By Louis Golino for CoinWeek
Heritage Auctions, a major player in the sale of higher-end coins, is today the largest collectible auction company in the world, and the third largest overall auction company. The company was co-founded by Jim Halperin, who got into the coin business at a young age like some other legendary dealers such as Q. David Bowers. I recently spoke with Mr. Halperin about how he became a coin dealer, what kinds of coins he recommends, his views on modern coins and grading, and other issues related to numismatics.
Louis Golino– “It is a pleasure and an honor to speak with one of the great modern legends of American numismatics. I have read that you became interested in coins at an early age and became involved in selling coins when you were 16. Please tell Coin Week readers a little more about what attracted you to collecting coins in the first place, and about what motivated you to make the leap from collector to dealer.”
Jim Halperin– “I collected coins for a few months at age 8, and opened a stamp shop at age 16 as a school project. I decided to call it Jim’s Stamp and Coin Shop. At the time I did not know much about coins yet, and coins were very popular back in 1968-1969. Kids in the neighborhood would come in to the shop, and I would learn from them. I discovered I had a knack for coins, and was selling from one dealer to another within months.”
Mr. Halperin also explained that the Boston subway system, which allowed him to go from Harvard Square into Boston in 6-7 minutes played an important part in his decision to leave Harvard University, where he had studied as an undergraduate for three semesters, to work full-time as a coin dealer. He said that when he was sitting there in class, he would often find himself thinking only about leaving campus and going into Boston to visit the coin shops. “Back then, coin shops were everywhere – every couple miles,” whereas today most coin business takes place at shows, auctions and online.
Louis Golino– “How do you see the future of the hobby? Are the ANA and dealers doing enough to attract younger collectors?”
Jim Halperin– “I see it as very bright because almost invariably people who become collectors tend to collect what they liked as kids. In 1999 we had the State Quarter program, and quarters were collected by 75-125 million kids – 5 to 10 times as many coin collectors as there were in the numismatic peak of the 1960s. Whitman alone sold 100 million folders. [I have heard estimates that half the population collected the quarters to one degree or another. -LG] And it’s hard to imagine that some significant percentage of those kids won’t become coin collectors. Most members of that generation don’t yet have a lot of discretionary income plus there was the recent recession and a terrible job market. But many of those kids will eventually become wealthy enough to start collecting again. It is simple demographics and human psychology that collectors will come of age when they reach peak collecting time, which is when people are in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. There is only so much the ANA can do, and people who are wired to be collectors will find numismatics, rather than the other way around.”
Louis Golino– “On the one hand, most people simply can’t afford to buy the kind of very rare coins that typically outperform the rest of the market, and on the other hand, this often results in buyers chasing coins that are too common to ever appreciate significantly. There is of course a middle ground such as better date Morgan dollars like the Carson City coins, which I have noticed have done very well in recent years. Which areas of American coinage do you feel offer the best value for today’s investor of average means?”
Jim Halperin– “Income inequality is currently a major political issue, and while I cannot predict the future, if the current administration is actually able do anything to address the issue, that would bode well for lower-priced coins. I also feel less strongly about the higher-end [of the market] than I did five years ago because the prices have risen so much as opposed to the mid-range coins, which have stagnated.”
He added that significant advantages accrue to those “who study coins closely and become obsessed with them” and that “die varieties in most series seem like a wonderful area” since learning about them encourages deeper study about the series and noted that “rare Morgan dollar die varieties, for example, have done very well in the past ten years. Many other series have barely attracted any variety collectors, but inevitably will someday.”
Louis Golino– “What advice would you give to someone interested in collecting silver dollars? Build a complete set in the highest grade possible or focus on certain types of coins?”
Jim Halperin– “My advice in this case is to buy the best quality you can afford, but look for premium quality (for the grade) coins where the spread in price between the grade of the coin and the next grade up is huge, in part because of the chance of getting the coin upgraded or at least getting a plus, if you resubmit the coin. I would also avoid coins that are priced at large multiples of the grade just below it.”
Louis Golino– “As someone who has written a best-selling book on grading and who has extensive experience grading coins, what advice would you give to those who want to improve their skills?”
Jim Halperin– “Buy a copy of Beth Deisher’s grading guide [Making the Grade: Comprehensive Grading Guide for U.S. Coins, Amos Hobby Publishing, 2012] and go to coin shows and especially look at auction lots. It’s like tuition-free college for coin collectors” especially since it does not cost money to view auction lots.”
Louis Golino– “Which coins offer the best way in your view to take advantage of currently low gold and silver prices rather than just buying bullion?”
Jim Halperin– “Pre-1933 $5, $10, and $20 gold coins where premiums are close to historic lows. If bullion takes off, buyers will do as well with these coins as with gold bullion,” and if bullion does not take off, you will tend to lose less because of the numismatic premium.”
Louis Golino– “What do you think about modern U.S. coins? Are there series you recommend? What do you think of the five-ounce silver America the Beautiful coins?”
Jim Halperin– “I like the $5 gold commemorative coins and really recommend them especially since they are so diverse and interesting, and most of them are currently available at near melt value. I haven’t studied, or actually seen, any five-ounce coins yet, so no opinion there.”
Louis Golino– “Finally, what kind of coins do you enjoy collecting?”
Jim Halperin– “I do not collect coins and haven’t since I was 8. When I first became a coin dealer I didn’t have much money, and when I eventually could afford to, I didn’t think I should compete with my customers for the best coins. So my wife and I started collecting other things instead.”
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His insightful retrospective on the American Silver Eagle is the cover feature of the February 2014 issue of The Numismatist. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.
CoinWeek extends its thanks to Mr. Halperin for sharing his experience and insights with its readers.