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For more than 40 years, numismatist Donn Pearlman has worked with major dealers and market makers to bring broad public attention to the many amazing stories that unfold in the coin-collecting hobby.
In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, Donn discusses some of the big projects he worked to promote, including the gold coins, ingots, and other treasure recovered from the SS Central America shipwreck site; the cans of gold coins of the Saddle Ridge Gold Coin Hoard; and the discovery of the lost Walton specimen 1913 Liberty Head nickel.
Donn also discusses writing the script for a coin-collecting documentary starring legendary American actor James Earl Jones. We also cover the demographics of the modern coin-collecting hobby on this podcast and how there are actually more younger collectors now than people think.
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The Coinweek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS. Submit five or more coins for grading and be one of the first to receive a new PCGS Coin Stand – perfect for displaying your favorite PCGS-graded coin.
Whether your favorite coin is a rare 1799 Large Cent graded VF30 or a 2023 First Strike Silver Eagle, what better way to admire your PCGS certified coin than proudly displaying it on your desk, bookshelf, or mantle.
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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Donn:
Charles Morgan: Hi, Donn, thank you for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.
Donn Pearlman: Thank you, Charles. Good to talk with you again, and hello to all of your podcast listeners.
Charles: So, as the publicity agent for a lot of the big deals in the industry, what’s going on in the hobby today?
Donn: Well, we just recently finished the second and final auction of never before offered items recovered from the fabled “Ship of Gold”, the SS Central America, and it was a very successful auction as was the first one in December. This marks a winding down of 23 years with working with Dwight Manley, the managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group. Dwight called me on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, December 31st, 1999, swore me to secrecy, and told me he and his partners had acquired all of the available treasure from the SS Central America that sank in 1857 carrying tons of California Gold Rush treasure. So, I’ve been working with Dwight and his group since January of 2000, and it’s been an amazing journey with some of the most important items in numismatics.
Charles: Were you a coin collector when you were working with CBS when you were younger?
Donn: Yeah, I began collecting coins when I was about eight years old, gave it up in high school and college when I realized you could spend money on other things. I remember exactly when I started collecting again. It was 1975, and I was employed by CBS in Chicago, and I was walking between assignments in Downtown Chicago, and I passed by a coin in stamp store, and they had a sign in the window. It said “1975 Proof” that’s now available, $25 each. And I thought when I was a kid, they were like $2.50 each. So, I went in, bought a copy of Numismatic News and a copy of Coin World and I became a reborn numismatist that night and I’ve been collecting ever since.
Charles: You not only collected, but you got heavily involved in the hobby. You work with the ANA, you served on the board. Did you expect to get this involved when you started collecting again?
Donn: No, I enjoyed collecting as a hobby, started writing a couple of freelance pieces probably around 1977 or 1978, and then wrote quite a bit in various numismatic publications. In the late 1970s, I convinced the nice folks at CBS and my employer in Chicago, WBBM News Radio at the time that coin collecting was popular, and we should do a weekly brief program, and Coin Collectors Corner was born. It was a weekly program that ran for about 10 years in Chicago, and a number of other CBS stations around the country picked it up. That was a lot of fun.
There was a period in the ’80s, I was working seven days a week, two days a week on television, five days a week on radio. I could do that because my radio job generally on the air was Monday through Friday, 09:00 to 05:00 for my hours. I joked that only three people in broadcasting had those hours and the other two owned stations. [laughs] Usually in broadcasting, you keep some very odd hours. I used to tell high school and college students that if they wanted to go into broadcasting, keep this in mind. “When you wake up in the morning and hear your favorite DJ, you’re just getting up. He or she has been at work for hours. When you’re going to sleep at night and watching the 10’o clock or 11’o clock news, you’re going to bed, they’re still working. When you’re at the beach on the weekend or at a picnic on the weekend and you turn on the radio, you’re having a picnic and a good time. Those people are working.”
Charles: So, how did audiences of the time react to having this coin collecting focused broadcasting?
Donn: Well, I was lucky because having been in broadcasting for quite a while before that, I realized that you need a sponsor. I was lucky that in Chicago, I got a coin and stamp company that wanted to sponsor the programming. And so, they put it on the air on the weekends. Here’s another sponsorship. I find this quite a bit in all news media even today. Editors and producers, if they have not been collectors, underestimate the fact that virtually everybody is interested in money in one way or another, and the possibility of finding a rare coin in change or with a metal detector, that desire is very strong among a lot of people. So, the Coin Collectors Corner, I would get letters from the Chicago area all the time asking about, what is my coin worth? How do I begin collecting? And then, when other stations would pick it up in New York or San Francisco, I’d get letters from there.
