Understanding how coins or any numismatic item is priced cannot be complete without the final transaction between the current owner of a coin to a new owner. The current owner could be a dealer, auction house, or another collector that is looking to sell a coin. Each seller has different motivations for selling and different factors goes into the final price that you might pay when buying that coin.
Wholesale versus Retail
In Part I, I mentioned that there was a difference between the “price” of the coin and it’s “value.” The price of the coin is what you pay when you buy the coin—sometimes called the retail price. The value of the coin is what a dealer will pay you for the coin—also called the wholesale price. Another designation you might are the “bid/ask” price spread, a term that comes from auction-based transactions. The bid price is what the dealer is willing to pay for inventory and ask is what they will ask to be paid for that item.
Regardless of what its called, there is one price that a dealer or other reseller will buy the item and the other is the price they will sell the item. As in any business where there is a product being sold, the seller buys low and sells high. However, that markup can be different based on various factors.
Determining the Price
Setting these prices require more thought than guessing. The primary references are the price guides published by many companies. Price guides come in various forms from catalogs, auction catalogs, publishers whose market is producing works for the collectors market, or specialized publishers who watch the market on a continual basis and publish their findings.
Although there are a few references, for most dealers, the basis of their pricing begins with a publication entitled The Coin Dealer Newsletter, called the “Grey Sheet” for its grey color. The Grey Sheet surveys the market provides to provide weekly bid and ask wholesale prices for the dealers to use as guidelines. In addition to the Grey Sheet, the same company publishes the Certified Coin Dealer Newsletter, called the Blue Sheet for its use of blue ink, and The Currency Dealer Newsletter, the Green Sheet, for currency. These publications can be purchased by anyone to gauge the market.
Up until the last few years, price guides for collectors have have been limited to the long running A Guide Book of United States Coins, known as the Red Book for its red color, from Whitman Publishing and later joined by the U.S. Coin Digest from Krause Publications and price guides published by CoinWorld (sometimes referred to as “Trends”), the guidelines have opened a bit with the help of technology. Whether you get your guide price from Numismedia, Numismaster whose prices are driven by the Krause database, PCGS whose own market drives their price guide, or by checking prices amongst online dealers, the resources provide more options for collectors not to be surprised when they go to purchase coins or currency.
Another good are to investigate coin prices are auction results. Most auction houses use their websites to advertise their sales online, but also maintain the price realized from their auctions with some having online archives dating back many years. Accessing the prices realized is as simple as registering on the site and searching previous auctions. Like anything on the Internet, some sites are better than others so your experience will differ from site to site. However, the advantage is that rather than guessing based on surveys, you will know exactly what has been paid in the past and can adjust your expectations according. There will be more on the auction process later.
Buying from the U.S. Government
Two agencies within the Department of the Treasury are responsible for the manufacture of money in the United States: the U.S. Mint and Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Both agencies are responsible for supplying the Federal Reserve with the physical currency necessary for the economy. In fact, both the U.S. Mint and BEP sells their products to other governments for use where the U.S. dollar is the standard currency.
Both agencies have collector products they sell to the general public (see the BEP Store and U.S. Mint online Catalog) that are sold at a fixed price. The difference between the two is that the BEP does not produce commemorative or something similar to proof coins, the U.S. Mint does produce coins specifically marketed to collectors and investors. Both agencies will package their regular products in a way to entice collectors to buy them at a premium whether these are Federal Reserve Notes with special numbers, uncut currency, or packaging of uncirculated coins. When these items sell out or withdrawn from their respective catalogs, the collector can buy them from the secondary market.
Meet the seller to the secondary market, the dealer. A dealer is someone who will buy coins from collectors, estates, auctions, or other dealers and resell them for a profit to an interested collector. Some dealers sell at wholesale rates (bid or value) to other dealers to move stagnant inventory or to trade inventory in order that both are able to meet their customer’s demands.
