By David T. Alexander for CoinWeek …….
The numismatic auction field may seem large to those looking in from the outside and indeed for many working within it, but the pond in which all participants swim is really quite small. This is especially true as 2015 dawns, thanks to an unhealthy drift toward monopoly by a very few giant firms that have come to dominate the field during the last decade.
My own interaction with the Florida United Numismatists (FUN) organization and two auction firms involved with the 1986 FUN Sale dramatizes the smallness of the numismatic world. The interplay of various dealers, cataloguers and collectors demonstrates just how compact our fascinating numismatic world really is. As a science fiction writer once wrote, “you can’t sneeze without blowing off somebody else’s hat.”
FUN was organized in 1955 to serve a state that presented its own unique version of the “us versus them” division familiar in larger and more populous states. Think of the split between New York City and upstate New York; Chicago versus downstate Illinois, Northern versus Southern California. The Florida division pitted the northern and central counties against urban Miami.
During 1955, however, several established clubs and active collectors did manage to get together in Clearwater to launch a state association. Veteran collectors Robert Hendershott of Clearwater (who had taken part in an earlier organizing effort in 1936), “Doc” De Pass of Jacksonville and Herb Brand of Miami were among the earliest FUN leaders.
The Miami Coin Club sent a delegation to the organizational meeting that included nationally known dealer William Fox Steinberg and Otto T. Sghia, past president of the New York Numismatic club, founder of the Bronx and Westchester County Coin Clubs before his retirement to Miami. My late brother John and I joined FUN immediately, paying the $1 dues cheerfully and maintaining our memberships for some years, though soon after its founding, itb became apparent that FUN was having less and less to do with Miami and its collectors.
FUN’s greatest asset soon proved to be its annual conventions. Greatly daring, FUN decided to hold its convention each year in early January, making it the first American numismatic gathering each year and offering dealers what was in effect a tax-deductible Florida vacation in the dead of winter.
For years the FUN show was called the bellwether of the numismatic marketplace though there was little hard evidence to prove the truth of this assertion. Nonetheless, the FUN convention was and still is the place to be each year, a first-rate show operated by an organization unlike any other state or regional body.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the number of active auction firms was measurably greater than it is today, though the numismatic field itself was substantially smaller. There were a number of nationally active companies including Stack’s and Coin Galleries in New York, Mayflower in Boston, NASCA on Long Island, Paramount International of Englewood, Ohio, RARCOA in Chicago, Kagin’s in Des Moines, Iowa, Superior in Los Angeles to name only a few.
Active smaller firms were sprinkled across the map, such as Hans M.F. Schulman and Lester Merkin in New York, Jess Peters and Jim Kelly in the Midwest, Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg in California and many others that have since faded from the scene.
The collapse of the bullion market in the Hunt brothers silver market-cornering fiasco wrought havoc on the numismatic marketplace and severely damaged the auction field. It did, however, bring together two relatively young firms, New England Rare Coin Galleries (NERCG) and Steve Ivy Rare Coins to form Heritage, based in Dallas. Texas.
A slowing market did not prevent a few smaller auction companies from emerging in the early 1980’s, notably Mid-American Rare Coin Auctions of Lexington, Kentucky and Numismatic Investments of Florida (NIOF) in Miami. Mid-American included past FUN President Bill Calderazzo among its founders though by 1984 its active leaders were well-regarded numismatists Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth.
NIOF was the creation of Miami attorney-numismatist Martin E. Haber and included hard asset numismatist Bob Koppelman. Haber had had great regard for the foundering NERCG and formerly described his own firm as its affiliate. When he entered the auction field in 1983 it was with the help of Boston’s Lee J. Bellisario, another NERCG alumnus. Indeed, NIOF catalogs included color photographs in the one-page gang-shooting that typified the New England method.
In 1985-1986 I would have challenging experiences with both of these auction firms, centering around the 1986 FUN convention auction, which was then what old-time Vaudeville would have called “a hot property.” While nearly all auction firms had to scramble to find coins to fill their normal convention sales, the annual ANA and FUN events were exciting exceptions. Here would-be consignors were to be found battering at the doors to consign their treasures to these key sales.
After the debacle of Kagin’s in 1984 I had gone into business on my own, offering numismatic services such as cataloging and appraisals rather than buying and selling coins. I began receiving phone calls from Marty Haber from my old home town of Miami, making an offer he hoped I couldn’t refuse.
NIOF, as David Hall would soon say in the early promotional literature of the fast-forming Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), was now known for its handling of wonder coins, U.S. coins that were wonderful in grade, eye appeal and resulting rarity. “Some call them [Haber and Koppelman] elitist and esoteric, but I can relate,” Hall wrote. NIOF was soon become one of the first 20 firms invited into the orbit of new-born PCGS.
As Haber described it to me, NIOF would be the wonder firm of wonder coins. He was taking a leaf from the then-flourishing Apostrophe Sales that began with Auction ’79 (note the apostrophe!) These sales were born amid fallout from one of ANA’s least brilliant decisions: denial of 1978 convention tables to companies accused of leaving the 1977 Atlanta show early.
