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The Internet and Coin Collecting

Question: Dear Mr. Bowers, How do you think the Internet is changing the hobby of coin collecting? –B. T.

Answer: I have written extensively on this subject in my columns in Coin World in particular, and elsewhere. For our own business here at Stack’s Bowers Galleries there has been dramatic changes in auctions. Going back decades, when we held an auction the participation was almost exclusively by in-person attendance. Even telephone bidding was rare. In fact, I remember being at a sale held by the New Netherlands Coin Company in the 1950s in which Richard Picker, a colonial specialist, arranged for a phone to be in the auction room and contacted a customer. This caused a great uproar and commotion among those who had invested in train or plane tickets or driven to New York City to attend in person. Richard Picker apologized and explained that he was on the phone with a man who had intended to be there in person, but who had become ill.

Not long afterward telephone bidding became very common. Today it is an essential part of the auction business, not only in our coin sales but also in art sales held by Sotheby’s and Christie’s and in other venues around the world. No longer during the sale did we have to keep track of the number of registered bidders. The audience could be half as large but with many bidders signing up to be called when items of interested were scheduled to cross the block, all was well. If anything the bidding could be even more dynamic.

Then came the Internet. When that happened, continuing to evolve now, it became possible to sit at home in a comfy chair, perhaps reading, sipping a beverage or whatever, while at the same time “being there” by watching the auctioneer in real time on the screen. In fact, in some respects it was even better than being there unless you had a front-row seat. By touching the “bid” button you can participate as well or even better than any other way.

This has curious consequences. At an auction not too long ago we had a specialized offering of Hard Times tokens. During this time I received a call from one of our major stockholders who wondered how many people were there and how was it going. My answer was something like this: “There were nine people here but one just left for the restroom so now there are eight bidders.” He expressed concern about how the sale was going. My answer, “Wonderfully! Records are falling left and right.” The answer was that it made no difference whether there were 100 people in the audience or just two. All across America, indeed all across the world, countless hundreds of thousands of people are aware of our website and those interested in any specialty “tune in” when something is going on.

In a somewhat related instance I saw a leading dealer examine coins during lot viewing at the auction, but at the sale itself he was not present and I was not aware that he had placed his bids with anyone else. The next day I queried him (although I could have looked at the list of successful bidders), and asked what happened. “If you check your records you will find that I bought a lot. I was up in my room playing poker at the time.”

Who would have imagined such a thing years ago?

The Internet has the advantage of having much information available at any time. However, this can result in information overload. If I want to find basic information about, say, a particular classic commemorative half dollar I could probably do it just as effectively and as quickly by picking up a copy of A Guide Book of United States Coins and looking it up there. Some years ago I wrote an article about one or another of the Carson City Morgan dollars from the early 1880s, noting that on the Internet there were well over 100,000 “hits.” That was far too much information and no one in the world could possibly check out everything the Internet had to say.

Another disadvantage of our Internet era is the lack of camaraderie. When I go to a coin show I enjoy meeting people that I have known only at a distance. It is always fun to have someone sit down and chat, whether he or she just discovered coin collecting last week or has been a client for decades.

On the other hand, going back to positive aspects, if I need historical information, as a source the Internet cannot be beat. Suppose that I am given an Indian Peace medal of James Monroe to catalog and want to say something about the president whose administration issued it. By jumping onto Wikipedia I can find a lot about Monroe and can condense it into a few relevant sentences or a paragraph, adding interest to the numismatic description.

I suppose the overall view is that the Internet has become an essential part of our lives — perhaps as television, automobiles and indoor plumbing have. However, it is certainly not the answer to everything but needs to be used in combination with other activities.

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