Charles: Were you at the program’s on-air talent?
Donn: Yes, and I carried my portable tape recorder and a really good microphone whenever I went to any of the American Numismatic Association conventions around the country, and I would do 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 interviews during the course of my time at the convention and edit those into segments for the weekly program.
Charles: So, that must have made you a pioneer of sorts.
Donn: Actually, we were predated. In the 1930s, B. Max Mehl, a Fort Worth, Texas dealer of great renown, he used to take out advertisements on radio stations. One of them was WMAQ in Chicago, which was a 50,000-watt clear channel at night. So, people in dozens of states would hear these advertisements. He advertised to sell the Star Coin Encyclopedia for a dollar apiece. That’s the one where he advertised. He’d pay $50 for a 1913 Liberty Head nickel. But to find out more, you send him a dollar, and he sent you his price list and also his buying list.
Years ago, when I was still working for CBS in Chicago, I contacted the people at that radio station to see if they still had in their archives, copies of the commercials. But unfortunately, the radio station had moved locations in Chicago several times and things got thrown out, so there was no record I could find. There are print advertisements available from different newspapers around the country, but not the radio scripts.
Charles: Do we know if B. Max Mehl did a voiceover or was it somebody he hired?
Donn: I don’t know. I just know that he was advertising on radio and one of the stations was in Chicago at the time. In those days, commercials were done live. So, it would have been a staff announcer.
Charles: So, tell me about the 1913 nickel. You got a chance to authenticate one at the Baltimore ANA. You were part of the group that did that that brought the Walton nickel back into the light. What was the feeling of that like? Not only for yourself, but were the other coin dealers and graders excited that this lost treasure had been recovered? Was there a real buzz about it?
Donn: Absolutely. Interestingly, this started literally as a PR stunt. In early 2003, I was at the ANA, what we called the Early Spring Convention, and I happened to meet Beth Deisher, who was the editor of Coin World at the time. And Beth told me that they were making arrangements to bring some of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels together. She said that she was going to work on trying to get the Smithsonian to bring their nickel from Washington to Baltimore. Dwight Manley at the time owned one of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels. I immediately called Dwight and he agreed to be part of this.
The American Numismatic Association had the Bebee specimen, named after Aubrey and Adeline BeBee, benefactors of the association. They said they were going to bring theirs. So, here we had right away four of the five known nickels that were going to be together. So, I came up with this idea: why not offer a reward for the missing nickel, which had been missing since 1962? George O. Walton, collector and antiques dealer, was killed in a car crash in North Carolina on his way to a coin show. Coins were recovered from the crash, including his 1913 Liberty Head nickel. But a couple of months later, it was declared a fake, but it wasn’t.
So, fortunately, his sister, who was one of the heirs kept that nickel, because she was born in 1913 and knew her brother would never lie about having a genuine 1913 Liberty Head nickel. So, it was kept in a closet in a house in Virginia, later in a nightstand, for 41 years. Collectors Universe at the time owned Bowers & Merena, which later became [part of] Stack’s Bowers. They agreed that they would offer a minimum $1 million for the missing nickel or a million dollars upfront if you consign it to an auction. Then, David Hall, who was a cofounder of PCGS at the time, said he would pay $10,000 just to be the first to see the missing nickel.
So, here we had two fine offers. And through what was later described as a clockwork of people working together, the family that owned the coin brought it from Virginia to the ANA World’s Fair of Money in Baltimore in 2003. We made arrangements so that they wouldn’t lose the $10,000 for PCGS to be the first to see it. I met them in the lobby of the convention center, brought them into what was the show manager’s office. It was a glorified large closet. And then, Paul Montgomery, John Dannreuther, and Mark Borckardt were the three experts who examined it first. We had an armed security guard standing outside. They said they were 90% certain it was genuine, and they would like to compare it that night with the other four genuine specimens that would all be in the security room.