Dealers work in different areas of expertise. Some will only deal in raw coins while others will only sell coins in slabs. They will specialize in coin types while others will sell currency, ancient coins, or foreign coins. There are dealers who sell numismatic books, supplies, tokens, bullion, and exonumia. Dealers may also sell jewelry as part of their inventory. If you had to classify most dealers, they are usually small businesses, many with a few employees, whose livelihoods depends on acquiring and turning over inventory.
Although there are suggested prices, as described above, dealers set their own prices on their inventory. They do take into consideration what the price guides say, but they also have to consider what they paid for the coin and what it costs for them to sell that coin. Costs include everything it takes to run the shop from the lease to utilities plus security and employees. The dealer also has to make a profit—after all, they are in business to make money.
Buying at Coin Shows
Coin shows present a different buying experience from dealers in that you have a lot of people to potentially buy from. Even the smallest coin show offers a variety of products that many shops could not replicate and while there is a camaraderie amongst the dealers, they are also in competition with each other. As a buyer or someone who is selling their coins, this is the variety provides many opportunities to get the best price.
The best experience you can have in numismatics is going to a coin show regardless of whether it is a large or small show. As you walk around the bourse floor, look around, talk with the dealers, and talk with other collectors. It is a way to learn more about the hobby and the people in the hobby. Use the opportunity to build a rapport with the dealers. Not only are many the most knowledgable in the industry, but they may offer you discounts if you buy from them based on the recommendations. You can also take the opportunity to shop around to find that perfect coin.
There are all types of dealers who attend shows with a varying type of inventory. At the largest shows, you can meet dealers with a brick-and-mortar presence back home, dealers who just travel to shows to buy and sell, part time dealers who have a regular job during the week and sell at shows on the weekend, and vest pocket dealers who may not have a table but walks the floor and tries to sell their wares. Remember, dealers who travel to these shows have inventory that they bought, travel expenses, and fees for setting up at the show that will factor into their prices.
Mail Order Dealers
Mail order dealers may be as old as the Post Office itself. They grew out of the need to be able to sell to collectors that may not have a coin shop nearby or cannot travel to shows. Lately, a few of the very large mail order dealers have received criticism for their higher pricing structure without considering their business model.
In the last few years, mail order dealers have marketed themselves to new and inexperienced collectors offering various clubs and other promotional items to convince people to collect then retain them as casual collectors. Their business model is similar to any mail order business with catalog production costs, a telephone sales force, and a full shipping staff. Mail order dealers usually do not attend many coin shows but may attend some to set up a table for buying only. Their pricing reflects their business model.
Another service of mail order dealers is that once they get you on their mailing list, they will send coins on approval. This service not only helps the casual collector put together sets of their favorite coins, but it helps those who cannot go to shows or to a coin shop regularly. There is also a cost for this service including postage and the possibility of loss that has to be accounted for in their business model. They still have a market niche and are a way to add to your collection.
Auctions are the oldest type of marketplace with the earliest recorded auction occurring in 500 BCE. Numismatic auctions sell goods by offering them for bid, accepting bids, and then selling the item to the highest bidder. Auctions begin with a minimum price and go until a bidding ends with no further bids where the highest bidder is obligated to pay for the item at that price. Some auctions have a reserve price, the minimum price the seller would accept for the item. If the reserve price is not met, the seller can withdraw the item without selling it.
Internet auctions have changed the process by adding a time limit on the sale of a single lot. Rather than wait for the last bidder as with a live auction, the highest bidder at the time of the end of the Internet-based auction purchases the item at their highest bid.
When auctions started, participants had to be present or send an agent in order to bid on the item. As technologies have changed, the nature of bidding has change. The first change was the introduction of the Postal Service that introduced bidding by mail. Bids could be sent by mail or some firms offer auction exclusively by mail called mail bid sales. Telephones added the ability for people to attend an auction from far away by communicating their bid through a representative of the auction company. Some could even contact an auction company and leave a proxy bid for specific auctions. The invention of facsimile technologies added the ability to quickly send proxy bids along with other verification information for those who are not or infrequent customers of the auction company.
