Keith Zaner was a passionate numismatic collector and former NGC Price Guide analyst who will be greatly missed
By Jim Bisognani – NGC Weekly Market Report ……
Keith Zaner is a name that may not be familiar to many who follow the Weekly Market Report.
For those of you who didn’t know him, you are about to learn about a friend, a colleague, a mentor, and an extraordinary numismatist. For those who did, please stand by as I quote part of the bio released when Keith was hired by NGC in June of 2013:
“Most recently, Zaner worked for Whitman Publishing in Atlanta, Georgia, where he compiled valuations data for A Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) and other publications. Prior to his work at Whitman, Zaner was a valuations editor from 1997 to 2008 at Greysheet, the Coin Dealer Newsletter, and the Greensheet, the Currency Dealer Newsletter. Earlier, Zaner worked as pricing analyst for the Coin World “Trends” value guide from 1982 to 1997.”
I will add that Keith Zaner was a native New Yorker who maintained a strong bond with his family all of his life. He became interested in coins as a youth and even inspired his father to invest in coins. His fascination and devotion to numismatics were deep, and he was a trusted and faithful ally to many in the hobby.
This depicts an accurate yet small scope of this man’s life and work. Keith spent over half of his adulthood pricing and writing about our treasured metal and paper currency. My friend passed away on August 3, 2021.
The Keith Zaner I Knew
It was early June 2004 when I was asked to visit the Coin Dealer Newsletter (CDN) office in California for a two-day working job interview. After successfully passing the pre-employment “test”, I was officially offered the position of market analyst. I was advised by my boss, Shane Downing, that I would be working directly with Keith Zaner, who happened to be away attending the Memphis Money Show at the time of my interview. Before I left that Friday, Shane took me on an obligatory swing through CDN headquarters.
Shane’s office was at the end of the hallway on the second floor, and Keith’s office was adjacent to his. As I peered into Keith’s workplace, I immediately took in his large and rather impressive oak desk. Then, to the left of the doorway, I gazed at two large glass-doored bookcases filled with auction catalogs and reference material. Joyfully, I noticed his collection of various model trains, which adorned several shelves on the wall bordering a window to the right of his desk.
Since Beth and I had to traverse from New England to the Golden State and find a new apartment, I didn’t officially start with CDN until the end of summer. My first day was Monday, August 30, and after getting situated at my window-facing desk just off the top of the second-floor landing, I met Keith Zaner for the first time — exactly 17 years ago this week. Keith extended his hand, and we shared a hardy handshake.
I was slightly worried that I, being a newbie, would somehow be thought of as a fraud and not worthy of my position alongside someone who had been at it for over 22 years. I was thinking that he might give me some sort of pop quiz to test my knowledge. We talked for a few minutes and that notion quickly vanished from my mind. This guy was like me!
Keith asked me to come to his office. It was then that we talked about another of Keith’s passions — trains! We conversed about our sharing the same hobbies. We exchanged stories of choo-choos that we owned or coveted. This conversation quickly transitioned to other vintage toys from our respective youths.
Since Keith was five years my senior, we recalled many of the same toys from our formative years. I confessed to Keith that I had saved many of my toys and kept the original boxes as well. I said, “Keith, I still have my Odd-Ogg and Mr. Machine in their original boxes.”
Keith excitedly blurted out, “You have an original Mr. Machine? I loved that, I always wanted one — wow!”
During the ensuing years at CDN, we would draw from each other’s numismatic knowledge quite often. Usually, at the conclusion of a recent auction, I would get a quick call at my desk: “If you gotta minute, I want to get your opinion.” I would then trot down to his office.
One day, Keith beckoned me from behind his desk and pointed to a coin image on the screen. He had carefully covered the grade on the label with a piece of lined yellow paper, which he had taped to the monitor.
Keith asked, “Jim, what grade do you think this is?”
I looked at the coin, and after a moment, when I was about to verbalize my assessment of the numeric grade, Keith quickly interrupted, “Here, just write it down on this scratch pad.”
I don’t recall the coin on the screen, but through the years, comparing what we saw and jotting down a numerical grade by “secret ballot” became a familiar exercise.
In this first instance, I recall that I had written down AU 50. I handed it to Keith, and he pulled out his folded paper from the top drawer of his desk. As he unfolded that paper, it revealed that he deemed the coin an AU 50 as well. Then Keith pulled the yellow-lined paper away from the computer monitor to reveal the coin was designated as XF 40. Keith then explained, “I can’t use the price realized for this coin because the auction buyer was obviously paying AU 50 money.”
Keith was basically a fun-loving sort. After being on the job for a few months, I learned that Keith always went to Scardinos, an Italian restaurant, on Friday nights after work. This eatery happened to be about a block away from our apartment in Torrance, so I asked if the food was spectacular since he went there every week.
“Yeah, the food is great, but every Friday, I keep the books for them and tally the receipts for the week. I like it, I get a free dinner, and it also gives me a chance to go through the cash that comes in. You never know what you’ll find. I have found various star notes and silver certificates.”
