Heritage Auctions President Greg Rohan talks about how his love of coins became much more than a hobby
By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
Greg Rohan is President — and one of the owners — of Heritage Auctions, the largest collectibles and rare coin auctioneer, and third-largest auction house, in the world. A few weeks ago, Heritage sold a staggering $90 million worth of coins at auction in their Dallas headquarters with just three live bidders in attendance.
The world of rare coin auctions — and numismatics in general — has changed a lot in the last few years, so I asked Greg to share some of this inside knowledge about these changes and perhaps make a few predictions.
Greg, how did you get started in numismatics and when did you become a dealer? I have heard Jefferson Nickels were your first passion.
When I turned eight, an elderly neighbor gave me a giant jar full of pennies she had saved and a Whitman blue penny book. I quickly discovered there were kids at school with larger allowances who collected pennies, so I would go to the coin shops in downtown Seattle and buy pennies to re-sell to my classmates for a profit, thus helping shape my own collection in the process. So, you could say I have been buying and selling coins for 51 years.
When I was 10, a teacher at school set up at the weekend coin shows in the Seattle area. He offered me a showcase on his table for half the $12 bourse fee. He taught me about coins, currency, business, and dealing with people. He was fair to everyone, and he made friends with all he did business with.
The best part of being in business has been the incredibly interesting and diverse people I have met and became friends with. Looking back, I have so many great friends I have known for 30-40 years, and I still enjoy meeting and working with new clients and making new friends every day.
As a youngster, I was making money to help fund my coin business by babysitting and doing yard work. I loved going from table to table and looking for coins that really stuck out as being exceptional quality.
This was the 1970s and there was really very little price disparity between a coin that was uncirculated and one that was choice or gem. I thought the gem coins were much scarcer and should command a much higher price, and those were the coins I tried to buy and then explain to collectors why they were worth a good premium.
Looking back, of course, the premiums were tiny. Most of the dealers were kind and generous with their time, encouraging this precocious teen. I’ve always tried to pay that forward when I meet talented young numismatists. In fact, the Heritage YN Summer Intern program was born from that, with many distinguished hobby alumni as “graduates”.
While in high school, I worked Saturdays and summers at a coin shop. It was just the owner and me, but he stayed in his office smoking and watching TV. I was responsible for buying the coins and currency people brought into the store, keeping track of the inventory, and buying and selling on the dealer nationwide teletype system, which was like a telex machine at the time. I was also responsible for opening and closing the store and for vacuuming and taking out the trash.
One day, a man came in with a large quantity of Morgan dollars that were stored in crankcase oil. It was a real gooey mess. I counted the coins but couldn’t see what they looked like. After the shop closed for the day, I took them to the sink to get the oil off. They were original rolls of 1888-P, 1889-P, 1890-P, 1890-S, 1891-P, 1891-S, 1892-P, and also three individual BU 1889-CCs. It was an extraordinary horde and the coin shop owner was quite excited. He told me he would give me all the coins on consignment at Greysheet MS 60 Bid and I should take them to the big coin show in San Francisco and sell them.
It was my first out-of-state show. In addition to the silver dollars, local coin shops in the area gave me their best coins on consignment to take to the show as well. I couldn’t afford to stay at the fancy host hotel, The Jack Tar, so I stayed nearby at an inexpensive motel. I didn’t want anyone to see that I had three BU 1889-CC dollars as that seemed like too many.
At the time, Jim Halperin and Steve Ivy (my partners and the co-founders of Heritage) were the two largest coin dealers in the country. I sold the first and very best 1889-CC to Jim for $5,750. Years later he told me it was a Superb Gem.
The next one I sold to Wayne Miller for $5,250. At the end of the day, I had a double-row box of silver dollars and I was sitting with Leon Hendrickson at the Silver Towne table while he ran an adding machine tape and negotiated to buy it from me. We were the last people to leave the show and Leon and his son David invited me to join them for dinner next-door at Tommy’s Joynt restaurant, a local institution.
Here I was, 15 years old. I had sold every coin I brought with me, I made more than $10,000 that day, and Leon and David Hendrickson, two of the biggest, most important coin dealers, were taking me to dinner. I thought it didn’t get any better than this. I was hooked for life on the coin business.
Around that time, the mid-1970s, a club was formed to promote collecting Full Step Jefferson nickels. I started looking through dealer stock books for these nickels with Full Steps and quickly figured out which dates were truly rare and which were not. I could buy these individual coins for a small premium over the pro-rated roll price, and then advertise them to the growing group of Full Step collectors.
I had a typewriter at home, so I would type up my pricelist and then, in between classes at school, go to the school office and ask them if I could make mimeograph copies. When they realized how many copies I was making, they suggested I go to the local office supply store (which had a large copy machine) and pay for the service. I was also advertising in Coin World, starting out with classified ads, then moving up to display ads in the classified section.
In 1977, shortly before turning 16, I sold my entire Full Step Jefferson nickel inventory to a dealer for $40,000. I used $5,800 to buy a new Mustang, as I was about to get my driver’s license, and put the rest of the money into my growing coin business. I started running full-page ads in Coin World.
Up until 1987, (Heritage Co-founder) Jim Halperin bought, graded and priced every single coin Heritage handled. It had become overwhelming for one person, so to find someone to work under Jim to help him and learn from him, Heritage sponsored a grading test at the Long Beach Expo, where dealers could test their grading skills on certified coins that had the grade covered up.
Afterwards, Jim and Steve (Ivy, Heritage co-founder) told me I did very well on the test, and invited me to dinner that evening. They told me they were going to make me an offer I couldn’t turn down. That was 34 years ago. I subsequently became their first partner, and now there are nine Heritage partners, all extremely talented, passionate individuals.
Early in your career, you were a large rare coin wholesaler. What were some of the major marketplace trends (including third-party grading) you have observed in those years and what lessons are to be learned from those trends?
Before certified grading, it really was the Wild West. You had to rely on the dealer you were buying from to accurately and honestly represent the authenticity and the grade of the coin. Many dealers didn’t know how to grade, so pride of ownership and greed led them to overcharge and misrepresent, and when a collector gets burned, they exit the hobby and usually never return.
There were a number of collectors at the time who really understood quality and what coins should look like, people like Donald Partrick, Gene Gardner, Eric Newman, John Pittman, Stanley Kesselman, and Bill Anton, to name just a few.
If you buy a share of stock and it goes down, you understand it went down not because it was misrepresented but because that’s the market. Before certified grading, if you bought a coin as MS-65 and when you want to sell it, everyone told you it was an MS-60, you would feel very bitter about your loss. Because of that, lots of big money stayed away from numismatics. Certified grading changed all of that.
Before online bidding, which Heritage patented with HALive! in 1996, most people mailed in their bids and had no idea if another higher bid had already been received until after the auction was over. Psychologically, you also bid what you wanted to pay for a lot, which was not necessarily what it was going to take to buy it. If you had known that a number of other people had already placed higher bids, you would probably have the confidence to bid higher.
Many serious collectors, not wanting to leave their home and family and business to travel across the country to sit through hours of auctions waiting for the lots they wanted to bid on, would give their bids to an agent and pay them a fee to bid for them. Again, they gave the agent a bid with a limit of what they wanted to pay, but if they had been at the auction themselves watching the bidding, they might’ve had the confidence to bid much higher.
Certified grading and online bidding put new collectors on a level playing field with the most experienced dealers. It opened the door for people just starting out — as well as people with millions and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend — to feel comfortable investing and collecting coins. Certified grading and online bidding benefited every collector and were the two best things that ever happened to numismatics.
I know Heritage has invested vast sums into its internet platform. The company has always been on the leading edge from a technology standpoint. Can you discuss how the team at Heritage made that decision?
We moved online long before others dreamed of plugging in, thanks in large part to the vision – and a very gutsy decision – made in the early 1990s by Jim Halperin.
Initially, of course, Heritage operated as a large wholesale coin dealer. During that period, we collected and aggregated data that told us what was selling and for how much. All of that invaluable information was kept in a program Jim had developed. But in time, he decided to share all of this information on the website that evolved into the current-day HA.com, which has now attracted over 50,000 unique visitors a day and more than 1.4 million clients worldwide.
It became our belief that sharing this pricing and value data would also serve to inform and educate collectors and consignors at all levels. Clients could immediately know what was selling – and why. And it was that decision, along with our unwavering commitment to transparency (e.g., always disclosing days before an auction if a lot had a reserve and the amount of the reserve) that quickly garnered our clients’ attention and trust.
What are your thoughts on the current market’s obsession with quality and the Set Registry battles? Do you wish you still had some of those amazing Jefferson Nickels?
I understand wanting the very best of something. It’s why a beautiful new Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is in such demand, while you can buy a perfectly wonderful car for a fraction of the price. If you came to me and asked my advice for building a collection, and you weren’t looking to collect the highest-grade coin known, with a seemingly unlimited budget, I would advise you to look for pricing anomalies in deciding which grade of a particular coin you want for your collection.
