CoinWeek Podcast #139: Kevin Lipton on 1804 Dollars & Modern Coins

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Today on the Coinweek Podcast, we talk to one of the rare coin industry’s most flamboyant and successful coin dealers, Kevin Lipton.

Lipton has handled virtually every great coin the market has to offer over the course of the past 50 years and is never short of an opinion or insight into what is actually going on at the highest levels of the rare coin industry.

We talk to Kevin about one of his all-time favorite coins, the Dexter 1804 dollar, and dig deep into the ways the hobby is changing now and why 20th-century coins–and a focus on them–might be just what the hobby needs to grow in the years to come.

It’s an interesting and engaging conversation about coins that you won’t want to miss.

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The CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS.

This episode of the CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS. PCGS is currently celebrating 50 Days of Summer Specials.

To learn how to take advantage of these exclusive offers and discounts on your next grading submission, visit www.pcgs.com.

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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Kevin:
 

Charles Morgan: Today on the CoinWeek Podcast, I talk to one of the rare coin industry's most flamboyant and successful coin dealers, Kevin Lipton. Lipton has handled virtually every great coin the market has had to offer and is never short of an opinion or an insight into the way the rare coin market really works.

Today on the CoinWeek Podcast, we talk about one of his favorite coins he's ever handled and why the modern coin market is the future for the hobby.

[intro]

Charles: Hi, Kevin, thanks for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Kevin Lipton: How are you? Nice to talk to you.

Charles: Kevin, it seems like you have done everything in numismatics. You got into the business as a teenager. And by the age of 17, you were hailed as the hobby’s next great prodigy. You have handled nearly every great American rarity that has come to the market over the course of the past 50 years, and have done an excellent job placing coins into some of the greatest collections ever built. But you've also diversified your business and in the face of a changing coin market, you now deal in modern issues as well.

So, I wanted to get your take on some of the greatest coins you've ever handled and then shift gears to talk about how the coin industry is handling this shift from classic coins to modern coins, from in-person to internet or virtual buying. So, let's start with this. Before we get on that bigger, broader topic, you mentioned to me before we got on the phone that one of the most interesting coins that you ever handled was the Dexter Class I 1804 dollar. You are part of the group that purchased this coin in 2017 during the fifth session of the Pogue sale. What is it about that coin that appeals to you so much?

Kevin: Well, number one, I think the coin is virtually as nice as the [MS-]68 coin. I love the history behind this one as well. This one, I believe, has like– other than the– Gosh, I can't even imagine. I just love the pedigree on this coin, how far it goes back. The fact that it was discovered in Europe makes it so cool. Other than this, maybe the Eliasberg coin is the only one that has a sexier pedigree, in my opinion.

And I also love this coin selfishly because I've handled it twice. And both times, they were really interesting events that occurred to have me own it. So, it's just one of my favorites of all the rarities that I've owned. A lot of them I've owned them multiple times. But this coin has a very warm spot in my heart.

Charles: So, the European catalog that you're referring to is Adolph Weyl’s 1884 Catalog. This lot placement proved to be controversial, at least for the Chapmans who bought the coin due to their tense rivalry with Ed Frossard, another coin dealer. Do you know how the 1804 dollar ended up in this European auction in the first place?

Kevin: First of all, they were big coins dealers, and Europeans were very involved in US coins from the very beginning. Baldwin & Company in England always had fabulous early American coins. They were always in the early days, a great source for people to secretly travel to London. One of the guys was Bill Paul, who used to always go to those people in London and pick up some fabulous early American coins. So, coins have always been traded in Europe, from Americans because they were novelties because it was such a new country and people wanted little artifacts and collectibles. The Lord St. Oswald Hoard is of course the most famous of these, but tons of great hoards have come out of the United States on their way to Europe in the early days. Think about it, merchants would come here, they see this new country and what's a better souvenir than a little coinage representative of it?

