Several years ago, while attending the Whitman Baltimore Convention, I had the pleasure of spending some time talking to numismatic legend Harvey Stack. When Harvey passed away early this year, we all lost an important link to numismatic history. Thankfully, Harvey had produced a long series of articles for CoinWeek discussing the history of the Stack’s Bowers auction house.
During our chat, Harvey told me some of his stories about dealing with the great collector, Josiah K. Lilly, Jr. As some of you may know, Lilly assembled one of the finest collections of United States and world gold coins in history. Today, the collection resides in the Smithsonian and is a pillar of the numismatics holdings of the National Numismatic Collection.
For decades, the rooms of gold coins were on display in the Museum of American History, where they inspired thousands of collectors over the years. Today, only a small portion of the Lilly gold coins are on display. In recent years, the Smithsonian has made tremendous progress in digitizing the entire Lilly Collection so that it can be viewed online.
I asked Harvey if Lilly was a serious numismatist or just a wealthy individual who amassed large numbers of coins with little knowledge of what he was buying. Harvey emphatically stated that Lilly loved rare coins and studied them carefully. Harvey personally worked with Lilly to build one of the finest-ever collections of gold coins. Thanks to guidance and encouragement from the Stack family, Lilly was able to build this world-class collection.
The value of working with an experienced expert should not be understated; rare coins are a complex subject that can take years to master. There are many pitfalls to avoid and working with someone you trust is extremely important. In today’s Information Age, many do their own research. There is a considerable wealth of information available today in comparison to the past, but nothing can replicate years or decades of experience.
Finding a mentor to guide and encourage you in your numismatic endeavors can be rewarding in several ways.
For example, many collectors have worked with the same dealer for decades and consider them among their close friends. Additionally, having someone on your side will be very helpful when looking for that elusive coin, or when you’re considering an important buying decision. The small fees most dealers charge is usually well worth the investment. Paying too much or purchasing a coin that you could be unsatisfied with can be a costly mistake; it can sometimes take years to recover your loss on an unwise acquisition.
A solid rare coin mentor can also help you develop a sound collecting strategy. Sometimes it can be difficult getting started on a rare coin collection. With guidance, you can decide on the best set or series that fits your taste and budget. Without guidance, some collectors become impatient and want to buy the first coins they see.
With an experienced set of eyes, you will avoid purchasing coins that you could later regret. Many of the top dealers in the country attend every major convention and rare coin auction held in the United States. Naturally, these dealers know where to acquire even the most elusive numismatic rarity.
Working with an expert can be helpful when trying to establish the correct price to pay for a coin that you’ve been hunting. Price guides are extremely useful but there are many other issues to consider. Most dealers will know how popular a series is, and whether the coin is high-end or average for the grade. Rare coin prices can be extremely high these days, and having someone in your corner for a large purchase could be very useful.
Numismatic advice is really important now, given the seemingly crazy prices some coins are selling for at auction. Buyers clearly get carried away when finest-known examples cross the auction block. Some sage advice would be greatly useful when entering these battles. It takes experience to know if a coin was just a lucky submission or if it’s truly sensational.
One might think that in today’s Information Age, with thousands of coins available at a click of the mouse, that the days of dealers being useful might be numbered. This could not be further from the truth. Several billionaires are now assembling staggering collections of US and world coins. They all have one thing in common: the guidance of numismatic experts.
But you don’t have to be a millionaire to get personal service from a rare coin dealer. Most will help you get started regardless of your budget. Many professional rare coin dealers are very passionate about numismatics, and they enjoy sharing that passion with others.
Even if you already have plenty of friends, having someone to trust and share the excitement of your numismatic pursuits will pay dividends long after you have sold your last coin!