Legend Numismatics president Laura Sperber is one of the coin industry’s leading dealers of high-end rare coins. She’s also one of the industry’s most outspoken figures in a range of topics, including coin doctoring, the state of the rare coin market, and the need for more transparency in the industry.
In this exclusive CoinWeek interview, Laura talks about the on-going sale of the Pogue Collection, other multi-million dollar collections that are being assembled now, why she loves internet forums, and steps the rare coin industry can take now to breathe new life into the collector coin market.
CoinWeek: Laura, you’ve always been an outspoken critic of the way the rare coin industry is run, and this is a choppy coin market… How do you feel about the current state of affairs? What do you think is the principle issue?
Laura Sperber: It’s very choppy right now. At the top tier, we’ve had a lot of big collections come out. But we had the same thing back in 1996 through 1999, when you had Childs, Norweb, and Pittman. It’s a little bit of a different environment right now, because there is a lot of information out there and it kind of spooked a few people … you have several hundred million dollars worth of coins that had to be absorbed. You have a stock market that was racing up, down, sideways, and it had people spooked.
There are really good coins that are coming out today that are fresh. They are still bringing really strong numbers, but they aren’t doing as well as they could or should have and everything else that is not a great coin kind of just slipped and fell and that I attribute to the market and the fact that there’s a lot of dreck on the market.
And by the way, dreck is not about the price of the coin – it’s about what the coin is. If the coin is an AU-58 rare date Barber half and it’s ugly and it has scratches on it, that’s dreck – not an AU-58 Barber half that’s not dreck.
CW: Let me ask you a question. About two years ago when the announcement was made that the Pogue Collection was going to be sold, you wrote in your market report that you were excited.
Now we’re getting ready for the biggest sale of the collection, where Stack’s Bowers and Sotheby’s are going to offer the Childs 1804 dollar and the 1822 $5 half eagle. Do you still have that same level of enthusiasm?
LS: I’ll be honest with you, no I don’t. I’m actually burnt out on Pogue because it’s been very stressful.
CW: You’ll be happy when it’s all over?
LS: I’ll be happy when it’s all over.
CW: How do you think this collection was handled by Stack’s Bowers and Sotheby’s. Also, when its all over, how will the Pogue Collection be remembered?
LS: This is definitely one of the greatest collections of all time, hands down. There are one or two collections that will be like it. Of course I’m building Simpson. And people don’t realize what he has. I know. He probably has more million dollar plus coins than Pogue ever had. But I think hands down Pogue is the best early collection that ever can be or will be.
CW: How do you instill confidence in the elite collector that in a down market coins are still where they want them to be?
LS: Oh no, Simpson sees opportunity. He spent a lot of money in Pogue 2. In Pogue 3 he didn’t really participate because he was busy in his personal business, which, you know, is oil and gas. So he was concentrating on that. All my big guys see opportunity, and they love the new levels because they can go in and instead of buying one coin, they can buy two coins… so it’s not hard at all.
CW: How do you get new high-end collectors into the market. What does this industry have to do to sustain that interest level?
LS: You know what? I like to feel that I’m one of the best at taking a little collector and making him a million dollar coin buyer. And the industry has to do a lot right now. The grading services have to be much more transparent. Even though they say they are, they could still use a little polishing up.
And to be quite honest with you, someone has to deal with the issue of all this dreck on the market. I’ve been seeing recently that the dreck is the result of just a small percentage of everything graded that’s bad.
Well, unfortunately, we have to suck that all up somehow and get rid of it. Because the new people coming in , that’s all they’re exposed to. So they buy it, they end up losing money on it, or they see it in someone’s auction in a higher grade holder, someway, somehow, and that’s a turn off. I think the grading services need to step up and promote more and spend a little more to buy some stuff off the market. And I think there needs to be an effort amongst the dealers to promote things better and to get this stuff off the market and end this culture that everything needs to be upgraded.
CW: We were doing a CAC price analysis, we actually have a big database with about 50,000 transactions – public transactions; we don’t know what private treaty stuff happens, and obviously a lot of higher end coins sell private treaty. But we’ve seen a general erosion of type coin price premiums over the past couple years…
LS: It’s because they’ve become commodities. That’s why. And they really aren’t. I look at coins like… I just did an essay of a proof Barber in 7. It had a pop of 6 and the price dropped from $5,000 to $3,700 and yet there are no takers and that’s what people should be buying up like crazy right now. It’s just in the marketing of the coins. You need to make coins like that special again. Instead of just commodities going through these gigantic auctions. That’s part of the problem.