So, there was a midnight meeting in the security room of David Hall and other authenticators, and I was sitting outside with the niece and nephew of George Walton. After about 20 minutes, Paul Montgomery summoned me over to the door and he said, “It’s real. What do we do?” I said, “Let’s tell the family.” I brought the niece and nephew over, Cheryl Myers and Ryan Givens. And Paul’s words were, “It’s genuine. It’s worth more than a million dollars. God bless you.”
The next morning, it was on display with the other four genuine 1913 Liberty Head nickels. The family were so grateful that their uncle was vindicated that he really did have a genuine 1913 Liberty Head nickel. They loaned the coin to the ANA for a decade. It was on display at ANA headquarters and shown around the country. Then when it was sold in 2013 by Heritage at an auction for over $3 million, the family made a very generous donation to the ANA as a thank you.
Yeah, when it was announced at the show that the coin was there, it was found, it was authenticated, one dealer who I will not name, came up to me and said, “You knew all along where it was,” which was an absolute lie. We had no idea that this was genuine and we didn’t know it was going to be coming to the show until a week or two before. So, I just let that slide. But everyone else was thrilled and I thought to myself, “I should retire now because there’s no way I can top this.” [laughs]
Charles: So, beyond the 1913 nickel, of course, there is your involvement in the SS Central America, which you mentioned has some artifacts recently put on sale. I can’t think of a bigger marketing of numismatic material occurring in my lifetime. You have the “Ship of Gold” Exhibit, which traveled around the country to numerous conventions with all these coins and artifacts put on display. This must have had a tremendous cost. Not to mention the not insignificant legal fees paid out to make sure this material could be brought to the market in the first place.
Donn: Yeah, Dwight Manley spent a year and a half on trying to make everybody whole on us, when heard that the people who owned the treasure were settling with the insurance companies. For those not familiar with the story, when the ship’s bell was found and the robot sub 7,200 ft below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean got a photograph of the ship’s bell, the people who discovered this went into Norfolk, Virginia, filed an admiralty claim that they had found the treasure and they’re going to do recovery and it’s theirs. They went back out to sea. When they came back the first time, there were representatives of law firms and insurance companies serving them subpoenas saying, “That’s our treasure. We paid the claims on that back in 1857.” And of course, your legal response is, “You made no effort to get it. It sat in the ocean for 150-plus years,” but it took 10 years to resolve that.
If I recall correctly, the insurance companies got 7.5% of the treasure, and the people who discovered it got the other 92.5%. Dwight and his group bought 100% of the 92.5%. That’s when Dwight called me, sworn me to secrecy, and I had about five or six weeks to put together a PR plan and implement it because he was going to be showing the first “Ship of Gold” Exhibit with $20 million of treasure at the Long Beach Expo in February of 2000.
By the way, I can reveal a little bit of information. The “Ship of Gold” is going to sail again. There will be new exhibits, including not just the gold and silver coins, and the gold ingots, but some of the items that were recovered over the years, such as, for example, the oldest known pair of miner’s jeans. There’s information that leads many people to believe it may have either been made by or for Levi Strauss. They sold for $114,000 at an auction in December, the most valuable jeans ever sold, and other items. There was one person in particular who bought many of these artifacts and is putting together an educational, historic display as part of the “Ship of Gold”. So, in the coming weeks and months, information about the exhibits around the country will be released.
Charles: You know, Donn, I was a born collector like you, but I didn’t get involved in the subculture of the hobby, going to shows, meeting up with prominent people, I didn’t get to do this until I was an adult. Actually, to be candid, not until I was a professional. So, my first show was the National Money Show in Atlanta, and I believe this was 2014. I can’t remember exactly. You were working on a very big story at the time, the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard gold treasure. For people who aren’t familiar with that story or don’t remember, it was a massive find of mostly uncirculated San Francisco gold coins that were recovered from these rusted out cans found by a California couple and their dog, and they dug them out of the ground on their own property.
It was brought to Kagin’s, where David McCarthy was the first coin industry person to see it. He was sworn to secrecy by their attorneys while he was working on the hoard. You were hired by Kagin’s to help make this into a national story. It became a very big national story, because everybody loves the story of normal people finding treasure in their backyard.
Donn: This couple was close to losing their home because of financial circumstances. They were out walking their dog on the property, and the dog started digging up something, and they looked and saw something shiny. They discovered these cans, as you say, rusted out cans filled with gold coins. And fortunately, they went to their lawyer, and the lawyer knew of Don Kagin and his company, and the coins were brought there. Professional coin grading service eventually did the encapsulation and certification on them, and the estimated value is about $10 million.