Charles: The 1804 dollar has been mired in controversy. Some numismatists have assailed the coin calling it a novodel because it wasn't actually struck in 1804. Of course, they're also the restrikes struck in an unauthorized fashion in the middle of the 19th century for collectors. No critique is better known than the one authored by Eric P. Newman, in his book, The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, published in the 1960s by Whitman, yet the majesty and mystery of the coin endures. Where do you think the 1804 dollar stands now amongst the all-time great American coins?

Kevin: Well, I grew up with it being the “King of Coins” from the time I was a kid in the ’70s, so it's always been THE coin for me. The 1913 nickel also had a tremendous amount of appeal. However, it was small, it's a little coin. Ever since it was on Hawaii Five-0, it took on a new life. I think it was on Hawaii Five-0 in 1972 with Jack Lord. Just as exciting as Hawaii was to people back then, it became more normal and mundane today and I think the '13 nickel has lost a little appeal that way. But it was always the 1804 dollar number one, '13 nickel number two, [18]94-S dime three, and the '85 and '84 Trade Dollar and the [18]38-O half. Those six coins were like considered the elite coins, classic rarities that weren't gold back in the day. That was the big six.

And to me, the 1804 dollar has not lost any luster. It's a fabulous coin. It's a Proof Bust dollar, to begin with. So, all Proof Bust dollars were struck later in life as well. It doesn't matter, it'll always be one of the great American coins, period.

Charles: One of the things I find interesting about the coin relates to the way the general public sees it. At the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, they have three examples. They have a Class I, the unique Class II, and a Class III restrike. And at one point, you could just see them by pulling out a drawer and looking at them as they were mounted side by side by side against the blue backdrop. And I would see people pull that drawer out and look at these three coins and see Liberty and the 1804 date and they would have no idea about how many millions of dollars of numismatic value they were looking at. But for a numismatist, seeing the arrangement like that is incredible.

Kevin: I totally agree. I was lucky enough to have that backstage pass and go back behind the scenes and look at all the coins. I think it was about 15 years ago. And it was one of the highlights of my life. And, to be honest with you, while the 1804 dollar is amazing, my favorite moment was holding the two ultra-high-reliefs that were half-size, double-thick like Chunkies in my hand. That was my highlight of being there, is having those two coins in my hand.

Everything happens in life, whether it's art or antiques or coins, things change, tastes change, and things become much more valuable because of the prevalent taste at the time. Right now, and I honestly think forever, I think early American coins that were struck at the time will become the best and most valuable. Anyway, I mean, the 1794 dollars in Gem Unc are the most iconic for that reason as well. So, things change and tastes evolve. I'm just glad I've gotten to be a part of all of it. In the case of the 1804 dollar, the Dexter coin, I just love it because when we first bought it, I was the managing direc– not the managing director, but totally in charge of buying all the coins for the rare coin fund when it was purchased at auction. I think what was it, 1990? I don't even remember. God, I feel silly not remembering the date. No, 1989 it was, when Hugh Sconyers and I were managing the Kidder Peabody Coin Fund.

And it's really funny because, at that time, the bid came down to us at $990,000, and he was mad because he said I should have raised it to a million. So, it would have been the first million-dollar coin at auction. And in retrospect, he was right. We should have paid a million dollars and we would have gotten much more publicity for it at that time.

Charles: If memory serves me correctly, I think it was the 1913 nickel as the first coin to sell for over a million dollars.

Kevin: There you have it. I'll show you how my brain works at this point, I'm losing it quickly. But in either case, that coin would have been gotten much more attention even at that time, if it had sold for a million dollars.

Now, the second time I bought it was really cool because I actually bought it over my computer while I was flying home from New York, which was amazing. I bought it on a plane. So, I bid and bought that coin while traveling on a plane home which tells you how much the world has evolved in that way. So, that was kind of cool.

Charles: I imagine the story is true, but maybe you would know better about the details than I would. I have it on good authority that the Pogue family bought that coin over dinner completely by accident. They intended to be the underbidder of the coin, but it didn't sell for as much as they had expected, so they get a phone call informing them that they had won an 1804 dollar, and that is how they ended up with two of them.

