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Viewpoint: Every collector faces same dilemma

By Joseph A. Ceravone

This week was a super tough week for me when it came to my coin collection. I parted with two sets that I had worked on for many years. In fact, one of the sets I had started when I was just a kid. Can you guess what set that was?

I knew this day would eventually come, but I thought I would be long retired when it did and surrounded by many grandchildren who I could share my collection with. At 40, I don’t have any kids and I still have a long way to go before I can even think about retiring. I cringed at the thought of parting with my sets, but I found it a necessity to grow as a collector.

For me, like most young children, collecting began as a very disorganized and chaotic event. There is no pattern or goal as to what you collect. You collect whatever is given to you or whatever you can afford on your small allowance of the day. When I started collecting, I collected whatever I thought looked nice. I had no organization, just a frenzy of filling holes in books from coins that I could find in change.

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I remember having different jars for different coins, one for foreign and one for U.S. I would buy or collect indiscriminately just to have that one coin. But as I got older, I realized that I wanted one of every U.S. coin ever minted. Using my Dad’s 1965 Blue Book (which I still have to this day as a reminder of my youth) I set out looking for one of every U.S. coin ever minted. How quickly I realized this task wasn’t possible on a 13-year- old’s budget, so I continued to settle on whatever I could find out of circulation, or that I could buy from money that was earned on my paper route or by mowing the neighbors’ lawns.

Still yet as I aged, I realized that it wasn’t just enough to have every U.S. coin ever minted. I wanted every U.S. coin ever minted in the best possible condition. Ha! Once again how disappointed I was when I found out that the prices in my Dad’s 1965 Blue Book weren’t even close to what the coins were going for that year. So I went back to picking and choosing coins out of circulation and adding them to my books. This was my life as a Young Numismatist. The learning had begun.

Fast forward 10 years. Now out of college and working a good job, I found myself in a position to start upgrading my collection and continue with my dream to own one of every U.S. coin ever minted. I had read about Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. and his complete U.S. collection and knew that I wanted to be like him. How hard could it be? I have a good job, right? I could afford anything and everything.

Armed with my 1995 Red Book I set out to accomplish this task. Once again, I was truly shocked to see how the prices had increased since my childhood. Wow! This was going to be a bigger challenge than I had anticipated. In the meantime, I continued to upgrade the measly circulated coins that I had in my books to nice gem uncirculated pieces.

My collecting habits, although improved, were still chaotic and disorganized. I didn’t know how to buy properly, usually buying circulated coins as uncirculated pieces. I didn’t know a thing about grading. What I really needed was a mentor. Unfortunately, this would not happen for another 10 years.

My collection had grown tremendously and I was quite proud of it. But I was missing something. I needed direction and advice. I searched out someone in my community who could give me that. His name was Cecil. Cecil was a full-time coin collector and part-time dealer. I started hanging out with him at shows and helping him at his booth. My knowledge started to grow by leaps and bounds, not only from the collector perspective but also from a dealer perspective. His advice was endless and it started to wear off on me. His goal was to get me focused on specific coin sets and to stick with them. This ultimately forced me into the Great Purge of 2008.

In 2008, I decided to sell off half my collection that I had so painstakingly put together so that I could focus on the coins that I really wanted to collect. This was tremendously painful. Before then, you may well have considered me a hoarder rather than a collector. Still sticking to my goal of owning one of every U.S. coin ever minted, my storage area was over-flowing with boxes. It was now time to purge.

How quickly I realized the difference between buyer’s prices and seller’s prices. I just assumed that I could sell my coins for what they were really worth. I found out that the real worth was what someone was willing to pay for them – and that was not much. But the purge continued. With the money that I earned from the sale of my coins, I continued to upgrade my sets. My collecting interests became more focused and my purchases became better.

I started to learn how to grade and immersed myself with published and online material. I started to build a numismatic library, which is a huge asset to any advanced collector. The old adage, “Buy the book before the coin,” really started to take meaning in my life. My collection was much more organized than ever before. In the end, my collection was much leaner and more focused. There were now two parts of my collection; my core collection, which consisted of my coin albums of U.S. coins from the Morgan dollar onward, a dismal attempt to keep with my goal of owning every U.S. coin ever minted and my “collector” stuff – basically everything else, including slabbed coins.

