A certain level of discontent represents the hallmark of the collector. I feel it deeply every time I examine my meager collection of large cents. As I examine each one, my pride gradually gives way to thoughts about which specimens are still missing. The keys of the series: 1799, 1804, and of course, any chain cent! I want them. I want them so bad that it aches.
My discontent is intrinsic to the collecting process. We coin collectors are acutely aware of the empty holes in our folders. This appraisal of what is missing is by no means negative; rather, “want list” items invigorate the hunt. Consequently, those missing large cents acquire a special status that can eclipse what I have acquired thus far. Ask any collector to show you his coins and he will invariably tell you what is missing and what plans he has to obtain one.
Unfortunately, many collectors are beset with a new form of discontent that erodes the challenge of the hunt. But it is not the missing coins that are concerning. The reason, I believe, is that too much emphasis has been placed on making the “smart buy!” Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that collecting coins should make us rich.
We all want to use our numismatic knowledge to get something that is undervalued. Cherry picking has become the rage! And when we do outsmart someone, we congratulate ourselves for being such sharp numismatists: “I found a 1893-S Morgan in a junk box and I sold it to buy a car!” What a great story of numismatic heroism! It certainly was rewarding, but is this the kind of fun we expect from our hobbies?
I believe that failure to appreciate this difference is associated with some of the discontent expressed by NN readers, whose weekly complaints target dealers who charge too much while refusing to buy back anything and everything. When the profit motive is allowed to intrude into the collecting process, we forget that dealers are in business to make a living, whereas we are hobbyists having fun.
For myself, I do not find joy in tussling with dealers to make the smart buy. It is a bit like choosing undervalued stocks: pouring over graphs is not fun. Frankly, in this economy, I am anxious enough about my sagging retirement options. Why would anyone allow these same concerns to intrude into their collecting! Yet many collectors spend more time studying valuation guides than enjoying what they have and planning for what is to come.
The easy way out is to blame the numismatic marketplace. For centuries alchemists tried to turn iron into gold, but the numismatic market has accomplished the opposite: turning the flash of a double eagle into a commodity that can be bought unseen! This can poison collecting if you allow it. Instead, we need to look at our coins and learn about what we collect. By becoming experts, we insulate ourselves from counterfeiters and inflated market grading. This strategy can soothe the suffering cries of the NN letter writers who threaten to walk away from the hobby altogether.
As a collector, I want to believe that I am creating something marvelous. In building my collection one coin at a time, I want to develop a storyline that blends the fruits of my forays into the bourse with my armchair interpretation of history. I am guided by my curiosity and the goal to acquire one of each to form a set of my own design. Put another way, each coin must be relevant in some meaningful way to all the others. Profit has no place here.
Am I alone? Has coin collecting become all about making the smart buy? I know coins cost money, and money is tight – this is true of all collecting enterprises. Barbie dolls, books, even butterflies can thin a wallet! I want to know: can we still collect coins for fun and just worry about the vacant holes in our folders?
Mike Shutty Jr. is a collector of early American coppers and Spanish colonial cobs who lives in Middlebrook, Va.
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