Mark Salzberg — A Passion for Collecting
In an interview for Heritage Magazine, NGC Chairman Mark Salzberg shares his passion for collecting. Read the full interview by Johannes Werner, here.
Certified Success From Zsolnay and Redmond to Chagall and Van Erp, NGC Chairman Mark Salzberg has extended his collecting far beyond the world of coins.
Mark Salzberg has a knack for collecting — his thriving coin grading business is living proof of that. In a fast-changing, dynamic environment, Salzberg and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation within two short decades have become accepted as standard-setters by a generation of coin collectors.
But his passion goes beyond coins. To find out about Salzberg the collector, Heritage Magazine caught up with him in Sarasota, Fla., at NGC headquarters. The site, itself, is a collector’s dream. In this 60,000 square-foot building, tucked safely behind automatic gates and an electronic security system, more than 100 employee-experts examine some of the world’s rarest coins, paper money, comic books and magazines.
At the core of the industrial, neon-lit building is Salzberg’s private office. No hint of the coin-grading business is evident in his spacious, tastefully furnished room. Protected by shutters that keep the sun completely out during a bright morning in Florida and bathed in the warm glow of four handmade Van Erp lamps, the office is home to a lush selection of California impressionist paintings, Martin Brothers pottery and Zsolnay vases. In brief, precise sentences, Salzberg calmly lays out his personal views on collecting, often delving with gusto into details about a particular coin or painting.
If you ask Salzberg, the foundation of his success is a passion for collecting. Even though running the company consumes time and energy, he continues to spend the bulk of his mornings and afternoons grading rare coins, an employee told us.
Scott Schechter, a former coin dealer who has worked with Salzberg for five years, points out three particular talents: Salzberg knows how to cultivate relationships with experts who can hunt down objects, advise him on values and provide additional insight. He also recognizes opportunities and is prepared to strike when a piece comes up, even if forced to pay a 10 percent or 15 percent premium. And finally, like most successful collectors, he has a crucial critic’s eye for quality.
Let’s start with the emotional side. You once said that coins are a buffer against life’s misfortunes.
Many of the successful collectors and dealers have had a traumatic upbringing, for one reason or another. It’s pretty standard, when you talk to the successful guys. They lose themselves in coins. They find a refuge in numismatics.
A small, safe universe …
They’re beautiful, they’re historical, they represent value. They’re interesting from a mathematical standpoint, because of all the data that’s associated with it, and they’re interesting from a historical perspective. They also lend themselves to portability. In today’s world, many people have become concerned about the economic environment and are gravitating toward items that can be transported — gems, precious stones, high-value coins. They’re universally traded, and
the market in coins is very mature.
You got your first exposure to coins from your parents, who are Holocaust survivors.
When I was 7 years old, my father gave me a book on coins because I had told him a girl had walked up to me on the street and given me an Indian-head penny. I was fascinated by U.S. coins from that point on. Years later, he started discussing his post-concentration camp life. He was under Schindler, and after the camps he traded in 20-dollar gold pieces on the black market. I was fascinated by that. He explained to me that he helped CIA agents by converting their dollars into 20-dollar gold pieces. On another note, my mother was hidden by a family under the floorboards of a barn for two years.
I believe in Ukraine. She told me the story of how her father paid for a bowl of soup with a 20-dollar gold piece. These things were very close to me and very meaningful.
Is that what you mean when you say coins are a tangible link to our ancestors?
I love to explain numismatics to children. Take, for example, very low-mintage Civil War era coins. You can get through to children by showing them a coin of 1864. It’s a frame of reference for them. From there, you can explain the economics, why there was such low mintage. During the Civil War, the mints were having trouble getting the coins out to various locations. It starts progressing from there, once you understand that coins really are a link to our history — the portraits, the dates. In the 1860s, we really ran out of small coinage, and they had to make fractional currency.
You enjoy a close relationship with the Smithsonian Institution. During a speech you recently gave at a coin exhibit there, you mentioned the 1885 Trade Dollar in their collection.
