Shopping around: Finding a coin on the secondary market
Looking for an older coin to fill a gap in your collection? Maybe you missed a newer release, like the sold-out Great Lakes and From the R&D Lab: Flying Loon coins?
The secondary market is where collectors go to buy and sell a wide variety of coins. Dealers, online marketplaces, auctions, coin shows and more—if you have a gap to fill in your collection, there are many different sellers and selling platforms to choose from, and there are just as many things to consider before you buy.
You’ve heard it before: “Buyer beware” applies to nearly every purchase you make, whether you’re purchasing a new car or a 1992 25-cent coin.
Don’t go into a purchase blindly; take the time to learn about the coin (and coin grading). If you’re new to coin collecting, seasoned collectors will tell you to “Buy the book before you buy the coin.” Grab a copy of the latest coin catalogue and arm yourself with knowledge—it might save you money, and spare you some heartache too.
The internet is an international marketplace that’s open 24/7, and the convenience of online shopping is only rivalled by the huge variety of coins you’ll find on different sites.
eBay has done a lot to help the marketplace and the hobby evolve, but it’s not without risk. You’re buying based on a photo that could be dated or manipulated, and lighting makes a big difference—it can either hide or overly emphasize marks, and it makes it hard to gauge eye appeal. Still, online marketplaces give you a good sense of what prices are being offered for a particular coin—just don’t rely on them exclusively. Some sellers may offer a return window of up to 30 days, allowing you to send a coin back if it’s not what you expected, and your only loss is the shipping fees.
You might also find your coin through online classifieds or buy-and-sell platforms like Kijiji, but again, you’re buying based on information or photos provided by the seller. There’s a bit of a “stranger danger” element too, so shop safely, but know that some authorized dealers do conduct business through these sites since the listing fee is typically lower.
Don’t forget to factor in shipping fees, duties and taxes when determining the final cost—your “good deal” might not look so good after totalling all those fees.
When it seems too good to be true…
How do you know if a seller can be trusted? Talk to them. Ask questions. Get a feel for their knowledge and watch the terms they use—you’ll quickly know if they’re numismatists (that works both ways so brush up on key terminology, too).
Spot a good price? A reputable seller may list a lower price if they have too many of those particular coins in their inventory. Unfortunately, there’s also the risk of running into a modern counterfeit—it’s not a collectible, it’s illegal, though some sites will allow the sale if the fake coin is advertised as a “replica” or “copy.” And a shiny appearance doesn’t guarantee the coin is “Mint State,” either—a “graded” coin holder can be faked… and this is a good time to slip in a mention about cleaned/modified coins.
Prefer a one-on-one shopping experience? We put a lot of care into vetting and maintaining our list of Mint authorized dealers, so you can shop with ease and confidence. Many dealers are members of the Canadian Association of Numismatic Dealers (CAND) and must abide by its Code of Ethics; it also provides avenues for contesting a questionable or fraudulent sale.
Coin groups and coin shows are also a great opportunity to meet dealers and other collectors who share your interest, ask questions and shop around for the best price.
An auction is another good way to find your coveted coin, though it tends to cater to more advanced collectors—you won’t typically find lower-valued coins at auction, unless they’re part of a larger group lot. Expect to pay a buyer’s fee, which is around 20% above the hammer price—and there are taxes on top of that, too. Be aware, know the rules for viewing and bidding/payment, and you could have a great auction experience.
Good intentions can strip away value
There’s a fine line between “conservation” and “cleaning,” and if you cross it, there’s no going back. A coin with a noticeably cleaned surface usually has limited re-sale value, so stay away if you intend to re-sell at some point.
How can you tell if a coin has been cleaned? An older silver coin shouldn’t have a “like new” shine, since the oxidation process begins when the coin comes into contact with air. Cleaned silver coins usually have a “blast white” or dull, washed-out appearance, while cleaned copper ones will have a pasty pink tone. You may also notice hairlines or concentric circles created by a cleaning tool; it’s hard to tell from a photograph, but ask the seller if the coin has been cleaned—a reputable one will give you an honest answer.
Storage can also affect a coin’s value and condition, and coin associations and local clubs offer workshops on how to properly care for your collection. But stay away from PVC (polyvinyl chloride)—it’s an additive or plastic softener, and over time, it will cause a “green goo” reaction that will damage your coin’s surface.
What you should do
This one “do” is more important than all the “don’ts”: consider your own interests before you buy. What theme or coin type/feature speaks to you? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by too many choices, so decide what you want to focus on, because your love of collecting is what truly matters—to us, and to all your fellow members of the coin-collecting community.
We wish to thank the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) and Mr. Henry Nienhuis, F.R.C.N.A., F.C.N.R.S., for their valuable contributions to this post. One of the world’s largest numismatic associations, the RCNA is devoted to serving those who enjoy coin collecting and Canadian numismatics, and to promoting fellowship and education through events, workshops and correspondence courses. To learn more, visit www.rcna.ca.