By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ....
This is the fifth in a series of journals that we’re preparing in the lead-up to the August ANA elections. We’d like to thank Legend Numismatics, Inc.’s Laura Sperber for her participation.
Long before the hammer struck on the record-breaking $10 million dollar sale of the specimen 1794 Flowing Hair dollar, Legend Numismatics’ Laura Sperber had already cemented her reputation as a fiery, tough, and elite-level player in the numismatic industry. She is a frequent contributor to the online conversation about coins and her periodically published column “Hot Topics” appears on CoinWeek and other websites throughout the hobby. Those who have earned her ire - the grading services, coin doctors (especially coin doctors), and the Professional Numismatists Guild to name a few - are already familiar with her tenacious and vocal opposition to the unscrupulous practices still commonplace in the hobby.
We reached out to the ever-busy Sperber to ask exactly what her plans are for the ANA and how joining the Board of Governors will allow her to more effectively fight against the bad actors out to rip you off. We also wanted to know how she, as a dealer specializing in top-tier coins, will be able to represent the interests of collectors at all levels.
In July of last year, Sperber ignited a firestorm when she published a blog post entitled “Coin Doctoring – Will We Ever Win?” In the piece, she described a $10 Indian that had been flagrantly puttied and then submitted to PCGS for grading.
She made a point to say that coin doctoring hurts all dealers and collectors. Dealers lose confidence in third party grading services and their ability to screen out problem material, and collectors get less money for their coins from dealers because dealers are reluctant to make strong bids if they might end up with a problem piece such as the one mentioned above.
The ANA and the PNG both share a portion of the blame. Sperber wrote: “Recently, I tried twice to bring cases against their membership for doctored coins. Both times I was stonewalled for different reasons (not just by the PNG) and I failed.” Even then, she promised to shake up the ANA, saying “The ANA has to become of its membership [sic]. The ANA hierarchy is so out of touch, they probably do not know that there were at least TWO well-known coin doctors (or dealers who work for a major firm that is a known doctor) teaching at the summer seminar this year.” Under her watch, Sperber said, “That certainly won’t happen…”
The blowback was immediate and not unexpected.
The PNG responded by countering her claim that they had stonewalled her. Sperber issued an apology, saying the PNG did nothing wrong and that her word choice was inelegant.
As for the coin doctors, several of them called her out for her tough talk. One of them, according to Sperber, even called at two in the morning to harass her. That individual was one of the ANA Summer Seminar instructors, who Sperber calls a coin re-toner (if not more), who is famous for adding blue rims to coins.
As for the puttied coin, PCGS did the right thing and took the coin off of the market, but not before the seller got angry with Sperber for pointing out that the coin was doctored and shouldn’t have been offered for sale in the first place.
The idea of going after coin doctors sits well with us. We’ve long felt that the way to a healthy hobby is a transparent and fair market where coin dealers provide a service to collectors and earn an honest living for their efforts.
This point of view is decidedly pastoral, however, since the coin industry is big business and not an idealized panorama of individual dealers connecting with individual collectors. Still, the fact that coin doctors continue to run rampant and some dealers still pass these tampered goods on to customers bothers us.
Having said that, Sperber was unwilling to name the worst offenders. Instead, she feels that the problem is best dealt with behind the scenes. We disagree, because in the interim doctored coins will still be passed on to us collectors and we may not be tipped off in time to those culpable of such fraud and deception.
Yet, of all the candidates that we’ve spoken with so far, Sperber’s anti-doctoring position is the most pronounced.
The ANA: What’s Broken and How to Fix It
For Sperber, the ANA’s problems start with the Board as it’s currently constructed: “I do not know much about my fellow candidates,” she says. “There is no question in my mind the current board thinks on a narrow beam and has no desire to make the ANA a better organization. In fact, I question if a few board members are using the board for personal gain.” In her opening remarks at the ANA Candidates Forum, she called the ANA (as it’s currently constituted) a “lumbering giant that has no direction.” She cites the under-utilization of ANA resources, such as its educational facilities and Money Museum.
That being said, Sperber feels that it’s hard for the ANA to set a strategy when none of the governors are on the same page. “There are too many chiefs on the board,” she says. “The current board is comprised of people who don’t get out of the house, don’t see what’s going on out there.”
