Jim Bisognani: Conversations With Two Numismatists in Ukraine

The hobby perseveres in a war zone, and a quick look at the pre-1933 US gold coin market

 

By Jim BisognaniNGC Weekly Market Report ……
 

As the war in Ukraine rages, I felt duty-bound to take a look at some of that besieged country’s numismatics. As this European nation is a relatively new player within the numismatic sphere, I was then compelled to review some of Ukraine’s current coins and currency.

And being a collector, I found myself scanning information on the current Ukraine coins and various commemoratives. I reviewed our NGC World Price Guide and then went–where else?–to eBay. I found numerous listings for coins from the war-torn country, including a set I was interested in. Then I noticed that this eBay seller was in Kyiv.

I immediately sent an email to the seller, stating: “Good evening, I was going to order a few different sets. Then I noticed that you are in the war zone… I pray that you, your family and loved ones are safe. Please take care. My family’s thoughts and prayers are with you. JimB”

A short time later, I received a response from that numismatist in the war-torn country:

Dear Jim
Thank you for support and kind words!
I’m fortunate that my wife and 3-year-old son escaped to Poland a few days ago via Romania. It was a hard route but they’re safe.
I’m staying in Western Ukraine and things are calm here for now.
Speaking about shipments, our post is sending from West Ukraine via Poland. The transit times increased but it is possible to send.
With best regards from free Ukraine,
Vitally

After reading this message from Vitally I was compelled to start a dialogue. On March 8, I emailed Vitally a few questions. I received the response just before my deadline — great timing. My questions are in bold type:

Are you still able to conduct your coin business in the war zone?

Since the western part of Ukraine is not under direct military attack, it is possible to do some online business. Post, banks, and delivery companies work with limited coverage.

How long have you been a coin collector/dealer?

I’ve been an active coin collector and dealer for over 15 years.

Were either of your parents or a family member interested in coins?

Yes, my dad was and is a coin collector since the 1970s.

What is your favorite coin to collect?

I do like modern Ukrainian silver commemorative coins.

Also, are you actively fighting against the Russian forces and when will you be able to rejoin your wife and child in Poland?

I try to do my best by donating funds to volunteers who equip special forces of Ukrainian army with objects that they need. I do not have military experience myself but if total mobilization will be called, I will join the army as well. I hope my family will be able to come back soon after our victory.

I was amazed with this exchange. Here is a fellow numismatist, a husband and a father fighting for his family’s freedom, yet he is still able to conduct coin business amidst the chaos.

I had another exchange with a man named Ruslan. Both he and his wife are in the besieged capital, Kyiv. Ruslan has been a collector for 10 years. Since he and his wife are both in Kyiv, I of course asked if he and his family were safe. He responded:

Well, I can’t say we’re safe. My young wife and I are alive.
Internet, electricity, water available. Russian troops took Kyiv under siege.
Roads are shot through. The financial sector is doing well. But the Post Office does not please me. Today is the first day since the beginning of the war that some post offices have opened. However, due to the fact that enemy aircraft are in the sky, international delivery is complicated. But I think that soon the shipment will be possible to carry out.
Thanks for your support, Jim!
Indeed, now they are shooting in Ukraine. Therefore, delivery will be delayed :)

I asked Ruslan if his wife was interested in coins.

She is a little interested. But she likes gold coins more of course.

Ruslan worked at a college in eastern Ukraine before the war. But in Ukraine, using his degree hasn’t been profitable because of, as he puts it, the “ridiculous salaries.”

I am a fuel specialist (oil, gas, coal). As a scientist, I get free visas to many countries.

As for Ruslan, he is both a collector and dealer preferring to collect mainly Ukrainian coins (silver, nickel-silver, and some gold). Yet even in the war zone, Ruslan was resolute about keeping his livelihood:

It is difficult with postage and logistics now. But we hope that business will soon work more stably in Ukraine. And now it is possible to send the goods. My wife’s parents are in Donetsk. But she can’t see them because the front line is between us. Everything else is more or less normal.

Today, as there was a bit of a lull in the shelling, Ruslan let me know:

Hi Jim, We are driving around Kyiv, we are doing sports and dealing with eBay. I am with my wife. It is not safe for a girl to be alone in Kyiv now. Lots of people with guns!

I can’t imagine. Well, I have since placed an order with both of these sellers. Be safe my friends.

