The Coin Show - Ten Years Later

The Coin Show - Ten Years Later

An Update of a Favorite Page from 2001

Ten years ago I told the tale of a trip to Baltimore for a coin show as experienced by three friends. Then we lived near Washington D.C. and rarely missed a Baltimore show. They were good enough to arrange your schedule not to miss. Each of the three of us had different experiences that day. If you have not read that account, what follows below will make more sense if you first visit the 2001 original: The Coin Show.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that coin show. The three of us went our separate ways. Frank still lives in Washington D.C. but lost interest in collecting coins several years ago. You may have seen his name on the glossy catalog from the auction that dispursed his collection. His coins were quite nice and brought very good prices. I didn't buy any; they were too rich for my blood. As the sale approached a few of Frank's better coins were determined to be counterfeit but the rest sold easily and Frank made a profit on his time in the hobby.

Paul continued to add to his collection of very ordinary coins until one day in 2005 when he passed away. None of his friends even knew Paul was sick. In fact, none of us even know if Paul knew. Paul's widow had absolutely no idea what to do with his coins but was advised by some members of the local club and found a dealer willing to buy the collection as a lot for about 25% of what most of us considered to be fair retail value. The club members were split on what she should do but she needed the money and took the offer. Selling a collection of low value ancients is not always quick and easy. Paul's coins were not the kind of things that start bidding wars or are commemorated by glossy auction catalogs. The dealer that bought Paul's collection listed many of them on eBay where they brought more than he had expected but required a lot of time and effort. Paul assembled his collection of over two thousand coins with not the first care about what they would bring when sold. Paul never planned to sell his coins and, as it turned out, he never had to face that task. I miss Paul. He was the type of guy who loved his coins: the ugly and the beautiful alike. His 'profit' was received over the years in terms of entertainment and education but not in the cash that Frank realized. Yes, as a matter of fact, I did bid on some of Paul's coins and I even won a few of them.

Of the three old friends, that leaves only me, Doug . Before Frank quit collecting I did manage to buy that gladiator denarius he bought at the first show. Not long before Paul died, I retired and moved an hour and a half further from Baltimore. Retirement to a fixed income brought a few years of concern about whether I could afford to continue in the hobby but I finally decided that I could participate in a limited way --- not that my earlier purchasing habits had been extravagent. The first result of my cutback was that dealers stopped sending me free catalogs. I was fortunate in that the auction house that handled Frank's collection had not dropped me by the time of his sale so I got his catalog. Today, my mailbox is graced by, on average, only one catalog a month. This turned out to be no problem since the diminishing flow of catalogs was offset by a vast increase in online activity. Most of my coins now come from eBay, VCoins and a few other online sellers. I became addicted to the glorious expectation of every coin, no matter how ordinary, being illustrated by a full color photo. My days of buying things based on words alone were finished.

My new home was selected for reasons having nothing to do with coins. Only after living there for several years, did I discover there was a local coin club that occasionally chartered a bus to the Baltimore shows. I joined. What follows is a report on one of those trips a full ten years after the one that inspired my earlier page. My hopes were high. I'm too lazy to drive alone all the way to Baltimore but riding on a bus that costs little more than the gas and parking was quite appealing. At 7:30 A.M. we pulled out of the Park and Ride and watched the places I'm glad I don't live anymore wizzing past my window seat.

On the ride up, I was happy to talk to some of my new friends from the club but only a couple of them collected ancients and I saw no one I felt would be interested in reviving the 'contest' I had enjoyed with Frank and Paul. (I told you to read that old page so, if you don't understand the 'contest', don't blame me.) When the bus had come to a full and complete stop, I dashed off to see what the show would bring. My first stop was the dealer near the entrance whom I had been able to count upon for bag after bag of new 'hoard' material. Now his case was filled with coins in slabs and there was not a common, naked coin to be seen. I'll not bother telling you what I think about collecting ancient coins encapsulated in little plastic coffins beyond the fact that I fought back the urge to vomit and set a course for the back corner where the banner read "Ancient and World".

