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Times change but skepticism always useful

One of the first things I was taught here at Numismatic News was that what we called grab bag ads are not permitted. They are an illegal form of gambling. You know how they work, ?Buy this or that group of 20 circulated Indian Head cents for $29.95 and you might get a 1908-S or 1909-S.? This is a form of lottery, where everybody doesn?t receive one of the specified valuable dates, but one or two will. A similar ad might guarantee a minimum of 10 different dates. This is not a lottery because everybody gets the minimum of equivalent value.

This taught me to read wording carefully and to keep a little healthy skepticism about anything.

It might seem an arcane point, but the law is the law. Now we have the Internet where the law is not yet established but you can draw analogies.

I was reminded of this when someone e-mailed me about an online auction that I might want to look at. What was offered was a box of $1,000 of the new Washington dollars. Unsearched rolls, bags and boxes of coins have long been a staple in this field. I remember little ads in the classified section of Coins magazine from 40 years ago that would set my imagination running. Offered then were unsearched bags of cents from the South. I never responded, but it usually motivated me to go to the local bank to get the next batch of rolls to search. So, I understand the motivation. I have felt it myself. I have even seen it in the sports card field with unopened wax packs and boxes of cards.

Were it simply an unopened box of Washington dollars being put up for bids online, that would be all there is to it: same type of offer as the old classified ads, different medium.

However, that isn?t all there is to it. The seller has a lengthy story about having taken a roll out of each of 10 boxes and every single coin in every single roll has a plain edge.

By golly, instead of opening up the rest of the rolls, the poster will allow you to bid on the box without reserve. He reminds you that if all the coins are plain edge the box is worth $150,000. He even mentions that he has sold one box to a private collector for $15,000. He explains that he must sell now because his financial situation prevents him from holding them for 10 years.

Hm, what am I to think about this? If he sells all 10 boxes at the private collector?s price, he gets the $150,000 if online bidders take his guidance. He is out, at his own price reckoning, the cost of a roll of 20 plain-edge coins per box. That would be $3,000 at the $150 price mentioned, plus the face value of the other 980 coins. So, the clear profit would be $11,020 on a $15,000 bid.

Is this an illegal lottery? Well, he doesn?t promise that this or the other eight boxes would contain any more than the original 20 plain-edge coins from the one opened roll per box, so it would appear he has cleared that legal hurdle.

What about pointing out the potential bonanza if all coins are plain edge? Well, there are nice qualifiers in the text, ?now imagine what one of these boxes might be worth.? Then there is, ?if they could right now yield a profit of …?

There is no straight out promise of finding more plain-edge coins or guaranteed sums of money that I can find.

That means I have to fall back on healthy skepticism. The original e-mail helpfully suggested that I might want to put a story about this on the front page. This column will have to be enough.

The hobby has gone through fads of trading in unopened proof sets, buying uncirculated rolls in the hopes of finding one coin that would grade MS-65 or higher and thereby more than pay the cost of the roll, or other forms of buying a pig in a poke.

The one bidder who had helpfully bid $5,000, some $1,020 above the seller?s cost, when I viewed it had no other history of bidding in the prior 30 days.

What should I do? Perhaps, I should head down to the First National Bank here in Iola and do a little searching of my own.

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