Even in high school, Silvano DiGenova knew how to make a buck by buying and selling coins.
?The year I graduated high school, I made $50,000 to $75,000,? said DiGenova, now the CEO of Superior Galleries, in Beverly Hills, Calif. ?That was a fortune for a kid. I think I was making more than my father did.?
Timing was everything for DiGenova, who grew up in Philadelphia. ?I hit that 1980s peak,? he said. And the rest is numismatic history.
As a kid, DiGenova got his start by collecting Wheat-back cents and trying to fill Whitman albums with them. His father had a piggy bank and DiGenova would search through the coins to find the ones he was looking for.
Eventually, he realized he couldn?t fill those slots just by checking his change. So, he started going to coin shops.
It didn?t take him long to figure out that there was a profit to be made by dealing coins. All he needed to know was the ins and outs of grading.
He remembers buying early Mercury dimes that were marked About Uncirculated for $1.50 apiece. After studying them and doing his research, he realized the coins were in uncirculated condition, and was able to turn around and sell them for $15 each.
After high school, DiGenova attended the University of Pennsylvania at Wharton, where he developed a strong business and marketing background. But he took a leave of absence from his studies and never went back, choosing instead to jump right into the business world.
He established Tangible Investments of America, a coin company he hoped to go public with at some point. But the market for coins weakened and it wasn?t until 1999 that he would accomplish his goal.
?We did fairly well in California,? said DiGenova. ?But our timing was as bad as possible because later in 1999, the stock market peaked and we went on a wild ride after that.?
Steering the company through troubled waters, DiGenova and his company survived, and eventually merged with Superior Galleries, purchasing the company from A-Mark. The Superior name was kept, allowing the company to sell coins to an established clientele.
?They had been around for 75 years, so they were pretty well established,? said DiGenova.
To strengthen the firm, Superior established ties with Stanford Financial Corp. ?We started making investments and put together a strong partnership,? said DiGenova.
In recent years, Superior has also built up its auction and numismatic staff, having hired industry experts such as Larry Abbott, formerly of Heritage Galleries & Auctioneers, and Paul Song, who once worked for Sotheby?s.
Like other auction houses, Superior is experiencing a boom period in coins and paper currency sales.
And DiGenova doesn?t see it slowing down anytime soon, although he knows it can?t last forever.
?I?ve been through numerous cycles,? said DiGenova. ?It was up and down in 1980. It was up and down in 1985, and it was up and down in 1989 and 1999. I?ve probably seen as many cycles as anybody in the coin business, but one difference I?ve seen lately is the broad base aspect of it.?
DiGenova explained that upward movements in precious metals have helped broaden the investment appeal of coins, as have television and Internet sales. The U.S. Mint?s 50 State Quarters Program has also been instrumental in generating interest in numismatics among the masses.
?You?ve got 130 million Americans who collect state quarters, and that grass-roots interest trickles into rare coins,? said DiGenova.
All of these elements combine to strain the supply side of the equation, creating high demand for products.
?I don?t see a clear end in sight,? said DiGenova.