So, Don called me– He was already working with the San Francisco Chronicle on the story, which is fine, but I said, “This is a national story.” I contacted some people I knew at Associated Press in Los Angeles, and they’d worked with me before on coin and other stories. So, I had some good credibility with them. The story broke. I was flying to the show in Atlanta. I believe it would have been the World’s Fair Money in Atlanta. When I landed, I turned on my phone, called my wife, let her know I’m safely in Atlanta, and then these messages started popping. The story had broken. So, I got my luggage, and instead of going to the rest of the hotel, I went to a food court area at Hartsfield International Airport, one of the terminals, sat down, used the Wi-Fi, and began sending links to the Associated Press and San Francisco Chronicle stories to various news media to let them know that some of the coins and at least one of the rusted out cans would be on display and Don Kagin would be available to talk to the news media there. So, it was a frantic, but very happy beginning to that story.
Charles: But that story could have been just another coin marketing story, where somebody finds something, they put a label on it, you get a coin dealer or a group of coin dealers to go sell the coins at the shows, some number of them go to telemarketers, and the general public would never hear about it. But everybody knew about the Saddle Ridge story. One of the cans even went on display at the Smithsonian’s Value of Money exhibit. When I’ve been there, I just see people stand around it and look at it and read that story. It’s very compelling. So, you have a coin story that becomes sort of this nationwide story that a lot of people outside of coins hear about.
Donn: If you google the phrase “Saddle Ridge Hoard”, you’ll still see many, many references. At one point, after the story broke, within a day or two, Google indicated that the phrase “Saddle Ridge Hoard” was on over a million websites, both news media and bloggers and whatever else. I’ve never seen that kind of response on a coin story. I’ve seen thousands or tens of thousands of hits, but this was over a million websites had “Saddle Ridge Hoard” on it at one time. Yeah, I was quite happy with the response.
Charles: Yeah, I keep bugging David McCarthy. He’s a very good storyteller, and I ask him to write me something new about it, something that hasn’t been told. You think, as a coin dealer, I’m pretty sure these kinds of events are few and far between. You leave for work on Monday, everything’s normal. You come to work on Tuesday and your whole world’s changed. That must have been the Saddle Ridge story for him.
Donn: I had something similar that was near Toledo, Ohio and involved baseball cards. An elderly woman had passed away, and before she died, she told her nieces and nephews and surviving family members, don’t throw anything away without looking at it first. She was kind of a pack rat, according to the family. After she passed, a couple of family members went up into the attic and there was an old wooden doll house and they picked it up and moved it. Below it, there was a box of baseball cards. But they didn’t look like cards you see today. They were the smaller cards, the kind that were issued around 1910, 1911. They were all in mint condition. Apparently, her father had run a small general store, and these were cards that were given away when you bought candy. He kept a lot of the cards.
So, they contacted Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas, and the proviso was, “We’ll send you a couple of the cards to look at, but don’t open it until you are on the phone with us.” When they were opened on the phone, the first words out of Dallas were, “Oh, my God.” These were extremely rare cards, very few known until then still in mint condition. I was fortunate, because the family member who was the spokesperson was very outgoing. He ran a restaurant in the Toledo, Ohio area, and he would take the news media not only on a tour of the house– He would take him up into the attic and say, “This is the doll house we picked up to move and found the cards.” So, I got an awful lot of publicity out of that with an Associated Press reporter out of Toledo, Ohio. That involved a couple of million dollars’ worth of baseball cards, just like finding $10 million worth of gold. It was an exciting story.
Charles: I wonder institutionally, if we have a firm grasp on who our collector community is. I think that this is probably a long-term problem. It’s a problem that’s been ongoing for some time. I’m eyeballing it here, about 25% or 30% of the audience for coin collecting online is males over the age of 60. The remainder, obviously, is going to be younger. When I look at Google Analytics, not only for our site, but our YouTube channel, I see 15%, 20% in each age band and descending decades. It occurs to me that we as a hobby don’t really talk to these folks in the language they actually use or about things that might appeal to them.
The way coins are presented and the way this hobby is presented sometimes seems very old, but the actual community is younger. They have more diverse interests. As somebody who works on publicity, do you find this to be the case as well or are you surprised by me saying that the coin collecting hobby is much younger than we think it is?
