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Let the Buyer Beware! Let the Buyer Rejoice!
by Jan M. Dyroff
Reprinted from NENA News, Winter 2005
With the promise of more clement weather in the offing, it will soon be time again for open flea markets and yard or estate sales, many of which appear to have opportunities for coin collectors. Those little trays or bins of miscellaneous numismatic items are always fun to look through, and sometimes, though not increasingly of late, you can find a “treasure.” But, and here’s the important point, you have to know what you’re looking at.

As apart from the informal atmosphere of the front lawn, there is a more structured realm of numismatic merchandising, which exists somewhere between the yard sale and the major dealer. For a variety of reasons, you cannot always rely on all sellers for absolutely accurate information regarding an item. Many small, or vest pocket dealers, have particular areas of information and expertise; however, once they pass beyond the borders of their own part of the numismatic world, things can get shaky.

Now, on the plus side, dealers in Canadian or American coins tend to be pretty sharp in the issues of their country of interest. They, and the buyer, share in the same resources. The reference books are standard. Systems of grading are clearly established and well understood. Current pricing is readily available. But this expertise can drop off quickly, for example, once a Canadian dealer gets outside of Canadian coins or an American beyond the issues of the United States.

As a consideration, let us shift our attention to such areas as world coins, paper money and medals, or to antiquities (ancient Greek or Roman, Byzantine, or the world of medieval Europe), or to the various and curious issues from the Orient. If a collector has an interest in any of these venues, then he or she may be “one up” on the dealer and have some sense of what the coin is and what it might be worth. The seller, on the other hand, might have a less finely tuned and more inflated notion of the merchandise, and therein may reside a point of friction.

When it comes to pitting your own knowledge against the “unknown”, easily the simplest and most enjoyable circumstance is an encounter with a good old-fashioned “junk box.” In this case, the rules are clear. The seller doesn’t know or doesn’t care what’s in the box – all that is wanted is the price asked (fifty cents or a dollar, as these things tend to be real bargain basements). If the buyer finds a treasure, as in “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure”, then so much the better, all the way around.

A second variation on knowledge of a coin is when the seller believes he has some solid idea of what the item is, and its condition, rarity and (hence) value. You will notice that I’ve left marketability and general collector interest off this list.

When a sense of “belief” enters the seller’s outlook, there is a good chance that all will not always work out well. To begin with, there are a few common and still held misconceptions. One of the most insidious of these is, “If it’s old, it has to be worth a lot!” Now this is simply not true. Low grade but readable Roman bronzes can be had for less than a dollar, as a case in point.

Another misconception is the notion that a low mintage automatically commands a high price (with “low mintage” being a relative term). The rule to be applied is to consider how desirable a particular low mintage coin (or token) may be. If there is no market for it, the item will probably be worth less than hoped – consider the low mintage coins produced by the Franklin Mint in the eighties and the fact that they have not really blazed their way across the market.

So, a few problems come together here. The first and foremost, I believe, has to do with grading. As noted earlier, there are excellent guides for grading Canadian and United States coins as well as for those of the United Kingdom (and most of the nations of Europe if you can read the language), but beyond these borders lurks a world of great subjectivity. The grading standards for these “orphans” would probably look like what the Charlton guide proposed for Canadian coins in about 1970.

In short, I suppose I’m talking about eye appeal. If the buyer and seller agree on grade, then that almost seals the deal. If they don’t agree, and both sides are open to discussion, then it can be a true learning experience.

Pricing has to be realistic, or, at least, it has to be seen as realistic by all the parties concerned. I suppose the operative question from the collector to the dealer is, “You know how much you have into it – how much will you take for it?” This is the give and take of the marketplace, and it frequently works out for the best.

The thrust of this essay is not to say, “Stick to only what you know”, because that could be sad. A whole universe of numismatic adventures is out there, just waiting to be taken up. The next time a junk box presents itself, a coin just might be in there, which piques your curiosity, so why not take it home with you? Surely the price will be right, and the rewards could be much more than you would imagine.

So, “Caveat emptor!” Let the buyer beware. You never know just what you might be letting yourself in for. It could be a lot more enjoyable and enlightening than you could ever imagine.
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