New York — "One of the most understandable things in the world is money," says Lorna KElly, who heads the revitalized coin dapartment at Sotheby Parke Bernet auction gallery here. "So coins have universal appeal. They speak in any languange."
"Coins are probably the oldest form of collectible known to man," she contninues. "Even the ancient Romans collected Greek coins. Coins represent not only intrinsic value, but art and history and symbolism. And unlike antique furniture or paintings, they have the advantages of being portable. They can be carted about for viewing by other collectors, or easily slipped into a safe deposit box for protection."
Coin collecting in the United States curently ranks as a hobby and interest second only to stamps. Many people are also buying coins as a hedge against inflation They are now considered one of the more attractive "altenative investments," since, according to World Business Weekly, in the past two decades their prices have increased an everage of at least 500 percent, appreciating in value at an annual rate of 20 at 25 percent.
"A major reason for the dramatic increase in prices," the London publication explains, "is that during the 1950s and 1960s coins were not generally viewed as an investment medium, and there were virtually no investors in the coin market. So coins were considered simply as collectors' items, and, by today's standards, they were greatly undervalued."
A worldwide demand for coins, and what is viewed as a shortage of good coinage, is fast balancing that situation, although coins in mint condition, the maagazine says, have always been in demand and easy to sell even in times of economic turbulence.
People who plan to collect coins for investment potential must make certain they know exactly what they are buying. Many old coins are of little indigenous value because so many of them stll exist. To command high prices, coins must also be unusual pieces and, as a rule, in good condition.
Coins have been sold by Sotheby's in London almost since its founding in 1744 . A year ago John L. Marion, president of Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York, decided to breathe new life into the gallery's dust and dormat coin department. He appointed the young auctioneer Lorna Kelly (who had formed a new market for Japanese netsukes, another over- looked collecting area) to do the resuscitation.
She resisted at first. "I didn't want to be around anything as grubby as money," she recalls." "I wanted to be around art. But after reading up on the subject and learning something of the history and rich symbolism of coinage, I took on the project."
She started the deparatment out of a shoe box and with no telephone. For her staff she recruited two professional numismatists, Dr. Jeremiah Brady and Michael J. Hodder, to provide good service for both consignors and buyer of rare coins. She arranged the two initial coin sales held this summer. A third sale Oct. 4 brought in $291,500. She also sereved as the enthusiastic auctioneer when the coins came on the block. Or rather on the screen, since coins are shown by projecting photographs of them on a giant screen for easier customer scrutiny.
"Most of the big money is in American coins," Mrs. Kelly says. "American coinage is obsolutely fabulous -- to me, the most wonderful and fascinating coinage in the world, although there is not much left now from the 18th century."
Dr. Brady, who until joining the Sotheby staff was associate curator of medieval coins and specialist in medals for the American Numismatic Society of New York, confirms that there is a very strong demand for American coins minted before 1850.
He defines the "true coin collector" as one who follows his own taste and instinct, who is attracted to the individual beauty and artistic and historic value of coins, and who buys more from knowledge and true interest than for investment purposes. Such collectors, he says, do their homework and inform themselves widely about the collecting area that appeals to them.
Can children and beginners of any age still afford to start a coin collection? "Of course," Dr. Brady says. "Almost everyone starts with one coin and a little curiosity. Practically every estate that we get for auction includes a few or a lot of coins. Since the demonetization of silver in the mid-'60s, it is far more difficult to find dimes, quarters, and half dollars minted before the 1960s, and therefore it is much harder now for children or adults to find interesting older coinage in pocket change."
He points out, however, that current coinage is certainly collectible, and says the Eisenhower dollars minted in 1971-74 are fetching from $2.50 to $15. Susan B. Anthony dollars, the unpopular coins issued recently, are being collected as well.
Dr. Brady says that one good way to get started is to begin to build a collection of a certain denomination of coin. Many people, without laying out a great deal of money, can collect a whole series of one coin, such as 50-cent pieces from the 1790s to the present time.
In his earlier career years, the numismatist simply set aside $50 a month to buy coins that he liked and wanted. These have given him great pleasure and have accrued in value as well. He advises beginners to attend coin shows and visit coin shops and flea markets and to look for the "junk" boxes where dealers sell assorted odd coins for 25 to 50 cents.
Dr. Brady also recommends that collectors consider good European gold and silver coins, as well as the Roman and Greek coins that are still relatively inexpensive. He thinks there are bargains going today in 19th-century art medals. A fine French medal of about 1850, with superb workmanship, can be bought today for around $50, he says.
As a beginner's interest in collecting grows, he or she should invest in the two standard reference books, R.S. Yeoman's "Guidebook of United States Coins," published by Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wis., and "The Standard Catalog of Modern World Coins," by Krause and Mishler, published by Krause Publications of Iola, Wis. Collectors refer to the first volume as "the bible" of the business, and to the second as "the telephone book."
Edward Rochette, executive vice-president of the American Numismatic Association, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., reports that the association, a nonprofit educational institution, has 35,000 members, including 1,000 affiliated clubs. For $15 annually, members receive the monthly magazine, The Numismatist. They are also entitled to use the 7,000-volume library on coins and to attend seminars. The association's address is PO Box 2366, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80901.
Mr. Rochette says the membership of the association only "scratches the surface" when it comes to revealing the extent of real interest in coin collecting. A weekly newspaper called Coin World has a circulation of about 150 ,000, he says, and the US Bureau of the Mint in Washington has no fewer than 3.5 million names on its mailing list.
How does Mr. Rochette account for this widespread interest in coins? "Because it means you can hold a little bit of history in the palm of your hand, " he says, "and that's exciting."