News of record-breaking prices realized for coins and even banknotes continues to make mainstream headlines. Michael Alexander of the London banknote and Monetary Research Centre speaks to Chris Webb, one third of the well-known and respected Auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb in London and learns just what’s behind the trends behind such headline-making sales results.
It would have been almost impossible not to have read the recent headlines about new record-breaking sales for the kinds of coins and banknotes many of us can only dream of owning. These phenomenal prices were so extraordinary, they even make the mainstream news services. But these items didn’t start out that way in respect to their original prices or face value.
Coins such as the 1915-S Panama Pacific $50 gold coin realizing $115,000 (Heritage Auction Galleries) were originally sold for little more than their face value when they were first issued or the William IV 1834 proof crown which realised £18,400 (Lockdales UK) also, obtained for a slight premium over their face value or might have even been a presentation piece. However, the one lot which made international headlines was in June of 2010, the legendary 1794 Flowing Hair Silver Dollar, which was purchased by the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation of California for an eye-watering $7,850,000.
These prices realised have been attributed in part for the need for investors to look to alternatives to low interest bearing deposits as well as a lack in confidence in the solvency of many well known banking institutions. For many, the stock market is also too volatile with drops of 500 points in a session for a lot of investors to consider without trepidation. Quality and low mintage numismatics are looking more attractive to those looking for a safe haven to put their money into and the recent auctions certainly reflect this sentiment. In any event, there seems to be no let up in the prices being realised in auctions especially for those one of a kind items or coins and banknotes which are graded as the highest quality.
If you need any further convincing, take for instance one specific item. A Henry VII sovereign with an estimate of between £70,000 to 90,000 was scooped up a staggering £160,000 at the last COINEX UK auctions. Whether you’re thinking of exploring the prospect of becoming a buyer, or are looking to consign your collection, there’s a lot to think about. Established auction house or on-line auction service, Chris Webb has some good advice and comments which may make the world of Auctions a bit easier to maneuver through, so read on and decide for yourself.
It’s a pleasure speaking to you today, first, for those of our readers who aren’t familiar with Dix Noonan Webb, can you tell them a little bit about the company and what you do, especially as your own name is part of the company’s name, who are the other principals and when was the company formed?
Dix Noonan and Webb was founded by our present managing director Nimrod Dix in 1991, we’re just off Piccadilly in central London. My other partners are Pierce Noonan and Robin Greville. Nimrod and Pierce are military medal experts and Robin is the IT director so, our staff is actually 12 and a half people, and this includes my daughter Danielle who is the half, as she’s a mother and works as a part time photographer and sale clerk. Dix Noonan and Webb also have seven specialist consultants and thirteen agents in this country and around the world. We hold on average four British and world coin sales, one ancient coin sale, four military medal sales and one militaria. In all, about ten thousand lots pass through our offices totaling between 6 to 8 million pounds a year. This year , we anticipate that total increasing by around another million…
What is your specialty at DNW?
I don’t have one really, we’re lucky to have the likes of Peter Preston Morley, Jim Brown, Michael Sharp, Peter Mitchell, Douglas Saville and Italo Vecci who are the real specialists in their field. I enjoy meeting the clients and all the other aspects of auctioneering, so for me, every day is different.
You touched on the fact that DNW will see a significant increase in the turnover this year , what do you attribute that impressive increase down to?
Well, the reason for that increase this year is that we’re fortunate to have sold more actual items, more lots, and the internet side of our operation will make up about three thousand more lots alone. We’ve also had more high-profile named collections this year in both coins and banknotes so, coupled with the surge we’ve seen in prices, it looks to be a very good year for us in terms of turnover.
Do you see evidence that’s there’s still money to be made even in the down-sized economy we’ve seen. Is it the best time as a seller to part with that prized possession?
Well, you still have people out there with money, money never disappears. We have more buyers, more sellers which for us is ideal as auctioneers and if you speak to almost anyone in the trade, especially the bullion dealers, they’ll tell you this has been one of their best years, it’s a very buoyant time with so many interested parties than ever. There’s a need not have “all your eggs in one basket” so to speak.
I think there’s a real misconception about auctions with a lot of coin and banknote collectors, insomuch as it’s thought that only the rich, the famous or big institutions can buy items from auctions. Why do you think that is?
You’re right, there is a real misconception about this especially as 95% of our lots are under £1,000 which means we see collectors from every walk of life. If you have a look at our catalogue for this Wednesday’s auction of coins from the late Alfred Bole, (29th September 2010) there’s an excellent selection of coins dating from George III to George V and many of those lots are under £200. In this regard, we cater for most pockets and budgets and the internet in particular has really changed the face of auctions and we ourselves have a database of over 15,000 interested buyers and sellers.
To disperse the misconception that it’s complicated to take part in an auction as a seller for instance, what’s the procedure to add an item? Can someone off the street include something of theirs?
