Old Money

Preservation, rarity, and demand comprise the elusive criteria of coin collectors and dealers. “When you get that combination, the value of the coins goes through the roof,” says David Neita, director of sales for American Heritage Minting (800-800-2184; www.ahmcoin.com), based outside of Philadelphia. Rarity matters little unless people want it, Neita says. “The first year of issue of any denomination is always in demand. Any bust half-dollars, dimes, quarters from 1796 to 1838, anything from the early beginnings of this country is very much in demand.” The famed King of Siam coin set, including a specially minted 1804 U.S. silver dollar, sold last year for $10 million.

Neita, a Vietnam veteran and former network TV journalist, fell in love with coins while doing research for a Mint Masters catalogue he produced for a dealer in 1985. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward business,” he says. Coin dealers operate like stockbrokers, aiming to buy low, sell high, and keep the difference to grow their businesses–and they often negotiate for collectors as well.

At this year’s Florida United Numismatists Show in Orlando, the auctioneer gaveled out $85 million in sales, excluding the millions exchanged on the bourse, or trading floor. Coin enthusiasts tend to be secretive and close-knit. “It took us 20 years to establish contacts in France before they would sell to us,” says Neita, 59, who specializes in U.S., English, and French coins. Primarily self-taught, he studied how to grade coins, the history of U.S. gold coin varieties, and counterfeit U.S. gold coin detection at the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org). “But there’s nothing like being on the bourse floor at a trade show, going from table to table studying coins,” he says. “You have to be outgoing and soak up information like a sponge. The death in this business is the day you think you know everything.”