Kevin: Well, in their case, I believe after they paid such a huge price for the Bareford coin, they thought it as preserving value for that coin. I get that why they would do that because they paid so, so much for the Bareford coin. That coin when it sold was like awe-inspiring, it was them bidding against Jay Parrino for millions of dollars more than anyone expected the coin to sell for.

Charles: As a rare coin dealer at the pinnacle of buying and selling coins. I think it would take a special insight into who is active in the market, who is aspiring to do something big. Too often, I think when we think of the market and the value of coins, we forget that at the top end of the market, the market is very illiquid. And that the real question isn't how much the coin is worth, but what is a small handful of people who have the opportunity to make a play on it, how much interest do they have? And that is what determines what the hammer price is and what the value of the coin is. It's how much it's worth that day to that buyer, period.

Kevin: Well, the truth of the matter is today, it's different for me than it was years ago. Today, I would buy coins like this strictly based on what I thought was a good value, because I don't worry about it now about whether I'm selling it tomorrow or not, because my business has evolved and changed so much that this aspect of it isn't a big part of how we make money. So, I buy them more almost like a collector but, of course, I buy them based on value and for what I love. Which is why when I bought the Wright Quarter at the Heritage Auction and the Birch Cent, I bought those strictly because I thought they were great deals, and I didn't care. Prior to buying the Birch Cent and the Wright Quarter for two million and change, I had sold a Silver Center cent for $5 million, which wasn't nearly as good as them. It was better in grade, but not as good a coin, excuse me, just to be clear.

But I buy them now more as kind of a semi-collector. I would buy any great rarity that came along. If I thought it was a good deal, I would buy it. I might split it with my buddy, John Albanese, or someone else if they wanted to, but I would buy it based on value. I bought great coins like that with my friend Tony Terranova as well. The unique Birch Cent came up with the plain edge about two years ago for what we perceived as nothing. So, we just bought it, we don't worry about selling it right away, and we own it.

So, I guess in my old age, I've become a little bit of a collector in a sense, or just not worry about having to sell it the next day, where thank God, I have the ability financially to hold on these coins and not worry about it.

Charles: One of the things that I've seen in the coin market in recent years, it seems like there's this great resilience and strength in the upper end of the market. If you look at the results from the Newman sale, the Gardner sale, many of the sections in the Pogue collection, there seems to be sustained interest in the upper end of the market, while I think the middle tier of the market has languished for nearly a decade. Do you have any insights into this? Why is this happening and what can be done about it?

Kevin: To me, the answer is very obvious. It may not be to other people, but because I collect so many other things– I collect art, I collect antiques, I collect Tiffany lamps. I'm a collectible freak. So, I see the same thing that's obvious in all these fields. The greatest still bring record prices. The middle stuff is languishing. If you think about it from a financial standpoint today, there's plenty of rich people and there's plenty of poor people. And I don't want to use the word poor, I mean average people. That middle-market for things that are priced in that range are a lot of money.

I mean a $15,000 coin can be a car for your kid very easily. So, I really believe that's a big part of it. I think it's that general, middle of everything is tough. They talk about the middle-class, well, think about it for coins, the middle range of all of these things. And the truth is a lot of these middle-range things are not that rare. You get 100 of them, or you get 50 of them. So, they're not that rare, but they're still very expensive. I think people lose sight of that. We've done a tremendous amount of business on television, and we're always surprised at what price range can sell, and we sell things on TV for thousands of dollars. We're certainly not going to offer something on TV for $50,000. But in the several thousand-dollar range, we have no problem selling all the time. And it's really amazing.

Charles: No, I agree with your earlier point. And I think that pre-steam pressed coins are the beachfront property of all of American numismatics. These coins are amazing to collect, they're rustic. Many are scarce in mint state. They have many highly collectible varieties which are naked-eye visible, which are also great. But these coins tend to be expensive and typically collected only by affluent people.