My next stop was one of my favorite dealers whom I remembered fondly for being reasonably priced, friendly and helpful. I am pleased to relate that he had not changed in the least in ten years; he hardly even seemed any more gray. His stock included moderately attractive examples of popular large Greek silver now being sold for about double what they had ten years before and boxes of really unattractive 'junk' coins at really low prices. Both groups of coins were being examined by collectors of appropriate means. In fact, there was only one empty chair at his table so I sat down in it right in front of his box of half-priced specials. The half-price box is not uncommon at tables of sellers of lower priced coins. Usually I expect to find things that have been in stock too long and need to be moved out to make room for new stock. Sometimes I suspect coins were added to the box just to fill it up and often I had been as likely to find exactly what I wanted there as in the full priced stock. Whatever the reason the coins entered the box, I managed to select a handful that would find a home in my collection. No single coin was special enough to make the trip worthwhile but, since I was there, I would not go home empty handed. Going through the full priced boxes produced a few more things including a couple Kushan bronzes at what I considered good deals even if they were 'full' prices. I held back on the theory that I needed to save some money for the other dealers present. A sampling of my coins from this dealer are shown in the photo below. Click on the photo to be taken to a more in depth discussion of why these coins seemed appealing to me in that particular time and place. We always wonder how we might react differently on another day. Collecting coins is, for me, a 'performance art' rather than a science. Just across the aisle I saw a world coin dealer completely unknown to me who had only a handful of ancient and medieval coins but was happy to show what he had and treated me like a customer rather than a pest. I bought one coin (for $14). It (code M in the plate) really was nothing special but I felt the need to buy something just because the dealer was new to me and friendly.

Click image for captions.

My next stop was the dealer in uncleaned coins that had been so favored by Paul. I consider him a friend and was anxious to see him again but my visit fell on a day that his religious views prevented him from working. That is a problem with riding the bus with the club on Saturday. Friday is a far better day to attend the show. I'm glad I don't collect U.S. since about half of those dealers were packing up to leave by noon on Saturday. At least most of the ancient dealers stayed until close of business Saturday even if they had no intention of returning for the Sunday session. The table was being tended by a friend who was able to sell things that were clearly marked with a price but she knew nothing about the stock or what might be packed away behind the table. This time there were no $6 and $10 boxes of attractive uncleaned Romans but plenty of absolute junk at low prices and a decent selection of nice coins at high prices. In the last ten years this dealer had learned how to separate out the better coins so the junk boxes were not the goldmines they once were. However, I have changed in the last ten years, too. Back then I collected only Ancient Greek and Roman Coins (which is why this site was named as it was back in 1997). More recently I have expanded my interests to include Medieval and Eastern coins. Among the various boxes of junk was one with about 500 absolutely filthy bronze coins of Kashmir from circa 1000 A.D. They were probably from a hoard deposited about the time of Sangrama Deva since about half of the coins were his. Most of the rest were from the great queen Didda Rani (why HBO does not make a mini-series about her I can not understand). A few were from her husband Kshemagupta and there was one coin of Ananta Deva which turned out to be only slightly better than the one I already had. The highlight, however was the single specimen of Abhimanyugupta who was not previously represented in my collection. Rare or common, the coins were $5 each. I even bought a Didda because I liked the way the off centered reverse showed a letter of the legend that usually falls off the flan. At $5 we can afford to buy a couple duplicates for trading stock....who am I kidding....I don't know very many people who can tell Didda from Abhimanyugupta even though the names are written clearly on the coins. Admittedly, they are written in Nagari letters. When you collect things most people don't, it can be hard to find someone to "Oooh and Aaah" at your great finds. Well, I like them. There are three examples (N, O and P) in my plate below.

Click image for captions.

The rest of the show was socially rewarding but frustrating when it came to adding coins to my collection. There were a couple dealers from whom I had bought coins before but their stock on this particular day did not include anything that I considered necessary to own or a bargain at twice the price. I can get interested in many coins if the price is right but I only pay full retail for nice coins when I see some interest hidden beneath the glitter. More productive was the chance to talk to several old friends who didn't mind that I was not likely to be interested in what they had for sale. This allowed me to kill the time before the bus back home was ready to depart. On board the bus, the social time continued with various members of the club proudly displaying their conquests from the show. I saw a very nice slabbed 1909-S Indian Head Cent but my understanding of why it was worth twenty times the price of a Philadelphia mint coin falls short of a level that will convert me into a modern U.S. coin collector. This attitude seems a little odd from me - the guy who lives for mint variations on ancients - but my mints are separated by distinctly different styles of engraving rather than the simple addition of a small 'S' on the reverse. One dealer/friend on the bus had a stack of about twenty newly purchased ancients including two that I remembered seeing in the stock of my favorite dealer at the show. I had come close to adding them to my purchases when I saw them and suspect their new owner will have no trouble selling them for a decent profit - just not to me. We discussed each of us having buyers' remorse which is a normal emotion when returning from a show that produced less we wanted that the cash we intended to spend. My dealer friend was wondering if too much had been paid for some of the more expensive coins and I was remembering a coin I passed on that I was wishing that I had brought home. Such thoughts are a normal part of collecting but can not be allowed to ruin the fun of the hobby. Most of my friend's purchases were coins I would be glad to add to my collection but just too expensive for my cheapskate nature. There were some decent mid-grade 'rarities' (I recall a Vitellius) and nicer coins of mainstream emperors like Trajan. There was a day I would have considered buying coins like that but that was before I retired. In today's market, they should sell to collectors who did not see them at Baltimore. That is the wonderful part of the numismatic hobby. There is fun to be had in junk boxes and opportunities to spend big money on shiny pennies in plastic coffins. To each, his own.

As enjoyable as was seeing my dealer friend's coins, the trip had a sad side, too. Another rider, I'll call him Junior, was what we old guys might term a 'young numismatist'. Usually we reserve that term for kids but in this case he was taller than I am and had been collecting US since he really was a kid. Now, at twenty-one, he wanted to add some ancient coins to his collection. What he showed was over 40 coins he had bought as a group from a U.S. coin dealer at the bargain price of $39. His source claimed to know nothing about them except they had come to him along with a U.S collection which he had purchased. How could he go wrong at under a buck a coin? Surely there would be one coin in the bunch that would be worth the $39 paid. "Right?" In any event the lot would be good practice for learning to identify old coins. "Right?" At first glance, I was able to identify well over half as certainly being coins. At least half of those I could label as 'Roman' or 'Islamic' but only six were clear enough that I could give a relatively full ID. Unfortunately, two of those were well known fakes that seem to find their way into the coin stock of dealers who claim to know nothing about what they sell. All the rest were, as advertised, genuine old pieces of metal and, probably, coins. Were they worth $39? Not to me - but collectors of ancients quickly learn to be a little gentle in pointing out when beginners have acted foolishly - it keeps down the number of times we are called "snobs". Who wants to be accused of lying about the value so we can buy the treasures for a song. As far as using the lot for ID practice goes, my skills after 45 years in the hobby enabled me to identify between 10% and 50% of the coins depending on how complete a listing is required. If Junior develops better skills while working on this bunch, I'll happily admit to being a slow learner. The same $39 spent on four or five individually selected coins from the junk boxes of the lowest end of the ancient dealers would have had a better result in one sense but Junior was proud to have forty coins actually older than he was. (Even the two fakes were older than Junior.) I'm glad Junior really was over 18; taking good money from real "young numismatists" should be illegal. ...and for the record: I did stack the photo to show the better coins - what lies below is worse.

Only two and a half hours after leaving Baltimore, I was back at the Park and Ride with only another half hour between me and home. Was it worth it? Yes, at least I can give a qualified yes. As Baltimore shows go, I bought less than ever before but not so little that I felt the price of the bus ticket had been wasted. I returned home with twenty-three coins of which most will be accessioned into my collection. A few were duplicates that will be candidates for trades or presents in next year's Sunday School Christmas Party Chinese Gift Exchange. There they will compete for attention with recycled teacher gifts and things I'd call White Elephants were it not for my desire not to offend the animals. I'll plan to go again each time the club charters a bus at least until my worsening cheapness and the scarcity of lower priced coins make the trip a complete waste. I'll even attend the smaller shows in Richmond in the hope that someone just happens to bring that "Perfect Coin" - the one that makes it all worthwhile. It is, after all, part of who I am. If you see me at a show, say "Hi!"

This page, like the original, should be considered 'historical fiction'. The coins shown above were purchased at the show for the prices listed. Names of the collectors were changed and minor details manipulated but not to the degree that we have come to expect from a made-for-TV mini-series.

(c) 2011 Doug Smith

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