Donn: No, I’m not surprised at all. A lot of the hobby though has been late getting to the 21st century. The American Numismatic Association has made great strides in the past few years in trying to have more of an online presence with Facebook and Twitter, and other social media. But we need to do more. I have pushed for over 20 years that coin collecting needs a marketing arm. The California grape people have a marketing arm. The Wisconsin Dairy Board has a marketing arm. A lot of other organizations that sell commodities have this. We need an organized effort. The problem is, it’s going to cost six figures and more per year to get this thing off the ground and sustain. It’s got to be a wide thing of paid advertising, more stories, online research, more videos.
Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of talk about it, and people say, “Yeah, we’ll support this,” but when it comes down to writing the checks, no. So, little by little, we’re getting there. As I said at the beginning of this conversation, virtually, everybody’s interested in money one way or the other. If you find out you can make money with money with having a good time collecting something, and has the potential to appreciate in value down the road, you’ve got a homerun. But it’s reaching those people and teaching them how to collect properly avoiding the scammers out there. The Anti-Counterfeiting Educational Foundation has done an excellent job in trying to alert the public to literally hundreds of websites that are outright selling fakes to unsuspecting buyers. It’s a matter of education, being an intelligent, informed consumer.
Charles: People are starting to lose connection with physical money as they use online and electronic applications more often. In the past, when numismatic objects went away, like in the instance of a large cent becoming the small cent, that led to more collector interest in old U.S. coins. Does the hobby really appreciate the position that we’re getting into? Because as coins and paper money become less frequently used, we are starting to lose that connection that we’ve counted on to get people excited about coin collecting.
Donn: Well, one of the things that always seems to get attention is looking for the potential of a rare coin in your pocket or purse. The Sun, a major tabloid in England, has an online U.S. presence called the US Sun. At least once a week, they’ll run a story about someone finding a valuable coin or how you can look for valuable coins, because their audience research has shown their readers are interested in that. It goes back to what I said earlier, sometimes editors, if they didn’t have the collecting bug in them at some point in their life, they don’t realize that people inherently are interested, perhaps because of a greed factor that they might find a valuable coin, or how do you go about starting a coin collection?
Physical money, I don’t think is going away in our lifetime. There are still people who want to deal with cash. Some businesses don’t want it, but places like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. have passed laws that ban businesses from not accepting cash, because it disenfranchises a significant portion of the population. Not everybody has a credit card or a bank debit card, but they still want to buy things with cash.
Charles: Well, we’re still on the wrong side of that slope. It’s currently moving in that direction. On those US Sun articles that you brought up, do you know whether it’s an actual human being writing them? Because all those articles, they follow a basic formula. They basically riff on some YouTube video made by somebody else. I’m concerned that things like that are AI-generated.
Donn: Well, I have actually worked with a couple of the people who write the story. So, there is a human being behind every story, and they probably do have a formula as to what works to get attention and how they word something. That I can understand. You’re going for search engine optimization and grabbing people by the eyeballs.
Charles: Well, I think personally they do a dreadful job and it’s infuriating, really. They talk about some rare coin as though you can find one by looking under your couch cushion, and it’s the same series over and over, and it just seems like it’s exploitative.
Donn: Whenever I publicized 1913 Liberty Head nickels, I learned my lesson way back a decade and a half ago, when Dwight Manley was going to exhibit his Eliasberg specimen of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel– I believe it was the Eliasberg, at the Long Beach show in Long Beach, California. This was prior to sending out digital photographs. I sent out prints of the obverse and reverse of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. The Long Beach newspaper, the Press Telegram, did a very nice story about the fact that this multimillion-dollar coin would be on display in Long Beach. But they only used one photograph, and it was the tail side, which as you know and I’m sure every one of the listeners knows, there are tens of millions of Liberty Head nickels that look just like that on the tail side, and they’re not worth $3 million.
So, of course, we started getting phone calls, “I’ve got a coin that looks just like this.” I eventually called the editor and I said, “Thank you for the story. I’m curious. Why did you use that side of the coin?” And he said, “That’s the side that says United States of America.” So, from that point on, whenever I publicized any of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels, I only send the obverse photograph. If the editor wants the tail side as well, it comes with a big capitalized note that says, “If you’re going to only run one photograph, it should be the side with the date, because-” and then I explain why. Then, of course, you get phone calls from people, “Well, I’ve got a 1911 Liberty Head nickel. It must be worth more because it’s older.” I’m sure you get those inquiries as well, Charles.