The 1885 Trade Dollar isn’t the highlight of the Smithsonian collection that I recall. I graded the finest known 1885 Trade Dollar. I’ve graded most of them. I’ve had the luxury of having most of them cross my desk. The 1885 Trade Dollar is considered one of the highlights of the museum, but not necessarily for me. I mentioned it because there was another one on display, in a separate case that had been brought in from a dealer. That particular coin was owned by a collector, and we wanted to honor that coin and showcase it. The highlight for me at the Smithsonian collection would be the 1794 dollar in copper. It’s a pattern made to show the [U.S. Mint] director what our coins would look like, for his approval. This coin was eventually approved and made in silver. So theoretically, this is the first pattern, the first prototype of the U.S. dollar. It was made in very limited quantity, small mintage. I actually own a 1794 dollar, one of the finest known. The other aspect of this 1794 dollar is, at the time we were shown the coin at the Smithsonian, it was covered in wax, covered in debris, and we were able to bring out the mirror surfaces, leave the originality, a beautiful color. The depth of mirror was extraordinary. The quality of the manufacturing process was shocking. We’re talking about 1794. This is the first year they made silver dollars. They only had a couple of years to get their act together before they made this particular coin.
They had some skills…
They did. Very impressive.
“We buy gold” could be the catchphrase of this particular conjuncture. How do skyrocketing metal prices impact coin collectors?
It can be a negative. You see it everywhere. Every business channel now talks about how metals should be a part of your portfolio, how liquidity should be part of someone’s portfolio. The common belief is that, say, 5 percent of your portfolio should be in bullion and related items. Metals prices have moved up dramatically. There’s a lot of talk of inflation, and I myself have been asked literally every day what I think of gold, of silver, what I see as the future of metals prices. This country has a tremendous amount of debt. In the long term, that bodes well for metal prices and commodities. In the coin business, you have this obvious link between bullion and numismatic items such as 20-dollar gold pieces. So a certain percentage of the population is buying bullion, or requesting numismatic items. So a percentage of that population is being introduced to rare coins. In the rare-coin world, we have created tools that make the collector-investor comfortable, one being an online registry, where you can list your collection and compete with other collectors. We have approximately 60,000 collections listed on the NGC Registry. There’s a very active social part of our online site, and there’s a lot of competition. We also keep population reports so the collector understands when a coin comes up for auction. When he has a hole in his collection, and that comes up for auction, he is competing with other folks, and he knows how many are available.
How have these collectors been impacted by the newcomers?
Coins are finite items. We have a standard. We have been around for 25 years. The two major grading services have graded 40 million coins. They understand these are truly scarce, and there are more and more people coming into this world. Once you buy a coin, you usually don’t sell it. There’s a hoarding mentality. Collectors, if they have that gene, they understand it. I certainly have that gene, and I have multiple copies of the same coin. This makes no real sense.
So are the hoarders still in charge, or have the speculators moved in?
You have to become market-savvy when you start playing in these kinds of numbers. Coins are sold for multimillion dollars individually. We’ve graded most of the ultra rarities. I don’t think there are ultra rarities now that are under a million dollars in gem condition. So you have to consider all the factors. I think we offer a tremendous amount of tools for a collector to feel comfortable and then become heavily involved in numismatics.
Your personal coin collection is heavy on the American Colonial period. Are there any other areas you like?
I collect coins that I call freaks of nature, coins that really shouldn’t exist. For example, I have an 1864 two-and-half dollar gold piece in MS 67. It’s a Reed specimen. It was very low mintage of 2,824 coins. The next finest is an
MS 61. You have to imagine that this was a coin that was taken off the press and put away. It’s Civil War era. It has incredible color. It’s considered by specialists in the two-and-half dollar field as a real trophy. I like to collect those sorts of items. I’m not a specialist in Colonials, but if you see some of these Massachusetts silver shillings, it’s remarkable. They were minted on a roller press. They’re very primitive and they’re pure Americana to me. Obviously very few pieces survive. It was the beginnings of our country. These truly are museum pieces and I’m fortunate to have them.
So you’re more of a hunter than a gatherer when it comes to coin collecting…
I don’t want to call myself cynical, but I’ve seen everything. Virtually everything. When a coin comes through that I think is just spectacular, that takes my breath away, it really has to be special. I find these coins by simply going to a show, walking on the floor. Or I get calls. At this point, people know the kind of items I want to place in my collection. Very infrequently do I add another coin to my collection. It might be two or three a year, but they’re going to be spectacular.
