Trading in Rare Coins Lesson # 437 - Don't Go By the Catalogue Alone

Those of us that weren't running around in very short pants in the 80's may remember the TV commercials for Bornhoffen wholemeal bread - the oafish farmer in the barn with the busty wench, more to the point the punchline: "Man cannot live by bread alone, but with Bornhoffen, he comes close." This young lad distinctly remembers the farmer chewing on a stalk of wheat and some chickens squawking - I'm not sure what happened in the interim, but I'm fairly sure it involved the busty wench.

The reason I raise this is to refute the common misconception among collectors (myself included) that it is entirely possible to trade rare coins by referring to a single catalogue alone.

I was in Brisbane last month for the Roxbury auction and the ANDA show, and one particular coin in the Roxbury sale will help me illustrate this point. I'd like you to imagine me sitting in the Roxbury viewing room, dad keen to identify some rare, undervalued coins & notes in the auction that I would be able to buy for a steal and sell for a rapacious profit. One of the items listed was a Type II 1864 half sovereign from the Sydney Mint, in reasonable nick.

I viewed the coin the day before the sale, made an assessment about its condition and headed back to my room. In the vast backlots of my mind i remembered that there was a rare variety of the 1864 half sovereign listed in the current McDonald's pocket guide, and sure enough, the shape of the first digit in the date corresponded with the image in the pocket guide.

So I kept my discovery to myself, and waited for the lot to come up for sale - sure enough, I was able to buy the lot unopposed - what great luck!

Once I'd set my stand up at the ANDA show the next morning, Nicole kindly got me a coffee and I toddled around the bourse floor to see if there wasn't anything out there I could buy for my want list. Much to my surprise, I saw no less than 3 other 1864 half sovereigns with other dealers that morning - each with the same "rare" shaped 1 in the date!

By 10:08 that morning I had worked out that the images in the pocket guide had been transposed, and my newly acquired coin, although still a solid example of this scarce and historic early half sovereign, was certainly not a magnificent rarity that was going to make me a squillion.

Now, make no mistake, I cursed my rotten luck and the good names of everyone involved with the auction and the price guide, but once I'd settled down I realized that I onyl had myself to blame, yet again!

The auctioneer had not represented the coin as being anything other than an 1864 half sovereign - it can hardly be their fault that I thought it was rarer than they'd made it out to be!

And any price guide, particularly those published in Australia, go to great lengths to emphasize the fact that the information they provide is nothing more than that - a guide.

I was the one that decided the coin in the auction was the rare variety, and no one else. Now I haven't done my dough - I've ended up with a coin that is as described for both value and grade, but I didn't get a bargain. If I'd used my peanut for half a moment, and kept in mind that I'd never handled or even sighted one of these coin before, I might've done a little bit more research and saved myself some drama. But no, I marched straight into the auction just having looked at the catalogue and the pocket guide, and was sure I was a genius.

Which I hope goes to show, that man may indeed be able to survive by Bornhoffen alone, but heaven help you if you trade coins with just a price guide and a catalogue in your hand. Besides, the chances of seeing a wench at a coin auction is pretty remote.