It really is very simple, you can come and see us at our offices or if you like, you can even send items to us by special delivery. I think the first step is to ring or e-mail us to get the ball rolling. We also offer a free valuation service on our website.
You have plenty of competition not only in London but internationally. Is it important to go to an auction house that has a specialty or is reputation and longevity more important?
That’s true, there are seven coin auctioneers in London alone which might appear to be too many but they all seem to be producing catalogues, they see good numbers attending the sales and are getting the results. I think reputation has everything to do with securing consignments, after all, clients are handing over their valued possessions to us. I think they need to feel comfortable and secure in the knowledge that their entire collection or single item will be handled correctly. You know, next year is our 20th year in business and with almost one hundred sales under our belts and a combined expert knowledge totaling over two hundred years, this I believe speaks for itself!
Well, speaking of getting results, often we see headlines in both the mainstream media and specialist magazines where a coin or banknote has reached a new world record-setting price. What do you think has been behind these all-time high prices being realized?
Oh, many factors are contributing to this situation. A big part of that has been the loss in faith of banks, shares etc… but the truth is that coins, medals and banknotes have been under-valued for a long time. When you compare them to works of art for instance, and when people pay these huge sums for what some might consider modern rubbish, the VAT amount alone on the buyer’s premium would pay for a decent Triple Unite!
Has DNW been involved in setting any world records and if so, what was the item or items?
I’m sure we have set several world records, but that definition of a world record is so varied. The highest price paid for a Stephen penny or a Victoria bronze penny and so on… But I think it’s important to achieve constant good prices and provide a service second to none, I think we do that consistently, you may not see headlines about that but it does contribute to your overall reputation.
Is it something specifically that an auction house does which helps realize these all time high prices or do you think it’s just the result of the economic conditions at the moment?
No, I don’t think it’s the auction house which is behind the record prices, they do however promote the object and do try to make sure the right prospective buyers hear about the lot in particular, and after all, that’s their job and that certainly contributes to these record-breaking prices but, the lack of quality items being available plus the economic conditions I mentioned earlier have a bearing. Most people in the trade will say these prices cannot be sustained but they seem to be.
I want to touch on some of the recent headline-attracting auctions both here and in the US. Have there been any of those items which really surprised even you and if so, what were those items?
Well, there have been so many over the past few years, and one which comes to mind was a Massachusetts Pine Tree Shilling that was consigned to us from a family who had held this coin and many other coins since the 1700’s. It was a nice example and we had estimated it at £6000 to £8000, the gavel went down on that coin at £48,000 after some very spirited bidding!
We touched on the subject of on-line auctions earlier, I’d like to get your opinion of auction websites like eBay and Amazon. Do you think they’ve opened the door for auctions in general or, have they perhaps been a bad influence on your profession and if so why?
There is no doubt the internet has been both good and bad for the hobby, certainly the word has spread resulting in bringing good people and also a few rotten apples selling fakes and the like. This would generally not happen in an auction house, not that fakes don’t crop up into sales but, they’re usually discovered before they get to the auction block. If I was a collector, and was to use any of these sites, I would only bid on lots from a registered BNTA or IAPN member, then you can bid with confidence.
Can you tell our readers some of the most surprising items which have passed through in terms of realizing a price or rarity?
Oh sure, one of the most unusual coins that passed through our hands was a silver Hogarth three pence coin from Australia. It was brought in to us when we held a valuation day in Dublin in 2003. A rare coin indeed, but what made it so unusual was how it ended up in our hands, the coin was consigned in Dublin, the vendor, or seller was from Chile and it was sold in London and bought by an Australian, the coin had virtually traveled around the world before it found a good home for £9,800!
Amazing… I’d say that result would be considered quite successful with a very happy vendor but, there’s often a seller who comes away saying their item should have realized a higher price, or the buyer perhaps thinks afterward they paid too much. Are there tell-tale mistakes the public make with regard to either buying or selling in your opinion?
Almost after every sale, you will hear a dealer or collector saying “such-and-such lot was cheap!” and I always say “if you think that, then why didn’t you put your hand up?” We can all talk a good fight and we all make mistakes but if a collector buys something because he likes it instead for instance, as a hedge against inflation, then when the day comes that it comes up for sale again, chances are someone else will like it as much. To buy with future prices in mind is difficult because we are not specifically in the investment trade.
Do you see the trend of record-breaking prices continuing or has it “bottomed out”? What does the future hold for traditional auction houses?
Well, this is my 39th year in auctioneering and I have seen quite a few dips and peaks, but I think good things will always be good things!
Chris Webb, auctioneer-extraordinaire and partner of Dix Noonan Webb Auctioneers & Valuers, here in London, Thank you very much for your insight of the auction side of numismatics today.
You’re very welcome, my pleasure.