depends on what you’re looking for, and you’re right, to a certain extent, you probably want a deal– If you know what you want, you probably want to deal with the dealer who specializes in it.

Chris: I was just going to return to your journey in numismatics, and you touched on this in one of your previous answers. I was wondering, to tie a few of the themes we’ve talked about together, do you think that there is a 21st-century version of your path? What opportunities does the internet present for research? It’s a very broad question and there are probably a lot of opportunities. But, I guess, I’m just trying to see how integrating technology into an academically rigorous approach to numismatics, what kind of work product or scholarship that could ultimately produce, and how you think someone could go about it?

Don: I wish I could start over again and do it if I had the energy. I certainly have the passion. I envy people your age and younger who are just going through the academic process now that there’s so much access to knowledge. I recently wrote– very recently like a few days ago, finished a piece on the future numismatics, that I’ll be happy to send to you. I wrote it for COINage Magazine. [chuckles] It talks about we’re going to have access– I mean, you have a QR code on slabs now, coins that you can just go to and find out information about the coin you’re holding. That’s cool. You’ll see more of that. It’s still fragmented to a certain extent, the information here and there, but the auction houses and their archives, the grading houses and their archives and the population reports, guarantee of authenticity, and the fungibility of semi-numismatic coins, because they’re graded.

I remember David Hall who came up with– co-founder of PCGS, saying, “We’re going to answer the problem of grading, and therefore value in coins.” We have many discussions about not only that but the language of numismatic, of codifying the language. What is a pattern? What’s a presentation piece? What’s this and that, etc. That’s getting more refined. Grading is more refined. There’s much more access to information now, so that when you can– so much more quickly, and I alluded to this before, get the information from sources, you have things like the Newman Portal, you have your podcast, you have of places you can go, the digitation of libraries and museums, you take a virtual tour of the museums, I want to see that worldwide. So that, “Hey, I could do an article about this, and I can hear the resources at my fingertips.” Something new to say about numismatics, for decades, we’ve said, it’s history in your hands. So, now it’s going to be, or it is to a certain extent now, but it will be, history in your hands and at your fingertips. You’ll have access to far more information about coins that you hold in the future than ever before.

Charles: Well, Don, I wish you the best of luck in your bid. Thank you for coming on the podcast to talk with us.

Don: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for letting me expound about my favorite subject. [laughs]

Charles: All right. Well, take care, Don. Thank you.

Don: All right. Take care. Bye-bye.

* * *

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  1. I greatly admire this man and his dedication to numismatics. To create his own academic program and to get a doctorate in numismatics takes a real gift on his part. I, in my way, am also a numismatist in my own life because I am a collector of coins. I have loved coin collecting since I was a boy and it has not changed now that I am an adult. It’s a wonderful hobby for any who has an interest in numismatics.


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