Numismatics Are Fool's Gold

January 4, 2011 2:26 PM EST Send to a Friend
by Peter Schiff

Last month, I addressed the hype around gold confiscation, and debunked the myth that collectible or numismatic coins would offer effective protection. But there is another sales pitch that many dealers will use while trying to "up sell" you to numismatics. They may argue that on investment merits alone, numismatics are a better bet. While this may be a more rational line of thinking than the typical confiscation con, it is bad advice for investors hoping to protect their assets in an economic slump.

THINK LIKE A PRO, NOT A SCHMO

I have long urged investors to keep 5-10% of their portfolios in physical precious metals, and add even more exposure when appropriate through the Perth Mint certificate program and mining stocks. This advice, far outside of the Wall Street mainstream, stems from my view of the kind of crisis we are approaching.

Many people assume that the crash I wrote about in the original "Crash Proof" was the credit crunch of October '08. They are mistaken. Though I did accurately forecast the economic events of 2008, my ultimate prediction was that these events would set into motion a larger crash to follow. That crash, the one I have been warning about for a decade, is a collapse of the international dollar standard.

This is the crisis for which the smart money is already preparing. The People's Bank of China, Reserve Bank of India, Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, John Paulson, Jim Rogers, and countless other big names are all protecting themselves from a global monetary breakdown by buying gold. But are they doing it with numismatics? Among the big players, the answer is universally no.

NUMISMATICS ARE LIKE STAMPS, NOT STOCKS

The reason a numismatic coin can sell for double, triple, or even many multiples of the value of the metal it contains is that a collector values the rarity and/or beauty of the coin. As an investment, it is on par with a stamp or a baseball card. Some people do make money flipping these items, but it is usually an experienced broker who can buy at a steep discount and sell at a large markup - either to a collector who takes pleasure in owning the item but does not expect to profit from it, or to a naive investor who thinks he can make money selling it on to a collector (or a greater fool).

If you are buying numismatic coins, chances are you're making a fast-talking salesman very rich at your expense.

LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS

This salesman might have a chart showing the performance of "rare/collectible/numismatic coins" against "regular/bullion coins." Of course, the chart shows the numismatics performing much better. But these graphs inevitably track particular rare coins which are cherry-picked with the benefit of hindsight. For every one rare coin that outperforms, there could be ten that severely underperform. Only afterward would you know which coin you should have bought.

In addition, these comparisons typically measure times of relative affluence, when coin collectors are flush. The chart is likely to reverse during a recession, not to mention the inflationary depression we are likely to experience. When times are tough, coin collectors are just as broke as everyone else.

Finally, the comparisons often omit the dealer's high markups and markdowns that would more than wipe out the alleged profits for retail investors.

BULLION GOLD IS MONEY

By contrast, bullion gold is more than an investment. It something you own so you can trade locally for the stuff you need - food, clothes, a roof over your head - even if the other guy isn't a coin enthusiast. In other words, it is money. One of the characteristics that makes gold money is its uniformity - meaning each coin is the same as every other coin of the same weight. Diamonds, which are not uniform because they vary in clarity, color, etc., are not money. Numismatic coins, which vary in rarity, condition, date of issue, etc., are also not money.

Bullion gold coins will always have value to your fellow Americans, while paper dollars have less and less. As the dollar declines, the "price" of gold will continue to rise, reflecting the stable purchasing power of the yellow metal. What's more, in a volatile environment, bullion gold will carry a premium for being reliable and widely accepted money - just as the US dollar does now.

THE WORST TIME FOR NUMISMATICS IS NOW

If we enter into depression conditions, numismatics may actually drop in value while the gold price rises. As I mentioned above, numismatic coins depend on the demand of collectors. Collectors are folks with plenty of discretionary income. When inflation is eating away savings and the economy is contracting, who are these mystery millionaires that are going to buy your stash of St. Gaudens Double Eagles? Chances are any collectors will also be liquidating their collections as they lose their jobs and their investments go south.

Sure, the coins' gold content will provide a 'floor' to their value that stamps and baseball cards don't have, but the gold value is typically only a fraction of the retail price of a numismatic coin. If you pay twice the bullion value to buy a rare coin, bullion could double in value and you still might not be able to sell your coin for a profit. If you buy a regular bullion coin, the gold price only has to rise the amount of the markup above spot before you profit.

DON'T BUY FOOL'S GOLD

In short: the idea of numismatic coins as investments should be put to rest, once and for all.

Gold is a commodity. Bullion coins are pre-measured units of this commodity, stamped with a design as a quick signal of authenticity. Gold is also history's most reliable form of money, which makes it a good commodity to own when the world's paper money system is in upheaval.

But just like buying an Armani suit is not an investment in wool, numismatics are not an investment in gold. The only people who should be buying numismatics are those who appreciate the coins for their aesthetic value and take pleasure in owning them, not those hoping to preserve their wealth.

Gold still has a long bull market ahead of it. It's not too late for Americans to dump their dollar for a real store of value. The key is to find a trustworthy dealer with fair markups - and avoid dealers with teaser prices on the bullion coins you want and aggressive pitches for numismatics you should avoid.

Peter Schiff is CEO of Euro Pacific Precious Metals. Having spent years encouraging his brokerage clients to buy physical gold, he grew concerned about the growing number of unscrupulous dealers that tried to "up-sell" customers to rare or collectible coins with high markups. Peter Schiff's gold coin buying philosophy is to buy for the coin's metal value, not its claimed "numismatic" value. He decided to open his own firm to sell investment-grade bullion products at competitive prices. Euro Pacific only sells reputable, well-known coins that trade on the open market, such as American Gold Eagles, Canadian Maple Leafs, and Australian Kangaroos. To find out more, please visit www.europacmetals.com or call us at (888) GOLD-160.


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