The Trend is Your Friend

The “trend is your friend” is an old stock market truism. The current trend is down as prices on most series continue a slow descent - down about 10% from two years ago. I track coins I’ve purchased in the last two years and prices are down for many although there are a few bright spots including top pop CAC coins but even they are not immune. The best predictor of where values will be next month is the trend over the preceding months.

The Christopher Collection is still buying but not aggressively. If the trend continues the best strategy will likely be not attempting to time the market but steadily purchasing the absolute best quality coins. Even in CAC certified coins there are wide differences in eye appeal. Observe the coin below.


1935-D MS67+RD CAC

This is what the CC calls a “no beard, no chest” Lincoln.

This Lincoln has few discernible beard details and the chest fades noticeably the closer you get to the date. This is not uncommon even in high grade Lincolns but you need not settle for this as nicer coins are available. Not a coin I would buy despite the high grade and CAC sticker. Since coin prices will likely be lower in coming months patience and our good friend the trend will guide me to a 1935-D I really desire.

What to Look for When a Collection Comes to Auction

As I write this there is a top Lincoln registry set up for auction on HA. It is not identified as a collection but with dozens of coins labeled as from the retired Jerald L Martin Collection it is a safe assumption. All show to be part of an unidentified PCGS registry set so we know the seller wants privacy otherwise HA would be trumpeting the sale. These coins are so premium it’s likely several will approach $100,000 at auction hammer. Besides pictures HA has prepared videos on many of the coins which I have never seen before. UPDATE: Many of these coins ended up in the D.L. Hansen top registry set.

Most of the coins have no auction history on PCGS and those that do have nothing newer than 2005. Since there is currently no Jerald L. Martin Collection on PCGS we have to assume these coins were purchased (inherited?) as a set by the current owner. Sadly, many of these coins will sell for a fraction of what was paid for them as these coins were purchased in the market highs of the 90’s and early 2000’s.

I note with great interest that almost none of the holders are CAC stickered. Those that are have old faded stickers. Most old collections like this going to auction would routinely be submitted to CAC. Either the owner (or his heirs) is in a hurry to sell, is a CAC hater, or the coins just aren’t worthy of a green bean. When you get to grades of 67 for these very early Lincoln’s a CAC sticker can prove elusive but you would expect to see at least a few new stickers if the entire collection was submitted. A sharp eyed bidder could spot a CAC worthy coin and not pay a CAC price.

Almost none of the coins have a plus grade. This and the low serial numbers tell you most of these coins were graded before the plus grade was available in 2010. It is hard to imagine HA would not advise that the collection be submitted to PCGS for reconsideration and a possible major bump in price so we have to assume the owner did not consent. Again, opportunity awaits for an astute bidder to buy a coin with upgrade potential.

We now know three things, all of which help the potential bidder. The owner does not want publicity so potential buyers may not be aware of the sale. The coins likely were not submitted to CAC and finally it is doubtful they were submitted to PCGS for reconsideration. HA would advance cash on a collection like this so a need for funds would not be a driver for this state of affairs. To me this screams of someone wanting to dispose of a collection quickly and completely which strongly suggests an estate sale.

Selling Your Coins

Everyone ends up with extra coins or decides to give up on a series they had previously collected. Where and when to sell depends on two things — how quick you want your money and how valuable are your coins?

In the chart below we look at the trade-offs. The numbers are a guide and not absolutes.

Time versus percentage of value received.

Time versus percentage of value received.

If you want your money now you will need to go to a local dealer or pawn shop. Expect to get 75% of value unless your coins are primarily bullion issues with little numismatic value.

If you can wait two weeks consign your coins to GreatCollections, David Lawrence or some other auction house with weekly auctions. Expect 90% of value. Auction fees and the fact you are not selecting an optimal time to sell will affect results. If your coins are common and not particularly valuable this is probably the best choice. A national dealer may also make an offer if your coins fit their needs.

If you can wait a month and survey what rival coins are selling in the same auction you will get more money (hopefully 100% of value). If three other identical coins are in the same auction you will realize less. Other great coins in the auction from the same series should not intimidate you as they will bring in the buyers with an interest in that series.

If your coins are valuable and you can wait two months it is possible to get more than 100% of value. This is where the premier auction houses like Stack’s Bowers, Legend and Heritage come in. Their auctions are well promoted, have catalogs and attract the serious comfortably wealthy collectors.

Best time of the year to sell? I’m a contrarian in this regard. Many say the best time is around the major shows. I don’t see it. Only a fraction of buyers attend shows and I don’t think the average collector is influenced by the show schedule. Demand is best when people can follow auctions on the internet. For that reason I like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends (Labor Day not so good). Summer after Memorial Day is not good. January not good as buyers are broke after the holidays. Spring and Fall are generally okay but can be hit or miss.

If you have extra coins don’t wait to sell hoping the market gets better. Even experts can’t predict the trends. If it is not January or summer consign them and move on. I will take 90 cents now versus a hoped for future $1 every time. Sometimes bidding is anemic (in summer!) and you can pick up coins for 75 cents on the dollar. Better to be liquid to capitalize when opportunity strikes — you’ll never miss that extra 10%.

Playing the Set Registry Game

I'm a big fan even though I am frequently reminded this is a rich mans hobby.

Start small. PCGS wisely created micro sets like the Texas Commemorative registry set - only 13 coins needed and none a huge rarity. You can register for a Lincoln cent registry that has every date, mint mark, major variety and error type from 1909 to 2018. Some of the modern Lincoln errors sell for $100k plus in MS65 so it is not realistic for most of us to complete such a collection in Gem BU. You can start with Wheat cents (basic set is still a whopping 140 coins), or Wheat cents since the depression, or maybe Lincoln Memorial cents. PCGS has thousands of sets to choose from so start with something you are likely to complete.

There are two ways to complete a set. You can buy circulated coins and quickly complete many sets. You can earn a surprisingly high ranking sometimes by doing this but of course you will top out farther down the list than those who choose the second method - going slow and buying the absolute best coins they can afford. For the Lincoln Wheat Basic set you could be in the top 50 with no coins above AU in the set.

I have sets that are a short-term goal and others I don't expect to complete for a decade (see my sets and rankings on the Coin Cabinet page). Short-term sets are silver proof state and national park quarters (both with flag labels). Long-term is my Lincoln Wheat set. I have a collection of MS65 CAC OGH Morgan's going that I may use for a basic Morgan set at some point when I have more than the dozen coins I have now. You can buy these coins for $100 or less sometimes.

If you don't register your sets you should nonetheless log your coins in the PCGS registry. I enter date purchased, from who, the price, if it has Gold Shield, label type (OGH, First Strike, Flag Label, etc.) and if CAC or QA stickered. Registering is invaluable for organizing, tracking, insurance support and even estate planning.

Don't miss the joy of looking at some of the top tier registry sets (often with pictures). Look at any set from Bruce Morelan. His wife once exclaimed "can't we buy a beach house instead of another silver dollar?"

Auction House Tips and Hints

A look at the good, bad and ugly. First a tip. Make sure you are a PCGS member. PCGS sends emails about upcoming auctions with a list of coins that you need for your registry sets - either a hole in the set or one that upgrades something you already have. Very helpful.

GreatCollections ("GC"). My personal favorite. A modern, easy to navigate web site. A 10% buyers fee, 5% sellers fee (no fees for sellers on coins over $1,000). Great photos. Coins priced for everyone. They have a lot more of the under $100 "every-man" coins than Heritage, Stack's, etc. but I recently tracked two coins that sold for $60,000 each. If you are the kind of bidder who acquires $10k plus coins you would save a fortune in auction fees on this site ($1k on a $10k coin versus Heritage). They ship the day after you pay. They are an internet only auction site - no live auctions. They have one auction a week ending Sunday evening. Coins are usually posted 10-12 days before the auction ends.