Silver, Nickel, and Pre-1933 Gold

As I write today, gold has surged to record levels trading at a new high of $2,078 per ounce, and the strategic palladium had soared well over $3,300 [Editor’s Note: The market has calmed down somewhat over the last few days, with gold at $1,951 per ounce (3/17) and palladium at $2,598.CoinWeek]. Silver and platinum also benefited with momentum. These strong echoes of demand, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have sent not only many a collector but also those looking for a proverbial “safe haven” to the metals sector.

While this current ride has placed gold and palladium out of reach for many folks, silver certainly looks poised for some serious targeting while still trading in the mid-$20-per-ounce range. As one trader informed me: “My phone lines and website have been tied up nonstop for over a week. Customers are looking for tangible assets right now. Gold and Silver Eagles and the pre-1933 US gold coins are in frenzied demand.”

A quick glance at some of the spreads for pre-1933 US gold today (in March 2022) reveal:

  • $20 Saints and Libs are offering the best spread as XF coins are available right now at only 9.35% over melt. Perhaps even more enticing is NGC-certified MS-63
  • $20 Saints, quoted at a still-modest 13.25% over the coins’ melt value
  • $10 Libs are also a very reasonable deal, as XF-quality raw coins are offered at what equates to just 11.5% over melt

Of course, yours truly had to do some research here. I compared the previous time that gold spot rose over $2,000 back in the summer of 2020. I remember very well when early August delivered that new benchmark at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, gold spot drifted back to levels just below $2,000 in early November of 2020, as they are as I write this. I compared the pre-1933 US gold prices with those I just listed above, using data collected on November 6, 2020:

  • $20 Saint and $20 Libs in XF carried a “bargain” 5.32% premium over melt and MS-63 certified $20 Saints were pegged at just 9% over melt
  • $10 Libs in XF raw were quoted at 6.5% over melt, and $10 Indians in like grade were available at just 9.7% over melt back in late 2020, compared to today’s (3/9/22) 35% over melt!

In fact, nearly all NGC MS-61 to MS-65 certified pre-1933 US gold type has performed very well — make that extremely well. A few standout examples:

The $3 Gold Princess (1854-1889) type coins were offered for sale by Heritage in early November 2020 as follows:

  • MS-61: $1,660
  • MS-62: $1,860
  • MS-63: $2,710
  • MS-64: $3,700

Now flash forward 16 months and the following are Heritage’s BUY prices for the $3 Gold Princess:

  • MS-61: $2,450, up 47.59%
  • MS-62: $2,900, up 55.91%
  • MS-63: $4,375, up 61.44%
  • MS-64: $5,275, up 42.75%

Remember, my fellow Coindexters, these are buy prices!

In fact, all NGC MS-63 type gold $1 to $10 coins have on average risen in value by over 40%. Conversely, Type $20 Saints in MS-63 only registered a 5.31% bump, and Type III $20 Libs only notched a 1.58% advance in the same grade. In fact, the only appreciable advance for the $20 Saint type was for those graded MS-66; here I can report a respectable 17.11% elevation.

For those on a more limited budget, silver prices — while trading at virtually the same level as 16 months ago — find that Morgan and Peace dollars are revealing considerable advances, due in large part to the 100th-anniversary reboot of those treasured designs.

Circulated Peace dollars (VG+) are up 34% and Morgan (pre-1921) VG+ are up 43%. In the collector-friendly Certified MS-64 and MS-65 grades, Morgan types are up 41% and 55% respectively, and Peace dollars find Certified MS-63 and MS-65 types advancing by 30% and 36%. I believe you really can’t go wrong buying attractive, certified Mint State Morgan or Peace dollars at these levels.

And for younger collectors or those on a shoestring budget, copper is surging while nickel supplies, as the war in Ukraine rages, are being squeezed. While Russia produces about 8% of the world’s nickel, they also account for nearly 40% of the battery-grade material. This has sent nickel prices through the roof. As of now, a quick calculation for our Jefferson nickels of 1938-2014 (not including the 1942-1945 wartime “silver”), which are 25% nickel and 75% copper, shows that they are worth over nine cents each.

Of course, you can’t legally melt US coinage, but here is an easy way to put together a date set of Jeffersons from circulation and immediately nearly double your investment! As of today, each $2 roll of 40 nickels is now worth $3.43.

Wow.

But consider this. Our neighbor to the north — Canada — employed pure nickel in their popular “Maple Leaf” and “Beaver” 5 cent coins. Those minted from 1920 (George V) through 1981 (Elizabeth II) contained 4.54 grams of pure nickel, which equates to a melt value of over 17 cents. Some food for thought as you rummage through those “junk foreign” coin boxes at your next show.

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Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!
 


 

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.
 

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