CW: I think you are doing a pretty good job in the way you are cataloging and doing the boutique rare coin auctions.
LS: We want to make auctions special again. They should be events. They should be… collectors should be involved, they should be happy. And that’s why we say “A happy buyer makes a happy seller.” Because a happy buyer will spend more to get the coin. But then we give them special coins to do it. You can’t just have a low-end dreck coin and compare it to a coin that went for a record. It doesn’t work. And then you suck people in on that and they get unhappy and then they leave the market
CW: So how difficult it is it for a niche dealer to go into the boutique auction business?
LS: I tell you what, it’s almost impossible. I thought it would be different. I figured with our client base that we’d have no problem and it’s been a struggle since day one.
CW: Are you glad you did it?
LS: … No (laughing). But I’m going to stay with it, I’m not giving up. Because I place so many coins and I want to build a community around those coins that they go to collectors that I know will give them good homes instead of just going into a black hole.
CW: Last topic. Do you have a sense that there’s a problem that the coin industry isn’t communicating – that there’s a value to placing classic coins into new collectors’ collections instead of allowing them to be sucked into the modern coin business?
LS: Oh yeah. They have more access to inventory in the modern coin business than they do with classic coins and to be quite frank with you, a lot of the dealers out there don’t know how to grade classic coins. So that’s why. There’s something shiny, it has a price record they can look at, and that’s why they venture into it.
Trading classic coins is kinda sorta becoming a lost art. I would guesstimate inside this bourse floor at the ANA Dallas Show, I will state publicly less than 50% of the dealers in that room can grade a raw coin. And it’s because we’ve gone through, what, a generation or two with only slabs? So they don’t have to know anything. And as the services keep changing the standards they never knew what the original standards were. That’s part of the problem.
CW: But don’t you run the risk of making classic coins a niche in that basically… in other words, the pie is only so big and if all the pie gets diverted to modern issues…
LS: No, I don’t think so. I think though with classic coins, it’s a matter of how much they will go up in value. I think that there will always be buyers. Because there is no substitute for a gem bust coin …
CW: Yeah, but you have to think about this – and this is the main contrarian argument I’ll give you: Take type Peace dollars. Prices have come way down. There are a lot more type peace dollars, even CAC type peace dollars then there are apparently takers. I mean you look at CoinPlex or CCE and there’s just not a lot of bids for that material.
LS: But that’s a commodity type of coin. I’m talking about rare shield nickels. Things that you can buy right now for under $5,000 that have pops of less than 10 coins. They are out there for the begging. There does need to be better communication but I don’t think we are losing any people to the modern market per se on stuff like that.
CW: So you are upbeat about the future of the coin market?
LS: Oh absolutely. Not because I have to be, [but] because I do believe in it. I put my money where my mouth is. I have my inventory and I have personal coins as well. I do believe in it. Coins are a long-term proposition. Problem is, with registry sets and this and that, numbers can get blown out of proportion. People have a short-term mentality these days and that creates this horrible choppiness we’re in.
CW: So Laura, you’re not a big fan of internet chat rooms when it comes to sharing information. Why is that?
LS: That’s because 99% of that information is wrong. I love when collectors go on there. It’s like the blind leading the blind. They think they are getting reliable information from a “serious collector” who has studied series for a long time.
Well first of all, they don’t know if that collector has what we call an “eye”. They don’t know the collector’s real depth of education. They don’t know the name of the collector. So you don’t know who it is behind it. But more important, lately I’ve seen what I call “wannabes” on these things. They can be authors trying for business. They can be dealers soliciting collectors. You can’t trust what you get out of there anymore.
The communities that they are supposed to build aren’t really happening the right way. And I just want to tell people don’t believe, I don’t know, 2/3 or 3/4 of what you read on these things.
Yes, you absolutely positively can make friends. Good information, you can find out some things.
But when people out there are trying to force feed you information and they are trying to act like professionals who know. Take a step back before you believe it.
CW: Thank you, Laura, for sharing your expertise. I always enjoy reading your market reports.
LS: Thank you, Charles.
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