For example (CDN prices) a Small Size Draped Bust dime in MS-64 at $50,000, MS 65 at $95,000, and MS 66 at $130,000. I’d buy the MS-64 because there is a lot more runway, percentage-wise, between the MS-64 price and the MS-65 price than there is between the MS-65 and the MS-66 price. Same for a Flowing Hair dollar. An MS-64 lists at $225,000, an MS-65 at $300,000, and an MS-66 at $650,000. The MS-65 is the coin to buy.
I think there’s more financial upside. An MS-64 Small Size Draped Bust dime and an MS-65 Flowing Hair dollar are both wonderful coins to own. I like coins with great eye appeal, which can be a lovely original coin that isn’t too dark or a brilliant coin without major detracting marks or abrasions.
I’m pretty sure the Full Step nickel inventory I sold for $40,000 in 1977 would bring well over $1 million today, but I have no regrets. It was a good investment in a wonderful career I love.
Heritage has successfully sold hundreds of millions of dollars in rare coins to internet buyers in the last year. Can you explain why buyers are comfortable spending that much on coins they have never seen?
I think it comes down to confidence in both the accuracy of our images and catalog descriptions and also in the bidding platform itself.
We also know that bidders participate more aggressively in Heritage auctions because they trust the integrity of our platform – that their proxy bids will be executed fairly and effectively every single time. We have numerous clients who enter ultra-aggressive proxy bids knowing that they will win the lot for one increment more than the next highest bid, and that is oftentimes far lower than their maximum.
Your company has expanded into many other collectible fields and fine art in the last several years. What category other than rare coins interests you most?
I collect in at least half a dozen categories. Working at Heritage is like wandering around a museum where everything is for sale. That said, my personal passion is National Currency from my home state of Washington. I also collect the related banking ephemera and obsoletes from Washington.
I love the Facebook group for National Banknote Collectors, and I prize my friendships with other collectors, such as Dr. Andrew Shiva, whom I’ve known for decades, and who collects the best of the best from all 50 states. Virtually all the rest of us mere mortals collect from just a single state… that’s daunting enough! Shiva recently had his entire, incredible collection certified by PMG.
The rare coin market is clearly experiencing an uptick in activity that started shortly after the COVID-19 crisis began last spring. What are your thoughts on the origins of this increased attention to the hobby?
People are spending more time at home than they ever have, and to a certain extent, they are bored, so they are spending more time on their hobbies than ever before. I know I am.
Over the phone, you represented the buyer of the amazing NGC MS-65 Brasher Doubloon that sold for over $9 million. You later stated that this was the first rare coin the person had purchased. Can you give some insight on why someone would spend over $9 million on their first coin? What got them interested?
I’ve known him for years and he had bought from us in a number of other auction categories. He visited our new headquarters and I gave him a tour. We visited Sports and I showed him a Babe Ruth baseball bat, for example, and then when we got to the coin department I showed him the Brashers.
He called me a few days later and said he’d like to try to buy them all … and he did … $11.9 million later. Don Partrick would be happy knowing they stayed together.
Over the last year, the rich have gotten even richer. Stocks are near all-time highs and there are now clearly a lot of billionaires interested in your auctions. How is this trend impacting your business and, more importantly, is it sustainable?
I think it is sustainable. Whereas Heritage has by far the largest worldwide client base in numismatics, our other 39 categories are growing at a good clip, so we are attracting more of those clients you speak of, every day. Collectors love to collect. I know that because I’m a collector myself, as are all of my Heritage partners.
One of the best things we ever did was to cross-market our auctions to our most active bidders across all our categories. A collector in another category has confidence in the accuracy of our online images, of the descriptions, and of the transparency (e.g., no hidden reserves or “chandelier bidding” to worry about it) so they can bid with absolute confidence if something strikes their fancy. Our job is to put it in front of them and see if they are interested.
Finally, what do you think hobby leaders can do to promote the hobby going forward? Heritage seems to be able to see into the future; what does it look like?
Through HA.com, we have been at the forefront of providing the collector community invaluable educational resources. We firmly believe that educated, well-guided collectors will pursue their love of coins or sports items or comic books for their entire lives and we want to be along for that ride. We are bullish for the future of numismatics and the collectibles industry as a whole. We are still an infant industry with plenty of room for growth.
That said, our numismatic category seems to be on the wrong side of an aging demographic. The number of older generations moving into sell mode is outpacing the number of younger collectors coming into our hobby. We often press ourselves to come up with ways to entice younger generations. We support Young Numismatists programs and we try to offer many Summer internships here in Dallas.
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