Charles: Right. So, Donn, you have something in common with George Lucas. I’m not sure a lot of people know this, but George Lucas, you wrote a screenplay for James Earl Jones to read. So, what was that experience like?
Donn: Because of my background in radio and television, the American Numismatic Association and the Professional Numismatists Guild jointly hired me to write a script for an educational video about coin collecting that they wanted to produce. I suggested the title, Money: History in Your Hands. That’s the title. I was hired and I began doing an outline for this 45 minute or so video, and then started writing it. After about a week, I got a note that James Earl Jones, who is a coin collector, had agreed to be the narrator because, in Jones’ words, “This is something that should be done.” So, I tore up my script and started rewriting it with the voice of James Earl Jones in my head. If you see the video, the opening is a montage of pictures of different types of money. The voiceover is James Earl Jones’ amazing baritone, giving slang terms for money. “Money, shillings and shekels, pounds and pence…”. And the last word he does is “moolah.” [laughs]
I was thrilled. He even ad-libbed at one point. I didn’t realize he was also going to be on camera as well as doing the narration. I wrote a section about Swedish plate money – big, heavy metal plate money. He had some and he’s lifting it up. The line I wrote was, “This type of money was too big to carry in your pocket, even if you wear an extra-large.” And Jones with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face said, “Even if you wear a double extra-large.” I was absolutely thrilled. I was invited to be at the taping of this in New York in 1995, but I had a conflict of schedule. I remember I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that day and was wondering what was going on in New York. I was thrilled with the way it came out.
And later it’s available on both VHS and DVD. I think you can also see it for free online. I knew some of the people at the public television station, Chicago WTTW Channel 11, and I suggested that– they were always looking for programming to run during their pledge weeks when they were asking their viewers to contribute money. I said, “This might be something that you could use. It’s James Earl Jones. We have the rights to it.” Jones said it could be used for this. We had to do a little bit of editing to get it down to about 40 minutes. It was run in Chicago, and then the station sent it out by satellite to every PBS TV station in the United States. It was run in other markets as well. I was thrilled, because it was getting the message across about the enjoyment of coin collecting. I was a happy camper.
Charles: So, if you had to redo that project today, what do you think the most important thing to put into it would be?
Donn: Well, I think whether it’s a video project or anything else, to get people interested, it’s great that we’re publicizing multimillion dollar rarities. That gets attention. But we have to get across to the public that you can start a collection and have a lot of fun and enjoyment with pocket change. When we started collecting generation ago, you plugged the coins into an album, you pulled it out of pocket change. Maybe you ordered something from the coin store or by mail order to fill in a hole in the album. But a lot of the stuff came out of pocket change. And we’ve got a lot of diverse pocket change these days. Between the Lincoln Bicentennial pennies, the new designs on the reverse of the Lincoln cent, the nickel designs we’ve had, certainly the many quarter dollars and the States quarters, the America the Beautiful series. So, you can begin, but people should realize you may not find a fortune in your pocket change. It’s possible, but this is how you begin.
The next step is, and this is why I think some dealers missed the boat, remember how popular the state quarters were? At one point, the United States Mint was estimating that, what, 100 million and 130 million people were collecting? But what would happen when people would go into a coin shop and say, “I need to buy an Oregon quarter.” Sometimes, a few of the dealers say, “Why do you collect that garbage?” Instead of saying, “I have one here. Would you like to see what our quarter dollars looked like a hundred years ago?” And then sell them a Barber quarter and a Standing Liberty quarter and a silver Washington quarter to make a set of coins and begin a collection. I think only a few dealers that I heard of would try and do something like that. Most of them were disdainful about the fact that people wanted to buy these state quarters.
Charles: I remember the coin telemarketer guys breathlessly selling rolls of Philadelphia Mint made Delaware quarters the night they were released. A year or two later, when I was in Arizona, there was a coin shop nearby, and I became addicted to coins again. I didn’t have a lot of disposable income as a soldier, but I would spend all I had at the coin shop. That was the time when I caught up on what was going on in the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s. I’ve got the 2001-S silver Poof set, and then went backwards. But when you fast forward to the hobby today, I think that there are fewer actual retail shops than there were when the state quarters were released. It seems like the retail over-the-counter structure of the industry has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Do you agree with that? Do you see that to be the case?