Buying and selling via an auction requires payment to the auction company for selling the item. Seller fees are either a fixed price or percentage of the final price of the item sold, also called the price realized. If the item sells, the seller is paid the final price less the seller fees. The buyer pays a buyer’s fee as a percentage of the price realized with an advertised minimum. Seller fees range from 10-15 percent and buyer fees range from 15-20 percent. Sellers can negotiate the seller fees. Buyers are told what the buyer fees as part of the terms of sale and are not negotiable. Buyers may also be required to pay for shipping of items when they are not present at the live auction.
Online auctions are a bit different in that the sellers pay a listing fee and a final value fee based on the price realized. In these venues, sellers bear all of the fees while the buyers pay the price realized plus shipping. Some sellers will add “handling” charges to offset the fees paid as part of the auction.
Negotiating is difficult for some for many reasons. For others, not only can it be fun but there is an additional thrill of being able to negotiate a price. There is no rule that you have to negotiate. You can accept a dealer’s price and either buy or not. However, in my world, everything is negotiable and it is part of the thrill of buying that perfect collectible.
There are no set rules for negotiating and how you negotiate will change with the situation. When purchasing a coin, I will ask the dealer for a price. Depending on the price and situation, I will either pay the price if I think it is a fair price or ask if the dealer could do better. Sometimes I ask if I can offer a lower price. The dealer may come down in price or say that the price is firm. The negotiation continues until either a price is agreed upon or we cannot settle on a price. For those times I am unwilling to pay the dealer’s price, I will always thank the dealer for the time before turning them down.
When negotiating, I follow three guidelines that you might want to consider adopting:
- Be nice. The dealer is a human being and should be treated with the respect shown to anyone else. As you are talking, if you get the feel that you can be a little more aggressive, then do so only if the dealer seems receptive. Do not insult the dealer and do not turn the negotiation into an attack. Do not make it personal, it’s business.
- Do your homework. Before trying to negotiate, you should know the price and value of the coin and be prepared to use those as guidelines. Also, know what the bullion value of the coin is and never offer less than that value for the coin. Trying to buy coins below melt value may be insulting to the dealer and your attempt at negotiating will not be taken seriously. In some cases, it would help to know what is selling in the overall market. At shows I would ask dealers how their sales were doing and what was selling. If a dealer is having a slow show, they may be willing to accept a lower price to make a sale. Once you have the information and talk with a dealer, you have to remember and respect that this is the dealer’s livelihood. Trying to shave pennies off the price may be fun for you but you may make the dealer upset and will refuse to sell the coin.
- Know when to stop. At some point in the negotiation the dealer may decide that they are offering you the best deal and will stop the negotiation. If you are far apart on what you wanted to spend for the item, you may want increase your last offer, but doing that more than once could cause hard feelings. Sometimes, if you are nice (see the first rule), you can turn this last part into a game: “Gee, I am having a hard time deciding.” “I really want the coin but I didn’t want to pay more than x,” where x is a realistic number. If you try this method, do not try more than once. You will either have to buy the coin or walk way.
If you buy the coin, be gracious. You might have paid more than you expected, but you did get that special coin for your collection. It is appropriate to thank the dealer, shake their hand, smile, and be appreciative. Good will is always appreciated and will be remembered the next time you encounter this dealer again.
If you do not buy the coin, be gracious. Thank the dealer for speaking with you and say, “maybe next time.” Do not waste the dealer’s time especially if there are other customers around. While you may be disappointed do not walk away like the dealer just kicked your dog. Who knows, next time may be in a few hours after the coin is still on the dealer’s table at closing time. The dealer may be willing to “work the price further” if they perceive that you are a serious and courteous buyer.
Finally, have fun! Unless you are an investor, this is a hobby. Hobbies are supposed to be fun and you can have fun with numismatics. Whether it is the thrill of the chase, finding that special coin, or putting together a great set of coins, you can have even more fun when you are smart about what you buy. To borrow a phrase, Live, Learn, and Collect!