You recently spent $276,000 on an 1867 Proof Double Eagle 65+ at Heritage Auction’s Florida United Numismatists auction in January. Why was this coin important to you?
Proof Liberty Double Eagles are incredible coins. The design is very distinctly American and particularly beautiful when rendered as a well-made proof. More significantly, they are deceptively scarce. A few major collections have come to market the last decade or so, making these coins seem available. I had a strong feeling that these coins will only become more difficult to find and that now was an opportune time to purchase an important example. More specifically to this coin, it’s a rare date – less than a dozen are known in all, and this is one of the finest. Of the coin type, Type Two $20 Liberty’s, only about a similar number, less than 20 pieces, are of comparable condition. I had the good fortune of grading the collection that this coin came from in the 1990s and the 1867 $20 stood out then. The most noteworthy factor was that this coin’s visual appeal and originality are superior to even most of its peers. To me, everything was right about it for my collection.
I have a list of your other collecting activities — Martin Brothers pottery, Van Erp lamps, Bordeaux and California wine, California impressionists. Is there anything missing?
No. I try to stay focused [laughs]. I know, this sounds kind of absurd. This is a broad base, but within those categories I stay focused. I wouldn’t say wine is a collection. Maybe it’s a diminishing collection, if you will. My wife and I love to drink it. We invite people over and we open whatever we can, whatever there is down there. I used to basically deal in wine, in a very informal way. I had at one point 13,000 bottles. It was an obsession, before the run-up on wine. I just had to have it all. I had it at wine storage facilities in New York, in my office, in my home. My wife got crazy and started to give me a really hard time. Fortunately, it went up so much that now, what I have left over is basically free. It doesn’t bother me to go down there and open anything.
How did you sell?
In various places — auctions primarily.
Your art collection is thriving …
My California art to me is another passion. I lived in Newport Beach in 1986, and the colors and the light of California, particularly Southern California, just kicked me in my stomach. I couldn’t tell you why I love it so much, but other people have mentioned the same thing. It’s a beautiful place. There’s something special and spiritual about it. At the time, I was a coin dealer and fell in love with a particular artist named Granville Redmond. He was deaf and mute at the age of 2. He was best friends with Charlie Chaplin, and he was in a number of his movies. Granville Redmond would do the most beautiful landscapes of poppies and lupines, in vibrant and high-key colors — just magnificent, looking through a window back in time. I fell in love with him and at the time, they were $5,000 or $10,000 a painting. I didn’t buy one, because it was out of my comfort level. I would regularly buy coins for that, but I couldn’t get my mind around a $10,000 painting. So when I later moved from California, one came up in auction, and it was my first purchase of a California painting. It was a Granville Redmond, and I paid $36,000.
Quite a jump …
Quite a jump. I try to stay focused on collecting all the early California artists. I try to get one of each style. To me, they have to be 9s or 10s. Many of my paintings have been in exhibitions and museums. They’re a pleasure to live with.
Van Erp lamps, the pottery — are you working on a similar level?
No, I’m not. The most significant collection is the Martin Brothers pottery. I was drawn to Martin Brothers by a friend in California, a fellow coin dealer, Kevin Lipton. I just love how they were made. The ceramic is some of the best made in the world. I love the story of the Martin brothers. They specialized in making grotesque figures and particular birds that would be used as snuff and tobacco jars, and their heads would come off. The ceramics and the birds looked like political figures of the day… and they would be bald or would have funny expressions. These were made in the 1890s. Their shop was next to an opium den in London. They became more and more creative, and their pottery became more and more grotesque and strange. Those are the most desirable today. They’re very rare. They’re very desirable. They come up infrequently. I have 12 birds, which is a lot of birds for one collection. I have probably 30 pieces, and it’s taken me a good 20 years to acquire those. You either love them or you hate them. I just love them. My wife has grown to love them.
Some initial resistance had to be overcome?
She was freaked out by them. [Laughs]
Van Erp lamps…
Again, it’s a California draw. I think this is as far as the collection will go. Four is enough for me at the moment, and I have a large, large cat at home, and I’m not going to have the cat playing with these. So I have them here in the office. They represent quintessential California arts and crafts — hand-hammered copper, hand-wrought with mica panels. Van Erp was an innovator of this particular style. I love that aspect, if you’re an innovator. It equates to the impressionists. Chagall had his own style, Renoir, Monet — these were innovators.