For Keith, it was always fun to hunt for currency.
I recall one Monday when I came to work that I was anxious to show off a 1911 Liberty Nickel in VF condition, which I received in change at a local CVS. When Keith saw it, he was truly amazed. You would think I had just pulled an ’09-S VDB from circulation.
“Wow, this is great!” Keith continued, “It is amazing how long this coin has been handled, and now finally a collector has recognized what it was and pulled it from circulation.”
We figured that since it was in Very Fine condition, it must have been plucked from circulation around World War II and perhaps returned to commerce decades later, thus accounting for its modest wear.
“Hey, maybe some kid took it from their dad’s collection to buy something,” said Keith.
Although we didn’t socialize much outside the office, we did get to know what made each of us tick. We discussed our favorite numismatic icons (Keith’s was the 1822 half eagle), how we both got started with coins, and the auction sales we had attended. I fondly recall Keith’s favorite sale. It was a Superior Galleries Auction sale, held at the Century Plaza Hotel May 31-June 2, 1987, and the headline collection was that of actor Buddy Ebsen (from the Beverly Hillbillies show).
Ebsen was quite the serious collector. He even co-founded the Beverly Hills Coin Club and had amassed a significant numismatic cabinet. Keith, who was attending for Coin World as the Trends editor, described how after each coin brought a higher price than expected, or just for sheer joy, Mr. Ebsen would get up and break out a few dance moves to raucous applause and appreciation of those present.
Keith said, “I had to get Buddy to sign the auction catalog for me.”
The image of Buddy Ebsen doing a little jig after some especially pleasing auction results stays with me to this day. I relayed to Keith that just a few months after that sale, I attended my first Long Beach Expo in the fall of 1987, and I picked up an early half eagle from the Ebsen collection (I wish I still had it).
Keith said, “Hey, I was there, too. We could have run into each other.”
Another event we shared was the 1987 ANA held in Atlanta. As it turned out, we were both standing in line waiting for a chance to buy the special ANA Atlanta commemorative 5-ounce silver China Panda! Again, we came so close to meeting, and we were definitely traveling in the same circles.
Another of Keith’s passions was for his four-legged friends — felines. Keith and I would often leave work on Friday afternoons and drive over to an animal shelter in Carson, California. Keith and I would make a point of “rescuing” at least two or three cats every other week and bringing them to Helga, the cat lady, in Palos Verdes. This woman had a cat sanctuary constructed on her property and was able to house and host several hundred felines. Keith would always either be donating his money to rescue cats or to help pay for food and supplies. Yes, we both surely loved cats.
When Keith moved on from CDN in 2008, he had to make arrangements to move the majority of his massive collection of trains, minerals, and furniture from his apartment in Lomita, California to his brother’s place in Arizona.
Keith’s next numismatic adventure was at Whitman, publishing contributing valuations and data for A Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) and other publications. We often spoke during his transition to Atlanta. In fact, I almost reunited with Keith at Whitman in 2010.
A few years later, when Keith was hired as the NGC Price Guide analyst, we were reunited at a distance, as I was already contributing remotely with the Weekly Market Report and other world coin-related projects. A few years later, in the winter of 2016, when I was transitioned to full-time as an NGC Price Guide analyst, I finally got to see and work with Keith during my on-site training at NGC headquarters. We always worked well together, sharing a lifelong passion for numismatics (among other things).
Keith described us as probably the last of a particular breed. Pricing coins honestly, derived from true market results and corroborative bids on electronic trading networks or trade publications. It is a simple concept, perhaps, but so difficult to execute today as so many players are wanting a larger piece of the pie.
When failing health forced Keith to retire from NGC in late 2017, it was with much regret, for he had spent over half of his life pricing and reporting on coins. We stayed in touch during his transition to Arizona, where he could be near his devoted family and where he and his rescue cat Cupid maintained an apartment.
A true numismatist to the end, it was just last year that Keith was offering to help with the NGC Price Guide remotely. In this industry (or on this planet), there was no more honest individual than Keith. He greatly cared about reporting and pricing numismatics. Those treasured metal discs were truly his life’s calling and song. Yet, more importantly, his love of family and friends remained true to the end.
I believe that the following passage by Dennis Tucker of Whitman Publishing is a proper and just epitaph to this numismatic marvel:
A professional reputation, once broken, can be very hard to repair. Keith Zaner lived his life in such a way that his character was beyond reproach. In his time at Whitman, he continued to build upon his well-established reputation for honesty and accuracy. He kept careful notes. He was ready at a moment’s notice to defend and explain his analysis of any coin’s value in any grade, and to back it up with documentation and insight.
He was wise to the manipulations that might derail unbiased reporting — and he dismissed and avoided those pressures. Happily, his work ethic always brought to my mind R.S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, both of whom coordinated pricing for the Red Book, and both of whom were eternally vigilant and scrupulous about honest publishing. To conduct your professional life like Keith Zaner is a mark of integrity, and something every numismatist should aspire to.
Love you, Keith
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Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.