ANA President Col. Grover Criswell and board member John J. Pittman had stalked the bourse floor, clipboards in hand, identifying firms who closed their tables and left the show early. Their punishment was then announced with suitable fanfare: Stack’s, Bowers & Ruddy, Paramount, RARCOA and Superior would be denied bourse tables at the 1978 Houston ANA. So there!
Stack’s, Rarcoa, Paramount and Superior banded together, while Bowers made a deal to conduct the official 1978 ANA sale. The four other firms agreed to each provide about 500 high quality lots for a series of annual sales, starting with Auction ’79, that could compete powerfully with the ANA convention auctions.
Since NIOF was already a leader in wonder coins, Haber believed that it would be comparatively easy to attract 500 blockbuster coins for a carefully limited number of independent sales each year. Five sales had already been held, but Haber wanted tighter control with all functions concentrated in Miami. Supremely self-assured, he seemed to believe that we had only to request auction rights to major coin shows and we would immediately receive them.
I moved my family to Miami from Des Moines with some regrets. With minimum notice I went to work in the downtown NIOF office on busy Brickell Avenue to nail down good sale venues. I landed the November 1985 slot with the Michigan State Numismatic Society in Dearborn with the support of ANA leader Dolly Schook. Assembled with some speed, this Michigan sale included 518 lots of considerable quality and was a thorough-going success.
The next promising venue was the May 1986 Texas Numismatic Association convention in Fort Worth, and NIOF was awarded this slot thanks in large measure to the support of a long-time TNA leader, the late Lyman Bartee. However, major problems now emerged. The wonder coin program, it now appeared, had been abandoned without informing the auction director. Instead of dazzling “finest knowns,” TNA would be filled with hundreds of mistakes of a single young dealer, all of which had to be described as “MS 65.”
Plans to move the NIOF offices from Brickell Avenue to a dramatic new indoor mall in South Miami called Bakery Centre totally disrupted sale administration. Long before occupancy of the new location was possible, all paperwork was packed away and rendered wholly inaccessible.
We were welcomed to Fort Worth, but natural disaster soon joined the administrative disruption caused by the move back in Miami. The Texas metropolis boasted a splendid convention center but on the day of the actual sale a catastrophic storm front blew through with winds of 90 miles per hour in gusts, driving rain and heavy hail.
An estimated 30,000 pounds of hail piled up on the flat roof of the center, which split right over the paper money dealers’ tables, inundating them masses of hail swimming in freezing water. Next a kind of earth mover had to be called in to try to remove many feet of flooding rain water from the lower level main entrance. Taking place under these conditions, the auction was an ignominious failure.
NIOF had now moved into its unfinished headquarters in Bakery Centre despite lack of a Certificate of Occupancy, and landing the FUN sale became a manic priority. Despite Haber’s belligerence, the sale was quickly awarded to Mid-American, whose principals Garrett and Guth enjoyed both admiration and support within the state organization. Haber now stormed out of auctions, firing the auction director to concentrate on a newer toy, a retail operation called South Miami Rare Coins.
I returned to working on my own and was pleasantly surprised to receive an unexpected call from Mid-American, which now had to create their FUN sale and catalog in a comparatively short time. One of the company’s major catalogers had suddenly left their ranks just as consignments began pouring in. With a rich feeling of the irony of the situation, I accepted the post of contract cataloger.
I would fly from Miami to Lexington, staying weeknights in a condo recently vacated by a firm principal. I would catalog each day, returning home on weekends where my wife Pat and I had just bought a home and adopted a baby girl. Then it would be back to Lexington the next week until FUN cataloging was finished.
Also working with Mid-American was Tom Mulvaney, an exceptionally able cataloger and brilliant coin photographer who had formerly worked at Paramount International in their glory days along with John Smithwick, later my co-worker at Kagin’s. Small world department once again!
The U.S. coins coming in were of wonderful quality and I received my first experience with cataloging by computer. I had used a typewriter at Johnson & Jensen and Kagin’s. Haber had pumped thousands of dollars into a strange off-brand computer called a DEC Rainbow which was not compatible with any other computer then in use. The machine was literally “over the rainbow” and totally useless.
My wife was a professional computer programmer and we used the NIOF severance to buy my first PC, an Epson Equity One that was the state of PC art in 1986. Mid-American had its own computer cataloging system employing a bank of non-networked Apple machines. Catalogers input their descriptions onto floppy discs that were removed and their contents transferred into a central repository at the end of the working day.
Here was more sudden and unexpected education: it proved possible to over-fill a floppy, making retrieval of its data impossible. One fine afternoon I had to re-create several hours’ work from memory onto a virginal disc! With 2,158 lots, the completed 1986 FUN sale was a major success. Mid-American continued in the auction field until February 1993 when it was merged into Heritage, and the 1986 FUN Sale was my sole experience with the Lexington firm.