You made coins your business, your living. Are you moving in this direction with your other passions? Do you automatically fall into doing things in a systematic, business-oriented fashion?
California art started as a passion and continues to be a passion. However, when you get into six-figure paintings, you have to do your homework. Everybody who is playing in this world does. They have to have a very, very knowledgeable dealer. I suggest that they do the homework themselves. And you have to have a long-term perspective because it’s not like stocks or bonds. It’s not a short-term investment. California art didn’t start out as an investment for me. But now that I have been acquiring these paintings, they have grown in value. I have to be very careful what I’m adding to the collection. So I’ve naturally become a vest-pocket dealer. I have to understand the values, I have to have a frame of reference, and I have to work with a dealer that I really, really trust. I have to understand what the marketplace is doing, and have knowledge of the auctions. It’s a natural progression.
Do you sell?
I rarely sell, but I do trade. I hate selling [laughs]. It’s one of those things — once I buy something, I usually don’t regret owning it. I am very careful on my purchases. Part of the fun is the hunt. I love the fact that at any given moment, a great item could pop up and be offered to me. I have limited resources, like everyone else, but I want to be prepared for the great thing. So I’m very deliberate in my purchasing.
How do you hunt?
In California art, I am known as stepping up and buying the great items. So I get calls from dealers. I work with one in particular and he sources private material for me. But again, I haven’t added a California painting in six months. I get calls from dealers, I’ll look at auctions, but really the great things — particularly in the California world — don’t come up in auction. They’re traded privately. I get calls occasionally from collectors. But mostly it’s dealers and my own resources for searching. You know, the Internet. I’m so busy I don’t have a lot of time to search these things out, so I get calls from people. Are there any items you’re particularly proud about in your non-coin collections? I have a Chagall. It’s because of the Jewish connection, and the Russian village. I always wanted one. When I went to Israel, I saw Chagall’s windows in museums. I just love his style, he speaks to me. So I’m proud about owning a Chagall. In coins, I started collecting when I was 7. There was one coin in particular. I was working in Miami for a famous coin dealer at the time. At the time, he was considered the top buyer of the most fabulous coins. He would buy “condition rarities.” He wanted the very, very best. He was buying in the 1970s. He showed me his collection, and there was a Trade Dollar he had purchased in the ’70s. It was called “The Coin.” At the time, in the mid-1970s, a gem Trade Dollar would bring $400 in auction. This coin sold for $4,000! It’s the finest silver coin I’ve ever seen. It has every-thing going for it. It has strike rarity, color, it’s pristine, and it’s universally accepted as an MS 69. When I saw the coin, I had to have it, and I kept putting gold on the table. I remember I put Maple Leafs on the table — “Come on, sell it to me, sell it to me!” So he finally did.
I traded. I said, “I will never sell this coin. I’ll give it to my son, if I have a son someday.” Well, I got married a few years later. I was blessed with a son. He’s 23 now. I’ve told him about the coin. He’s promised to keep it in the family. He’s promised me first shot if he ever tries to sell it. Not only is it the finest silver coin I’ve ever seen, it has real meaning to me.
Wine aside, did you ever drift away from collecting something?
I drifted away from coins when I discovered girls. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I really drifted. That’s when I was 11 to 13 or so. But, no. That’s a really good question. I’ve found myself gravitating back to California art. I never left coins, except for the girls. I’ve really tried to stay focused. I really understand myself, and if I don’t stay focused, I’d be overwhelmed with the different areas I’d go into. So I try to stay with California art. I’ve tried to really focus on my coin collection. I have a little bit of French impressionism, but it’s not a significant part of my art collection. It’s important, but it’s not the main part of it. I gravitated back toward these particular areas, and I understand that’s what I really love.
So is it moot to ask whether Mark Salzberg might get into new areas?
It’s likely. Probably, it’s likely. This is Zsolnay you’re looking at [points at a Hungarian porcelain vase on his desk]. The person who introduced me to Martin Brothers also introduced me to Zsolnay. I have five, 10 pieces. They’re fantastic. But does this constitute a new direction? I’m hesitant to say.
How do you research these new areas you’re getting into? Is it guts? Systematic research? Do you consult with experts?
All of the above. For me, there has to be a gut reaction that I love these pieces, and that I want to know more about them. Then I start to look at the market for them. If it’s going to be something that’s impossible for me to acquire, that’s prohibitively expensive, or there’s just not enough of the pieces out there for me to build a collection, then I won’t go down that road. The combination of an honest dealer who has a lot of knowledge is vitally important. I read a lot of books on the subject, and I love to go to museums and look at what they have. Every collector needs a frame of reference. They have to see the very, very best to understand what they’re looking at, or what they’re being offered. I teach my graders here the same thing. “You’re very fortunate to be sitting here every day and see the greatest things come through, so you can compare it, so you can know when you’re seeing something better, or something inferior. This gives you the frame of reference that every collector needs.” From a collecting aspect, you have to really have patience and have a passion for it. I obviously have that gene, I speak that language of other collectors, and we understand what we’re talking about. If you don’t have that gene, you’re looking at me with two heads.
You look like you’re quite content with what you have achieved as a collector. Any regrets?
My overall regret is that I’ve become a little obsessive about a particular piece — not unusual for a passionate collector. I probably spend a little too much time in the hunt. So I’ve learned some discipline over the years and gotten some patience as I matured. That’s the one regret. You always regret selling great items. I’ve had to in the coin business, when I was a dealer. That’s the only way you learn. Some things have gotten away. Can’t keep everything. Can’t own everything. And you want to test the market occasionally, as a collector. I had a particular California piece that I should have never sold. I kicked myself over that. I think it will be years until I can acquire another one of this particular artist.
Any history of having to deal with fakes?
Not in my collecting, but certainly on a day-to-day basis in our coin certification business. Chinese fakes are a significant problem. We are literally sending people over to Asia to visit the mints, visit the museums and building an archive of images. We’ve included new technology to do surface analysis, to determine whether a coin is real or not. Authenticity is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. I did have one case where a dealer offered me one painting. I was very, very excited about it. He said he had it on the arm for a day. He literally got it on a plane and flew it down to me. I liked the painting a lot, it was a Joseph Raphael, a California artist who worked in Holland and sent his paintings back to America to sell. I looked at the painting, and my first comment was, the brushwork doesn’t look very thick, typically thick as a Raphael would look. He said, “Well, I believe it’s right. Here, you can see the handprint of Raphael carrying it. It looks like his children,” because it was a portrait of his children. I agreed to buy it, based on his feeling. I thought it was a very good painting. So I shook hands, he took it home, took it back to his gallery. He called me and said, “Mark, I started to clean up the painting and it disappeared on me.” It just started to melt. It was a fake. It had been made a few years before. The whole thing was set up. It came out of a collection. He picked it up from the house. But once he started to work on it, to remove the dirt, it just started to fall apart. It was a really, really good painting, a really good fake, I should say.
Do any of your children have your inclination toward collecting?
They have not inherited my collecting gene, unless you call buying shoes a collection. My girls love shoes, and that’s about it. They don’t collect anything. My younger one, she’s about to enter college, is starting to get involved a little bit in the ancient coin world. She’s intrigued by mythology and Greek and Roman history. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I think. I’m not really sure I want to have her involved in coins. [Laughs] But clearly, they don’t have the same gene that I have.
Any advice for collectors?
There are three fundamentals any collector should keep in mind. One, they should work with a very knowledgeable dealer and feel comfortable. Two, they should be passionate about what they’re getting involved in. And three, they need to educate themselves and have a long-term perspective. If you take that approach, you’ll have a very satisfying experience with collecting. Coins, in particular, have a very, very bright future. The world market is embracing certification. Asia is on fire. You can track a particular country’s economic health by looking at the coins that are trading in auctions. For example, Brazil is an up-and-coming market that I’ve started to look at. I think they have a lot of potential. I love South American coins. The U.S. market is very mature and still growing rapidly. The tools that we’ve incorporated in the coin industry lend themselves to making people comfortable. The NGC registry. The U.S. Mint pumps $40 million a year into promoting coins. The Internet lends itself beautifully to coins, with all its data and images. I would say numismatics has a bright future.
Johannes Werner is an award-winning business journalist based in Florida.
Photo Credit: Charles Neubauer and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation