Volume 51, Number 10, October 2014
A lesson to be learned? ONE of the most notable things about the recent American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money (ANA) in Rosemont, Chicago, was the queues that greeted dealers every day when we turned up at 8am, a good hour and a half before the doors were due to open to the public. These queues stretched around the block and comprised a strange mixture of “obvious” coin collectors and, how shall I put it, “more colourful” characters. These included a variety of dreadlocked youngsters who you wouldn’t necessarily put together with a premium coin show. Had they arrived at the wrong event? Were they at the Donald E. Stephens centre by mistake? Not at all, this mis-matched crowd were at the ANA for one thing and one thing only: the Kennedy commemorative half dollar which was being launched in Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and Washington DC simultaneously. Only 500 coins were to be available each day and queues started before midnight the day before! As it was, by Friday the crowds had become so unmanageable that the police, in conjunction with the ANA and the US Mint decided enough was enough and, in the interests of safety, sales were suspended. This may seem heavy-handed, especially as there were no reported incidents (although we did witness one minor scuffle), however, the sheer number of people so close to a very busy highway was cause enough for concern. So what was so special about this coin? Why were people prepared to queue for hours and just who were they? Well, to begin with the coin, struck to celebrate 50 years of the iconic Kennedy half dollar, was dual dated (1964–2014) which in itself was of interest to collectors. This, coupled with the love and fascination the American people still have for the late President, meant that sales success was virtually guaranteed—but surely that didn’t mean that people with hitherto no interest in coin collecting were going to jump on the bandwagon did it? Well yes, and no, sadly the vast majority of people queuing up overnight were not new collectors, rather they were people being paid by bona fide collectors and, of course, dealers to endure the inconvenience of a night on the sidewalk and be one of the first to get the new coins. But why? As these coins are still available to buy today at the same cost as on launch day ($1,240 direct from the US Mint), what was the fascination with getting one during launch week? For that you have to look at the American system of “slabbing” (grading and then encapsulating a coin in a protective “slab”): the slabbing companies were all in attendance at the ANA and the coins purchased from the Mint’s retail outlet there could be immediately slabbed and identified as having been bought from that particular location—this immediately sets them aside from the ones you are able to buy today, over a month later. Those bought at the other three retail outlets during launch week could also be slabbed, so now we have an instant secondary market, with those coins purchased first being most highly sought after. And it seems those purchased at the ANA are the most sought after of all. Now you may consider this odd, indeed be somewhat incredulous, but according to reports coming out of the US, those coins bought and slabbed in the first weeks are now changing hands for $2,400 plus, with those bought at the ANA going for $300 more than that! And if that wasn’t enough, how about the price paid for the very first coin purchased at the show? That changed hands in the ANA bourse itself for no less than $5,000 very shortly after it was encapsulated (with a special label indicating that it was indeed the first purchased half dollar of the week): a nice profit indeed but not as nice as that secured by the dealer who bought it, as apparently he then sold the slabbed coin on for a staggering $100,000! The next five coins purchased, and so identified on their slabs, also changed hands for large sums! Yes, they are exactly the same coin as one you can buy today for $1,240 and, no, there is no special mintmark identifying them as the first—simply the capsule. . . . Now to us British collectors this may seem very odd, after all, surely in this case you are paying for the plastic and not the coin; well yes, and no, after all the slab identifies these coins as assuredly as any mintmark does with the advantage that the grade is maintained across the years. Collectors over here will happily pay extra for certain marks (the colonial sovereigns being a case in point), so it isn’t such a strange phenomenon to pay for an identifying slab. So is the way forward for us? Is it worth trying to persuade the Royal Mint to produce something special for Coinex and then get a slabbing company to identify it as such? On the surface you’d say “yes”, and with the kind of money and interest generated in the US it seems a perfect idea—until you realise that actually the coin and the queues it generated actually had a detrimental effect on the rest of the show itself. Not only did the numbers (and in some cases the character) of those standing in line to make a fast buck put off a number of genuine collectors from coming into the bourse, but of those who did queue very few bothered to venture anywhere else other than to the US Mint stand, leaving most of us who were manning tables with our hopes for the day somewhat dashed! So whilst I’d give the idea 9/10 for effort I am afraid the execution didn’t quite pay off as expected, so maybe we should stick to more traditional methods of bringing in the punters on this side of the pond!
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