Heritage Auctions ("HA"). Don’t most collectors have  a love/hate relationship with Heritage Auctions? They’re the 900 pound gorilla in the industry and often sell multi-million dollar collections. Some hates. To search their site for a specific coin is tedious as the site has everything from baseball cards to fine wine. I think they presume you are perusing their big catalogs and searching by lot numbers. They have a mix of internet and live auctions so you have to stay on top of when your auction closes. Like GreatCollections they do notify you if you are outbid. Unfortunately their big auctions are live and usually in the middle of a work day so responding to a last minute bid shark is difficult. Buyers fees are 20% and sellers fees 15%. They want you to submit at least $5,000 worth of coins if you are a seller. Photos (at least for Lincolns) are terrible. I would not have bought the last two Lincolns I purchased at auction if PCGS images had not been available - the coins photographed that bad. My biggest complaint with HA though is post sale. It takes 2-3 days to get an invoice. It takes a week or two after you pay before they ship. Count on a minimum of two weeks from auctions close to receive your coins.

Things to love. If you buy a coin on their site and have opted to do so in user settings they will contact you if someone has a firm offer for your specific coin in the future. If you buy a coin they will give you a coupon to sell it again on their site with no sellers fees. Like GC you can create a want list. If a 1943 MS68 Lincoln comes up for auction you will get an email.

Stack's Bowers ("SB"). The Tiffany's of coin auctions. Their auctions are smaller and more infrequent than GC or HA but the average coin sells for much more. They sell more of the multi-million dollar coins than all the other auction houses combined (they handled the $100 million plus Pogue sale). Auctions tend to focus on a theme (e.g. Civil War tokens) or a single collection. In March 2018 they had a collection of early Lincolns from the ESM Collection. I would have bought 20 if I could have afforded it. Beautiful, hard to find early dates. They may not have another Lincoln I am interested in for six months. I rely on the PCGS emails mentioned above to let me know if they have something coming up of interest. One gripe, their site doesn't allow you to enter bidding notes as HA and GC do. Their buyers fees are 20% like HA. I believe their sellers fees are generally negotiated since they handle such top dollar coins. They have a cool store in NYC I hope to visit one day.

David Lawrence ("DL"). They have weekly online auctions. They don't have a great many coins at each one. I collect MS66 CAC Texas Commemoratives and for some reason they seem to have one or two at each auction which is saying a lot for such a thinly traded series. They don't charge a buyers fee. They ship timely and no complaints. They don't have a lot of Lincolns but may be deeper in other series I don't collect. I rely on the PCGS emails to let me know when they have something of interest. If you see a coin for immediate sale on their site check Amazon, it will likely be there too albeit at a slightly higher price. People give me a lot of Amazon gift certificates so occasionally I buy from DL through the Amazon site.

Honorable Mention. I've bid on coins at Legend but never won. They sell almost exclusively PCGS CAC. They recently had the only known MS68+ Lincoln Wheat. I could only look at from afar. If you have the money I'm sure there they will have a coin for you. Not an auction house but if you are a Lincoln collector Angel Dee's can have some nice coins. I bought a beautiful Lincoln from their site and it received a CAC sticker soon thereafter.

Photo Hints

Photo quality varies online from site to site. Many sites are deviously clever in using photography to hide a coins faults. Poor pictures are one reason I don't bid on EBay.

  • For important bids visit the PCGS site and see if they have a photo of the coin. Enter the slab id number in the verification box on their home page and if a photo is available it will pop up along with the coins auction history and registry set listing. If the coin slab has the little gold shield on it you know a picture will be available. I have declined or gone forward on bids based on the high definition pictures available on the PCGS site.

  • If a PCGS holder has the little gold shield you can access a suite of high quality photos (called TrueView) by entering in your browser id #). Example: You can download these images to your computer. Note, some coins will have pictures available even without a little gold shield on the holder.

  • A scratchy holder makes for a scratchy picture. Who among us has not bid on a coin because they couldn’t be sure if the scratch was on the holder or the coin? Wait for a PCGS quarterly special and send those old scratched and cracked holders in to be replaced. Strongly consider having TrueView pictures taken when you reholder any coin. The pictures will automatically be associated with your coins in your online inventory. If you display your sets in a PCGS photo album one click will automatically update the album with all TrueView images available. TrueView high definition images are the gold standard.

  • Avoid using the people advertising coin photography on the internet. I’ve tried and the results were terrible. Later I realized my poor judgment in shipping my valuable coins across the country to someone I didn’t know. GreatCollections has great photos (albeit in the slab) and their vendor (BluCC Photos) offers the service to collectors. I would use them for photos of coins in the slab but generally prefer to let PCGS do it when the coins are out of the holder.