Over the weekend I attended an estate auction that included coins for sale. While my new business venture concentrates on all vintage collectibles, I am still a collector and continue to look for those interesting items and the good coins to add to my collection. As I was looking over the lots I noticed one had several blue folders of Lincoln cents. The collector in me could not resist and I picked up the folders and started looking.
Every hold was filled.
What drew my eye first was the hole marked “1909-S VDB.” Even though the 1914-D may be worth more, the 1909-S VDB is considered the Holy Grail amongst change hunters. With only 484,000 struck the odds of finding one are not in a change hunter’s favor. But we keep looking and hoping.
After reaching into my pocket for my ever present loupe, I asked the attendant if I could remove the coin to see the reverse. I had to check for those three letters on the back because it did say it was a 1909-S on the front. With the attendant watching me, I removed the coin from the slot, turned it over and brought it up to my loupe.
Using a 16X loupe I zeroed in on the area where I could find the “V.D.B” only to find something unexpected. On this coin, the “VDB” with no periods were punched into the coin. Holding the coin and turning it in the light to see how the light reacts, it was easy to see that the coin was not real.
Being very disappointed I quietly told the attendant that the coin was altered. She did not know what to do. When I suggested she tell her boss, she took the coin from me and went into a back room. A moment later, she returned and asked me to follow her to the office.While the owner of the auction house was a bit upset, we talked to establish who I was and how I was qualified to judge the authenticity. After asking him to bring up my blog and showing him that I own a real 1909-S VDB, I told him how I know that the coin was altered. I handed him my loupe and told him to look at the letters. When he saw that the letters were punched into the coin instead of being in relief, he became upset again, but not at me.
I understand how he felt. In the auction business, they earn money from the buyer and seller fees. If the item sells for a high price, the auction house makes more money. In this case, since the coin was a solid VF, it could have sold for $700-800 alone.
Before he became too angry, I asked to see the 1914-D. At VF that coin is about $400 in the retail market. When I looked carefully I could see that the mintmark was added to the coin. It was not a very good job when you see it under magnification but looked all right on first glance. I showed the auctioneer how I know it had the mintmark added. He agreed with my assessment.
He asked if there were any more important dates that he should know about. I zeroed in on the hole for the 1922-D that had “No D” written in pen under the date. Even before finding the date under the loupe I could tell the coin was whizzed. That is a bad sign to begin with but if the coin was real, it would diminish its value but not make it worthless. What made it worthless was that you can tell someone filed the mintmark off the coin. Whoever did the filing did not do a good job because it made a little hole where the mintmark should be. This coin doctor probably whizzed the coin in order to cover up the alterations.
To say I gave this gentleman a shock would be an understatement. He shook my hand and offered me a discount on the buyer’s fee for helping him. After leaving his office he had the attendant who helped me remove all of the blue binders from the auction. When I spoke with the attendant later, she said they were all from the same consignor and that he was going to return them as being unsalable.
This was not the first time I attended an auction at this place and it will not be my last. Aside from being able to purchase good inventory for my business, they have proven to me they have integrity. Knowing this helps me buy with confidence.
I tell this story to provide two lessons. First, always examine the items before you bid. Even for online auctions, examine the pictures and read any descriptions carefully. If you are afraid to buy ungraded coins, then buy only graded coins. But make sure you are fully aware of what is being sold. Do not be afraid of asking the seller a question or even asking for a better picture. If the seller cannot help you then do not buy from that seller.When buying from a live auction, look carefully at the coins. Even if the coin was encased by a grading service, take out that loupe and examine. This means you should know what you are looking at. Educate yourself about the coins you are interested in purchasing. In a future post, I will discuss my portable reference and buying tools.
My second lesson is to know who you are buying from. This is more difficult online but you do have to take the feedback seriously. Again, if you have any questions you should ask. Every site has a way to contact the seller in order for you to ask questions. If the seller is not cooperative, let that be a sign for you.
When working with auction houses, it takes a little longer to establish a relationship. But you need to introduce yourself, talk with people and ask questions. Make yourself known and show that you are a serious buyer. It may take a few auctions to establish a relationship, but be persistent. Aside from preferential treatment and discounted seller fees, someone with a relationship can be told bout unpublished items in advance so that you are prepared to buy quicker than someone off the street. Another advantage is that if you specialize in something that the auction house cannot sell, you can buy it as a good price. As a reseller, I find that very good for business.
Even though online auctions are very popular, there is nothing better than being there live. I highly recommend the experience.