Charleston, W.Va., is as small a capital city as you will find in the United States. With a population of under 60,000, my small hometown in Connecticut is as large as Charleston. For over 50 years, one coin dealer has supplied the Kanawha Valley with nearly all their coins, including my own. Weekends were always looked forward to because it meant a trip down to Doug’s where you were always meeting with smiling faces and friendly people. I like telling the story of sifting through a coffee can of circulated Morgan dollars for $8 apiece. Why didn’t I buy them all? Old-timers talk about buying $20 gold Saint-Gaudens $20s from him for $40 apiece.

Then about eight months ago our town received a gift in the form of a new dealer. It was a breath of fresh air that was much welcomed. This meant new inventory and new coins to choose from. The timing was just right for him. Other dealers had tried to make a run at a brick and mortar shop, but often closed within a year. This new dealer had a great location and great personality, which made him a quick favorite among many of the local collectors. Charleston and the surrounding area was just drooling for something new and we got it.

For the past two months I have been adding to my collection left and right and Kevin was more than willing to sell me the kitchen sink if I wanted it.

Like any responsible adult, there are bills and expenses that need to be paid and this often meant that coins that were greatly needed were left on the shelf. Sometimes a visit to the shop meant leaving disappointed as your coin was often sold to another collector. A few weeks ago, I attempted to purchase a gorgeous slabbed 1876 proof quarter from Kevin. That left me with a lecture from Cecil that I needed to stay focused. Fortunately, the coin was sold removing the temptation to sell off my wife for the necessary funds.

But on this last trip, Kevin had two coins that I absolutely needed and this required a detailed consultation with Cecil. My solution? It was time to part with my core collection that was no longer part of my collecting interests. Even Cecil had a hard time listening to this as I was debating whether or not to sell off my Lincoln and Peace dollar sets. This was his advice after all.

Eventually I decided to take my sets into Kevin’s shop for the swap. Once again I was quickly shocked as the dealer’s buy price was much lower than my selling price. What was I to do?

Then came to mind a recent editorial written by Dave Harper, “Sell Some Coins Now” published in the March 26 issue of Numismatic News under the “Best of Buzz” section. In his editorial, he tries to channel his inner Jedi and make collectors do one thing and that is to sell some of their collections to realize their values.

He says, “Collectors need to stay in practice by selling some of their holdings from time to time. This will keep them in touch with the market …”

How true I realized that statement to be. Here I thought when I sold my precious sets that I would buy some new coins, then go down to the local Mercedes dealer and buy a new car and then use the rest of my earnings to pay off the house. But to my dismay, two out of three of those things would not happen that day.

Although I thought I was sitting on a fortune, the truth was that my coins weren’t worth nearly what I thought they were. Even though I kept well documented information such as date of purchase and prices paid, when it came time to sell I was ultimately in for a shock, as my common dates, ummm, were just still common dates and did not appreciate as much as I thought and the “rare” coins were in bad condition, which is probably why I could afford them in the first place.

Well I guess his Jedi mind trick worked because I did ultimately sell off my prized Lincoln set and my treasured Peace dollar set. I walked away with both of the coins that Kevin had and even had a little left over for a down payment on another future purchase.

There are times when, as a collector, you are going to be faced with a decision to sell off some “valued” coins so you could buy some new ones, even at a loss. I say go for it! You are not getting any younger. I understand the sentimental reasons for holding onto your coins, but I say if you are going to grow a collection, you’re going to have some growing pains.

I am now the proud owner of two Professional Coin Grading Service MS-64 Morgan dollars – a superb 1903-O and a stunning 1885-CC, both of which I would not be able to afford had it not been for my precious sets. Funny thing is, after looking at my new purchases, I don’t even miss the ones I sold.

This “Viewpoint” was written by Joseph A. Ceravone of Charleston, W. Va.

Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to david.harper@fwmedia.com.

 

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