She feels that the ANA not only has to understand what collectors want but they also need to be willing to provide the protections that collectors need. In short, the ANA needs to step up and take charge.
In her published remarks, as well as during our conversation with her, Sperber makes the case that the ANA should be the organization that oversees the hobby. It should take proactive steps to protect the collector, from the way transactions are handled to the way grading companies operate, and it should lead the fight against unscrupulous side of the hobby.
This runs counter to the Board’s prevailing notion of how the ANA should operate. “They’ll say, ‘it’s not in our bylaws’”, Sperber told us. “That’s all garbage. They are the only ones who can step up and be the voice of the collector with power. 30,000+ members as a group is stronger than 100 coin doctors.”
In our conversations with other candidates to date, none have taken as strong a position on collector advocacy as Sperber.
She is also AGAINST the ANA’s reliance on funding from NGC. She feels that it’s a conflict of interest for the organization to partner with the for-profit business. She understands the organization needs operating capital, and thinks that she can develop an alternative funding plan. The organization is operating on a budget in excess of six million dollars, and would need to shore up any holes in the budget that changes to its funding structure would cause.
Sperber is also against the ANA’s plans to partner with Amos Digital (owned by Coin World’s parent company, Amos Press, Inc.) to develop and publish the new ANA website. The ANA has an agreement with Amos Digital and work is now underway to develop a new site. It’s the slow rollout of the ANA’s website that really agitates her. Sperber points to the fact that Legend-Morphy rolled out one of the industry’s best auction sites in less time than it’s taken the ANA to improve upon their existing online platform.
It’s this lack of progress, coupled with recent scandals, that Sperber believes has left most collectors and members with a misconception about the association. “Many people have left the ANA and have a bad attitude about it. You can’t be a member and not get its benefits. So far, no ANA Board Member has been willing to tackle this issue. Right now,” she says, “the only thing 90% of the collecting public know about the ANA is that they run two major shows. If the ANA went away you’d lose those shows. For most collectors, the ANA has faded to oblivion already.”
She also sat flabbergasted at the ANA forum in New Orleans, saying the situation at the ANA is “WORSE than I thought, saying the organization is “on a path to irreversible real self-destruction.” Sperber asserts that the ANA’s problems are legion and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to cure what ails it. She worries that the board as it will be constituted after the election will not have the capacity or desire to right the ship. “I’m a type A personality,” she writes. “I don’t invest my time and energy in hopeless causes. I really question if I am doing that here.”
Nevertheless, despite her reservations, Sperber told us that she wants to bring her influence with dealers and collectors to bear and try to turn around the lumbering giant.
She hopes the electorate takes her words to heart and chooses wisely. The ANA was an important force in the hobby 35 years ago when Sperber began her career as a numismatist. Whether the ANA survives another 35 years will depend on the visionary ability of its Board and leadership.
That vision starts with the electorate.
It starts with us.
One wonders if the organization would do well to elect someone like Sperber to the position of ANA president. Many of the organization’s greatest figures, starting with Farran Zerbe, have been titans in the industry, but so far Sperber has no desire to take on that position. ANA Vice President Walter A. Ostromecki, Jr. will run uncontested in the fall election.
Flip of a Coin:
Can you name a U.S. coin designer who served time in prison? If you guessed Marcel Jovine, then you’re psychic. You’re also correct! The Italian-born Jovine served in the Italian army during World War II. He was captured and transferred to a Prisoner of War Camp in Pennsylvania, where he was held for the duration of the war. Jovine eventually immigrated to the U.S. and created a line of iconic toys, including the Visible Man and Visible Woman. Jovine contributed a beautiful reverse to the 1988 Olympic commemorative $5 coin.
19th Century collectors (well, most of them anyway) didn’t give any special consideration to mint marks. This started to change when Augustus G. Heaton wrote about the subject in the 1890s. Heaton was the third President of the ANA, serving from 1894-1899.
The debate rages on at the Walker/ Morgan Institute of Numismatic Study: Is the Liberty cap found on some American coins a Pileus or a Phrygian cap? Look up these terms and let us know what YOU think.
© 2013 Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker