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Buying Coins versus acquiring the right coins for a great collection!

There's a big difference between buying coins and collecting coins. Buying coins is more of a random activity based on likes, preferences or attractions at any given moment, while collecting coins is more of a purposeful directed long term commitment. In both cases, you buy what you like, but if your goal is to collect coins and do it right, you have to master two additional skills. The first is being able to effectively research, evaluate and decide whether or not to buy whatever works of coins attract you. The second is being able to choose each individual work in such a way as to form a meaningful grouping aka a collection.


If you're like most people, you know how to buy coins on a piece-by-piece basis, but may not be all that accomplished at formulating a plan for making multiple acquisitions over time, or in other words, building a collection. You can find coins you like just about anywhere you look and in a seemingly endless array of subject matters, mediums and price ranges, but sifting through it all in a systematic manner can be overwhelming and even intimidating. So how do decide where to focus and what direction to go in? How do you relate one purchase to the next? How do you organize or group your coins together in ways that make sense? How do you present it? And most importantly, how do you do all these things well? This is what collecting is all about; it's the ultimate case of controlled purposeful buying.


Great collectors are often as well-known and widely respected as the coins they collect.

Take the John J. Ford Jr, Harry W. Bass Collection, the Norweb Collection and the John J. Pittman collection, just to name a few.


Collectors like these are famous because they demonstrate just as much talent in selecting and grouping their coins as the celator or engraver show in creating it. Likewise, each work of coins in a great collection commands premium attention as well as a premium price not only because it's good, but also because of the company it keeps.


What makes a great collector great is his or her ability to separate out specific works of coins from the billions of pieces already in existence and assemble them in such a way as to increase or advance our understanding of that coins history and evolution of coins in general. In any mature collection, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, the collector comes to be accepted as a respected authority and in exceptional cases, goes on to set the standards, determine tastes, trends and influence the future of collecting for all.


Regardless of how you view your collecting, whether serious or recreational, there are techniques you can use to maximize not only the quality and value of your coins, but also your own personal enjoyment, appreciation and understanding of the coins. Step one is being true to your tastes. This means acknowledging that you like certain types of coins regardless of what you think you're supposed to like or what seems to be the current rage. All great collectors share this trait; that's one thing makes their collections stand out. When personal tastes and preferences are ignored in favor of the status quo, one collection begins to look just like the next. A few people dictate, the masses follow, everyone walks in lock-step, and the coins you see from collection to collection becomes boring and repetitive.


Collectors who aren't afraid to express themselves yield exactly the opposite results. Take, for example, that collector who put together a collection of coins bought exclusively at second hand stores and garage sales, often for little more than a few dollars each. His collection ultimately toured the country and was published as a book. Many of us were not only entertained by it, but it also helped to broaden our definition of what could reasonably be considered coins. He taught us that interesting looking coins can be found just about anywhere, not only at the major museums or in the best galleries. Now he would most likely never have put this collection together if he had chosen to mimic the tastes of others rather than be true to his own.


You may or may not be well along in your collecting, but if you have any nagging doubts about what you've been buying, what you've deliberately avoided, whether you're totally satisfied or you just want to take a moment to see what's new, suspend your buying for a bit and take a look around. Don't confine yourself to the same old coin shows or brick and mortar shops or wherever you've been looking at coins. Get out there and see what else is going on at tag sales, coin clubs you've never been to, places you've only heard about, and so on.


Explore the less conventional if that's what you're curious about. Look at coins you think might attract you, but that you've always steered clear of. Don't be afraid to experiment.


You may end up right back where you started, reinforcing your chosen path, but then again, something new and truly unique may thrill you at some point along the way. Periodic reassessments of your tastes are always a good idea. What excites you today could easily bore you tomorrow (and vice versa). A quality collection is always evolving and never static. And of course, don't forget to hit the Internet; when it comes to coins, it's a vast and fantastic place. Places like Instagram and Facebook can be great places to search for pretty much every kind of coins imaginable.


While we're on the subject of beating the bushes for coins online, perhaps the most revolutionary change between collecting today and yesterday is the level and ease of access that everyone now has to product. Way back when, collectors were pretty much limited to acquiring coins through dealers but today they can buy from just about anyone anywhere, especially directly from other hobbyist  themselves. Getting a basic coins education from professionals like dealers is still generally recommended before heading out into the online wilds to explore other options. There are also numerous blogs, websites and platforms devoted to specific types of coins where you can really get up to speed on the coins you like the most, and focus in on happenings and trends in those areas. But get that education first, before you start coin buying, because the Internet can be a pretty risky place if you don't know what you're doing.


Regardless of how much you know about what you collect already, always remember that the educational process is an ongoing one. Be an informed buyer. Learn from the pros. Take every opportunity to discuss the fine points of what you're looking at with as many different experts, curators, collectors, museum personnel and other informed coins people as possible. Not only does this improve your abilities to separate out the great coins from the good from the not so good, but you also learn how to protect yourself against being taken advantage of in the marketplace-- which brings us to this next point.


Hand in hand with knowing the coins goes knowing the marketplace-- and this is where many collectors fall short. The great collectors know just about everyone who sells what they collect; they're on top of the market and the market knows them. They're tuned in to the late breaking news and when something exciting is about to happen, they're usually among the first to find out and act on it. The top collectors go to great lengths to scoop the competition when the best coins come up for sale in auction because it doesn't come up all that often. They also know how to compare and contrast what's available in the marketplace or whatever they get offered in order to assure that something is as good as they're led to believe it is.


What amazes me about coins collecting in general is the lack of comparison shopping and market savvy that a significant percentage of coins buyers often show. Far too many establish relationships with only one or two dealers or online resources and rarely if ever stray. This may be a good strategy at the begining especially in terms of getting a basic education, but the danger in continuing this over the long haul is that your overview of the market suffers. If inadvertently subjugate yourself to the tastes of a very select few, over time your collection becomes less of what you originally intended it to be and more of what a handful of others tell you it should be.


Knowing the marketplace and how to comparison shop both at galleries and online also prevents you from overpaying. Simply put, Dealer X may offer you a $20 Saint for $10,000; you might find a comparable piece online priced at $7500; and Dealer Y might have one for $6500. If you only shop Gallery X and you don't know Gallery Y exists or ignore online options, you waste dollars. It's also not that unusual to find the same or very similar works of coins available from multiple sources at different prices. Due diligence pays dividends when it comes to making sure you know who's selling what before going ahead and buying.


Regarding the coins that does make it into your collection, most novice collectors will tell you they buy what they like. That's definitely the best way to buy, but as you gain experience, the reasons why you buy what you like should become increasingly more conscious, detailed, sophisticated and purposeful. For example, you might hear an advanced collector say something like, "Not only do I love this piece, but it's also a prime example of the time period best subject matter from his most productive time period and it fills a major gap in my collection."


The best collectors show this sense of sureness and direction in their overall plans. And here's where we get into the essence of collecting, of what distinguishes a superior collection from an inferior one. In a superior collection, every piece belongs; nothing is random or arbitrary or out of place. A less experienced collector, on the other hand, may know plenty about each individual piece of coins they own, but lack an overall understanding how they relate to one another or even whether they relate to one another at all. You don't want to look around the house one day and wonder, "What have I been buying all these years? I'm not quite sure. I never really thought about it."


What an experienced collector essentially does is pose a problem and then illustrate the solution to that problem by piecing together a collection. That way, everything fits and it all makes sense according to the master plan. Take this problem for instance:

What is the history of territorial gold Southern California? The solution is a coin collection consisting of BG numbers from Southern California of all those  date from the early days right on up to the present (or from whatever time period the collector is focusing on).

Pose your problem as soon as you can, as soon as you begin to get a decent feel for where your passions and interests lie. Take the randomness out of your buying. Look at what you've got so far in your collection; reflect on what all those individual pieces you like so much have in common and proceed from there. Ask questions like:

* Why do I like the kinds of coins I'm buying?

* What about it satisfies me?

* Do I like it for the subject matters, what it represents, what it communicates, its originality, the techniques, the colors, the historical aspects, the regions where it's made?

* Does it make me think about things I've never thought about before?

* Does it make me feel a certain way or see things in a different way?

* Do I admire its technical qualities the most?

* Do I like it for the concepts, ideas, themes or philosophies it embodies, communicates or stands for?

* Does it alter or inform my perspective on some aspect of life?

* Does it portray or present things in ways they've never been presented before?

* Is it that it's old, new, local, foreign, big, small, round, square, whatever?

Once you begin to identify the common threads, you can refine your buying to zero in on additional pieces that share those characteristics. It's almost like putting together a mission statement or clearly and specifically defining your goals... and a collector with a specific mission or goals is always more effective at acquiring coins than one who rarely questions why they buy what they do. By the way, if the answers to your questions sound like these-- "I buy what my friends buy; I buy for investment; I buy only the big names; I only buy bargains"-- consider returning to square one, determining what kinds of coins you really REALLY like, and then starting all over again.


Another essential aspect of good collecting is documenting your coins, not only for authentication and ownership purposes, but also in terms of value. You can see best how documentation really pays off in the markets for older coins.


Suppose, for instance, that two early dollars come up for sale at the same time. They're virtually identical in size, quality, condition, and other details. The first is described as a PCGS AU and that's it. The second is documented as being titled "Exordairnary Pedegree Piece From Estate”  Exhibited at the National Bank in 1877. Originally purchased for $100 by Greg Ulsted from Stacks Gallery, New York City, 1959. Sold to John Stewart  in 1989 for $5,700.  Assuming you find both coins equally appealing, which would you rather own? Which do you suppose will be priced higher and end up selling for more money? The second one, of course. It's like choosing between a mutt and a pedigree. So keep good records on every single work of coins you own; good documentation adds value, sometimes lots of value.


An interesting aspect of the coins business is that when coins with little or no documentation comes up for sale, experienced sellers at least do their best to make up interesting titles for it. They know that even when little or nothing is known about coins, good titles sell better than boring ones or no titles at all.


The point is that good documentation positively impacts not only dollar value, but also the ability to personally appreciate and understand a work of coins. If you know nothing about numiscatics, for instance, you can only guess why it was created, what it means, where it's been. If you know its entire history, you can appreciate far more deeply, and on a multitude of levels in addition to the purely visual.


If you're one of those collectors who thinks you'll always remember everything significant about every work of coins in your collection and don't need to physically sit down and assemble or record that information, think again. At some point, your collection will become so large, there'll be simply too much to remember. Either that or time will take its toll on your memory and as the years pass, you'll likely get worse and worse at recalling every single detail about works of coins you acquired years or even decades ago.


The good news is you can begin documenting at any time and even from a standing stop. Write down everything you can about the coins you own, either from memory or by contacting the original sellers. Include information like the following:

* Any stories the sellers tell you specifically relating to the coins.

* Details about the purchases including any memorable moments about making them.

* What the coins means or what its significance is, according to whomever sold it to you.

* Biographical and career information about the engraver or sculpture.

* How or why or any other information about how the coins was made.

* When the coins dates from.

* Whether any pieces have ever been exhibited in public, written about or featured or discussed in any other way.


Don't think you have to hide anything. One of the most incredible collections purchased at an estate, the spouse told us that her husband bought each coin for only twenty dollars when in fact he paid $20 to $2,500 for each piece.   

Far too often, collectors throw away their original receipts or refuse to tell what they paid for their coins, where they bought it, or what it's previous ownership history was. Reasons usually sound like these-- "If people know what I paid, my coins will be worth less" or "If they find out where it comes from, they'll try to buy some themselves." These things rarely happen. If you feel protective, don't tell everything to anyone who asks, but at least document and save this information for release at some later date. Don't lose it forever. Your descendants will thank you for saving it and passing it down, believe me. 


Not only does good documentation tend to increase the value of coins in both tangible and intangible ways, but the documents themselves can have value and that value can increase as well. Imagine if you had an original receipt from the sale of a so called dollar during a worlds fair or a original wooden box from tiffany with a tiffany silver medal in it.