Moving away from the hobby as something that is narrowcast just to this segment of the population, to a hobby that is potentially much larger. I think 20th-century coins offer a tremendous value. Not only are these coins artistically beautiful–and when you're talking about coin struck in the pre-33 era, these coins have it all. They have precious metals, art, history, and I think more people would be interested in coming to the market if we were 20th-century focused more so than looking at 18th- and 19th-century issues as being the meat and potatoes of where the hobby is.

Kevin: I agree. And again, people always worry about–and I've had a talk with this before at one of the PCGS meetings where they were afraid what's going to happen to the coin market–listen, I live in Beverly Hills, and number one is the one thing you learn living around people that are wealthy is they like to shop and they like to buy great things, and it's all relative to what that is.

So, people with a great deal of wealth that are getting interested in coins, they often view it as shopping and not investing. They collect things, whether it's a painting or an antique or rare coin, they're collectors, they want to shop. And if they're rich, they don't care about what they pay, because it's not a significant amount to them. It's all relative to what we earn. And everyone has a level of what becomes an issue to them.

It's really funny, here's a perfect example. There is a great deli in town called Nate 'n Al's. It's closed for COVID but you can still get to-go orders. They have these fabulous quarter-pound hotdogs they call Specials. And when you get them to go, those damn hotdogs are $4 and 50 cents each. That's what they cost raw, four-and-a-half bucks each, which is absurd. My dad was a kosher butcher and I worked there as a kid. And if I told that was the price of a T-bone steak, so– excuse me, not a T-bone because it wasn't kosher, a ribeye. So, the fact is, it's all relative, I don't care about spending five bucks on a hotdog, just like when people go to the ballpark and spend 20 bucks on a beer.

So, it's all relative to what you can afford, and where your threshold is. And that's what happens when people are shopping. Whether you're buying clothing– I mean look at women's shoes that are over $1,000 for a stupid pair of high heels, you know? So it's all relative to what matters to the people and where the threshold of pain is, so to speak.

Charles: You're absolutely right. And I think during COVID, I know I speak for myself, I think I'm spending more money on carryout than ever before.

Kevin: Oh, absolutely. And I'll tell you what, selling coins on TV has never been better because people come home or they're stuck at home. Okay, they have their 10 minutes' worth of sex, the other 15 minutes' worth of eating, and then they go, “Oh shit, what am I going to do with the rest of the time?” They're on TV. So much of it is rerun, there's no sports. So, as they're clicking through the TV, they catch RT’s Rare Collectibles television, which is Rick Tomaska's Rare Collectible television. And they watch it, and then they get to fulfill another need, they get to go shopping. And that's why all of these– Amazon's doing so great. It's pretty much human nature and it's pretty obvious to me. Things that people think are more complicated than they are really aren't, you know? And this is one of them.

Charles: And the people buying coins from television shows or online are not buying the bulk of their material typically from coin shops or coin shows.

Kevin: No, you're right. They're not anywhere–coin shops are a product for buying. Very few real coins stores are left in the country. There's a few here. I remember in New York City, there were dozens of them when I was a kid. Now, there's none of them. They just don't exist anymore.

Charles: I think that's a factor of how expensive coins are. If you're in a midsize city or a rural part of the country, coins tend to be just too expensive to justify a deal or stocking them for the sole purpose to sell them to walk-in customers.

Kevin: Absolutely. That's why people shop in different ways and get their satisfaction but it's a basic instinct that people want their need. I don't mean to pull off of our subject to the 1804 dollar but it's all part of it. And sure, if all you do in the coin business is go to coin shows right now, your life sucks. It's not a good business to be in. But anyone that has active marketing on their computers and websites or TV, I believe most of those people are doing very well now.

Charles: What do you think coin convention organizers can learn from the way coins are being traded online and on TV?

Kevin: That's tough to say. My life used to revolve around coin shows. Especially as a kid, I went coin show to coin show every week all over the country. I couldn't live without going to a coin show. And now, even like Long Beach, which is a 35-minute ride, and we have a lovely table and I rarely even go. It's not my thing anymore. It's not how our business has evolved. And what is the answer to that? I guess when you see places like the one done back East in Baltimore by Whitman, they really do it. They do a great job there. And that's why their show is still successful. They have a really good auction. They get great Eastern attendance. And they have hotels that are not that expensive.

Coin dealers never have wanted to spend a lot of money going to a tradeshow. You go to other businesses that have a trade show, and a booth can be $50,000 for a top fancy show. And if you said that to a coin dealer, they'd lose their mind. Maybe you'd get Heritage to show up and Stack’s Bowers and three or four other people and call it a day. But it's just always been a different model. And now that model is suffering, quite honestly.

It's very easy, especially the way Heritage and Stack’s Bowers has done now. You go, you look at your computer, you can sit there smoking a cigar, don't have to get dressed and press a button to buy whatever you want from the comfort of your bedroom. There's a lot to say about that. I can't tell you the amount of coins, the millions and millions of dollars I've spent on coins sitting naked in my bedroom. [laughs] But you don't have to imagine that sight. [laughs] The truth is, it is, it's just a matter of convenience, and life has changed. And that's literally even if there's a Long Beach show down the road from me, I'll be that guy bidding on the computer.

Charles: Well, all I can say is that there are plenty of good tacos to be had in Long Beach. So, if there's a reason to go, that's the reason for me.

Kevin: There you go.

Charles: Kevin, I appreciate your insights. In reality, the coin shows have enormous challenges. I've been to the Berlin show, and what strikes me as so impressive about it, is that it's a mint industry tradeshow. You see technology and technology vendors. You see the mints of Europe showing off their latest product, showing off what's new and elegant about minting in the modern market. You see new motifs and then you see the innovative companies set the trend forward for the other mints to follow. It gives off the appearance that the minting industry is a growing and thriving and contemporary concern. No offense intended to my friends who put together the major US coin shows, but there is simply no analog to that in the US.

Kevin: You would think by now they would have figured that out in America to realize that's a success and to change to that a little bit more. I totally agree with you, especially Southern California. If you make it a destination again for these people coming from crappy weather and cold weather– Now obviously, now's not a good time for this discussion, because of COVID. But this is something that should have developed and evolved a long time ago. I am in complete agreement with you on that. Absolutely. But they never did. And either someone will figure it out, or coin shows will– like Long Beach will begin to die a little bit, honestly.

I agree with what you're saying. And by the way that Berlin show is in a shitty area, doesn't have great hotels, and then they could be a lot better there. So, if you did that in a nice beautiful climate, it would work. They have something here, I don't know if you're aware of, they have this fabulous Gem & Mineral Show in Arizona, in Tucson every year. Have you ever heard of it?

Charles: Yeah, I was stationed nearby at Fort Huachuca about 20 years ago. And I am very familiar with the Tucson Gem Show.

Kevin: Rolling all over the place. It seems very unorganized. But you get Europeans from all over the world and Asians, they come there. They're coming half for vacation. I think what they want to do is make enough money, half of them to cover their expenses. And they're thrilled to come to a beautiful warm climate, spend a week or two in the States and do that. It becomes a destination. And coin shows are no longer a destination the way that they used to be.

Listen, our business has evolved to something completely different than I ever would have imagined. So, coin shows have to evolve. Everything needs to evolve. Auctions evolve. Look at Heritage, what a huge jump they had over everybody else because Jim Halperin realized that the world was turning to a computer. So, they evolved first and it's just such a huge head start.

So, it's like anything else, people have to figure it out, and they will. They do, because people come along, they want to make money. So, they've got to figure it out.

Charles: One of the things that strikes me as fascinating about our industry is now because of the internet, I'm not so sure that dealers have a precise understanding of who their clients are, or what age demographics their clients are in. I'll give you an example, our typical reader at CoinWeek is under 55.

Kevin: You just blew my mind with that information. That's fabulous information. Fabulous. And it falls more into the argument I'm always having with my son, Brandon. And I don't even want to admit it with him in the office here because he's always planning and wanting to change the demographics of who we market to. I think there's two different people here. I think that there's the people that are real collectors follow that demographic. But the hard money buyers, I don't think really read Coin World, the people that are being preached to about “buy gold”. I think it's a much more older and conservative, middle of the country kind of audience. So, I think there's two kinds of audiences out there.

For the most part, the marketing companies concentrate on the other customer. And Brandon, especially my son believes in that, that clientele based upon the APMEX kind of customer who is more in tune, doesn't want to pay “high retail” and is a little more sophisticated rather than buying the pitch. So, I hear you, and I believe that's the future as well. Absolutely.

I just think it'll be that way, but there's always people, just like the whole aspect of Tiffany & Company. They're not in the jewelry business in my view, they're in the blue box business. And when I say that to people, unless they jive with what's going on, they go, “Huh? What do you mean?” Most people don't know that Tiffany owns the rights to that shade of blue for their box and their profitability stems from selling a little silver bracelet for 250 bucks, rather than a $25 million diamond. So, marketing is where it's at and people that get that are going to succeed. And people that don't in this coming world are destined to fail. That's all there is to it. And like I said, we've completely changed our business model to a marketing business.

Charles: You were one of the first well-established coin dealers to flip the script and begin seriously dealing in modern coins. What was the blowback like from your peers? Did they think you were nuts?

Kevin: Well, at first, I'll be honest, I remember when I used to see Bob Alessi with the stuff at coin shows. And I knew Bob since I was 15 years old. I knew him forever. I knew him when he still drove a bus and he runs small coin shows. I'm looking at that stuff and I said, “What is this crap you're selling?” And he was one of the very first. And quite honestly, Miles Standish said, “Kevin, you're missing this.” And quite honestly, I remember it all started with me buying a big deal of unopened Silver Eagle boxes. And they were earlier dates and I took a shot marketing them and the world changed after that because it was just incredibly profitable for me. It never stopped me from dealing rare coins. But the truth of the matter is, it didn't do anything but make me a lot of money by getting into that business. You have to lead me to water, that's all you need to do. You don't have to worry about it after that. I'll lap it all up.

Charles: Is there anything you think the [United States] Mint should do differently to help grow the market?

Kevin: They have never done a better job. Their interest in it is straightforward. They get it. They understand marketing. They work with the people that deal in modern coins, and I think they're doing a fabulous job. I love Ed Moy, he's a personal friend of mine, but Mr. Ryder there is just killing it with this kind of marketing. Look at it, he goes to a coin show and signs. They are really doing a great job. And I for one am extremely happy and appreciative of what they do.

Charles: Something I'd like to see is the Mint persuade Congress to give them more latitude to design and release at least a couple of their own market-tested programs each year, instead of being compelled only to release commemorative coins that are conceived and created by an authorization of Congress.

Kevin: At that level, it's all politics. So, you're like, okay, oh my God, getting in that, that's like going deep into the swamp, right there. At that point, it's politics, and that changes everything. What they do is the things that they can control that are beyond politics. And politics, as you know, especially now the world we live in, is just something to stay away from.

Charles: Okay, Kevin, before we go, final comment. Fabulous house you had featured in the LA Times, I think it was about a year, year-and-a-half ago. What an impressively decorated home you have.

Kevin: The big secret is, it's coming down, and I'm building a new house. I always wanted to have one of those really great contemporaries, and that's where we're headed. We're in the middle of design work. And as long as my wife doesn't lose her mind, we'll be following through and building a fabulous contemporary where that's then.

Charles: All right. Well, Kevin, thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you have a great rest of your week.

Kevin: All right, take care.

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