Donn: Yeah. There still are people who are selling “collector coins”. I would say the same thing. If someone wants to buy a state quarter, or an America the Beautiful quarter, or one of the Women in History quarters, they want to try and make a long-term customer. Get them interested and show them what our coins looked like a hundred years ago and sell them a $10 coin to get them going rather than a $2 coin, the ones they wanted.
Q. David Bowers, eminent dealer, historian, author, many times people over the years would come and say, “I want to spend $10,000 on numismatics.” He would hand them one of his books and say, “You read the book, tell me what you’re interested, and buy one of those items.” He made people into collectors that way. They weren’t just buying a coin as an investment. They were becoming a collector to build a collection. I think that same type of philosophy and attitude is needed by many other dealers in the marketplace.
Charles: So, we’ve talked about a handful of very positive things that have happened to you during your career. Was there ever a low point, something that needed to be marketed in a certain way or something that you tried to do and everything just went wrong with it?
Donn: I’m not going to name names. Sometimes, I’m disappointed I’m not getting the coverage I think I should get, but I understand why. Sometimes, there are conflicting events going on in the world. But my hobby radar is always on to see what other people are sending out in news releases. Too often, I call it the news release written to impress the CEO and never get the attention of an editor. It starts at XYZ company and then it has two sentences about how great the company is and the lead of the story is buried in the fourth paragraph.
I remember one time someone was trying to promote a 1787 Brasher Doubloon. The headline was starting with the name of this company, and it said, “1787 Brasher Doubloon.” Again, the first paragraph was all about this company. I thought if the audience that they’re trying to reach is the general news media, it should have said “USA’s first gold coin.” [laughs] That would have gotten attention. I would have promoted Brasher Doubloon using that the first gold coin struck in America for the young United States, or by someone who became a neighbor of George Washington, New York. But I always look at these as missed opportunities. It was written by someone who wanted to make the boss happy rather than what will get the attention of the editor and the public. That’s what I find very disappointing. I have to refrain myself from sending a nasty note to the people who sent out the news release. [laughs]
Charles: I’ve definitely seen that too. What amazes me is when a company has a major historic coin or other numismatic item for sale, but then it can’t be bothered to put any resources towards marketing it to the hobby or the general public.
Donn: You got a half million dollar or a multimillion-dollar coin, and you don’t want to spend a few bucks to promote it correctly. Then, there are some coins– At times, I’ve turned things down because, as you say, it’s great for the hobby media, but the general news media is not going to get this. You’ve got to keep it simple. For example, a Paquet Reverse double eagle, historic, valuable. Try and describe it in one sentence. It’s difficult. I’ve actually come up with a sentence. I’m not going to reveal it now because I may have to use it in the future [laughs] to try and get the attention. But if you say, “multimillion dollar nickel” describing a 1913 Liberty Head nickel or “million-dollar penny,” that will get attention. That will get attention.
Charles: Let me try my hand at this sentence for the Paquet Reverse. I’m just going off the dome here. “Awkwardly lettered gold coin rejected by the Mint, worth millions.”
Donn: “Disputed design” or something. Yeah, absolutely, yes. Yeah, you got to keep it simple and it’s worth millions and put in controversy. Yeah.
Charles: So, Donn, what’s on the horizon? What are the stories of tomorrow?
Donn: Well, an announcement will be coming soon about the “Ship of Gold” Exhibit sailing again with items that have– It’ll be the first exhibit of items since they were sold at auction that were recovered from the ship starting back in 1988. I’m looking forward to the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money in Pittsburgh. Even before that, there’ll be some announcements coming up about the big Central States Numismatic Society Convention in April in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois. It’ll be the largest coin show in the Midwest this year. There’ll be more than 600 dealers at that show.
They’re going to have actually two floors. One floor is a coin collector’s corner area and it deliberately will have items that are not multimillion dollar items, but things that the so-called average collector wants to buy or sell. That is selling out quickly. So, I’m looking forward to that. You never know what’s going to show up. Maybe there’s going to be another Saddle Ridge Hoard, another sunken treasure discovered. It is amazing what still is showing up almost every year. Something very exciting.
Charles: Donn, thank you so much for joining us. Like I said, keep me in the loop.
Donn: Thank you, Charles, and thank you for all the work that you and the CoinWeek Team have done to keep us informed as a valuable numismatic resource. Thank you.
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