 I'm in this end of the business and can tell you that either of these items would have significant value, likely well into the thousands of dollars. So here's what you do:

* Save all receipts, certificates of authenticity and other relevant written or printed materials you receive with the coins. Ask for as much of it as you can at the time of purchase.

* Whenever possible, get descriptive written statements from sellers when you buy coins. If they won't write something for you, have them tell you about the coins and either write it down yourself or record or video them telling it to you.

* Save and file all related books, exhibit catalogues, gallery brochures, reviews, web pages and so on.

* Whenever possible, photograph the sculptures who you collect, have them sign or inscribe catalogues, receipts or auction invitations for you.

This information is easy to get, fun to get, it brings you closer to your coins, and it often only takes a few moments at the point of purchase. Over time, however, those few moments pay big dividends.

Another distinguishing feature of a superior collection is that it's organized. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end-- just like any good museum exhibition. This goes back to posing the problem and then using the collection to map out the solution. This collection can be organized in many ways including by date, by style, or by location.


The easiest way to get the hang of organizing is to go to museums. Here you see the work of professional organizers-- also known as curators. Museum shows always have starting points; they always have ending points. What happens in between the two is that viewers learn something about that particular type and grouping of coins. Depending on the museum or the show, you have printed, oral or recorded guided tours that explain the way each show is organized.


Now you don't have to go so far as to physically re-arrange your house and print up a catalogue. Everything can still be displayed right where it looks its best. But organize it in your mind. Be able to walk someone through and tell them the story of how and why you've come to own all this wonderful coins and how it works so well together.

This increases not only their enjoyment, but it also reinforces your chosen direction and your future buying. Additional benefits to organizing your collection are that you can see where you've been, where you're going, where you have duplication, where you're weak, what you're missing, what no longer makes the grade, and what you have to do to resolve any problems. It's not much different from your kids putting together all the baseball cards of their favorite teams to complete their collections.


The final step in good collecting is not the most delightful one to talk about, but it is among the most necessary, and that is to plan for future owners-- whether they be museums, institutions, family members, friends or complete and total strangers. You'd be surprised how many collectors never say a word to anyone and just think everyone automatically knows everything they've been doing all these years. This is never the case! Think about all the people you've met who own family heirlooms that they know little or nothing about because no one ever told them. "That's the silver dollar that my grandfather got while I was growing up and it belonged to my great grandmother. That's all I know."


The worst possible outcome for a collection occurs when the owner passes away leaving no information about the coins, how much it's worth, how to care for it, or how to sell or donate it. Countless works of coins have been resold for pennies on the dollar, given away, or even thrown in the trash because the owners kept little or no records and left no instructions on what to do with it.


The lesson in all this is that collectors, no matter how large or small their collections, should provide a complete list of options and instructions for those who'll inherit their coins. These include names, addresses, phone numbers, procedures, dollar values, and all other particulars for selling or donating as well as for dispersal within the family.


By the way, simple appraisals with no further instructions are never enough. In fact, they often create more trouble than good. For example, appraisals done for insurance or replacement purposes often state dollar values that are more than the coins is reasonably worth in a selling situation. The inheritors fixate on these values, have no idea what they mean, assume that's what they can sell the coins for, and end up spending months or years beating their heads against the wall trying to sell it, getting nowhere, and deciding that all buyers are out to take advantage.

So cover all bases by providing insurance or replacement appraisals should your descendants decide to keep the coins. Also include realistic wholesale or "fair market value" appraisals should they decide to sell it. And don't forget those instructions-- who to call, where to go, what to do. You don't want them at the mercy of whatever names they randomly Google up on the Internet. (unless its me LOL)


If you expect to have any influence over the long term future of your collection, lay the groundwork beginning right now. Educate your family about what you own. Instill a love and respect for what you've accomplished and accumulated all these years. Make sure those close to you are aware of your coins value and significance. Make sure they understand how important it is to you. You can't control the ultimate outcome, but at least you can have your say and know you've done your best to collect like a pro.