Q & A with ValueMyStuff's Coins expert

Coin Expert

ValueMyStuff sat down with our antique coins specialist, Charles Riley, for a Q&A. Learn more about why Charles continues to love antique coins and get insight into a specialist's valuation.

How did you become an expert in valuing coins and commemorative medals?

I have had an interest in old coins since I was six, and became a ‘schoolboy collector’. On completing a French degree I joined Phillips auctioneers in London’s New Bond Street as a porter. After a few months I joined the coin department there (which for historical reasons was called Glendining’s) as a junior cataloguer. This was a wonderful learning curve for me during which time I saw and handled a vast array of different numismatic material, including coins of all periods and countries. One of the highlights was cataloguing the Reigate Hoard of 15th century coins: I had to catalogue over six thousand silver coins in just two weeks! Books are all very well as background reading, but there’s no substitute for hands-on experience. After some years I joined Baldwin’s, the coin dealers, who were about to start holding their own auctions. Working there gave me better experience of the international side of the numismatic business with trips to the Middle East, Far East and America, as well as greater exposure to the continental European trade. Since 2005 I have been working for myself and thoroughly enjoy it – no two days are ever the same.

Is the market different between the three areas of coins, medals and banknotes, are there different types of collectors?

A strong interest in history is probably a unifying factor between collectors in all three disciplines. Coin collectors aspire to acquire the best specimen they can afford of any given coin within their field of interest, to build up a type collection of all coins issued by a dynasty or a given country over a period of time. In doing so they learn about the artistic tastes, religious beliefs, economic swings, wars and numerous other aspects affecting that country. Also, since coins were first issued circa 600 BC, collectors can own coins of great antiquity and ponder the type of people and culture which first used them.

Collectors of commemorative medals have historical events and personages depicted directly on the medals, but in addition they often enjoy the skilful artistry of the medals themselves: medals are often referred to as ‘sculpture in miniature’. The collecting fraternity for these medals is numerically much smaller – it’s a bit of a niche market – but an immensely rewarding one, and also remarkably good value. Commemorative medals shouldn’t be confused with the military medals worn on a soldier’s chest: that is an entirely different collecting field altogether.

Finally banknotes: this is a comparatively new collecting field, probably only really coming into its own in the 1980s. In general terms banknotes also reflect the cultural context in which they are issued, as well as usually being attractive colourful ‘pictures’. They reflect history also, both ecomonic, social and political. There is a small but appreciable amount of collector crossover between coins and commemorative medals, both categories generally encompassing round metal objects, but collectors of banknotes tend to be a category apart.

What is your approach to valuing coins, what do you look for?

Obviously the first task is to identify it – which is not always easy, given how vast the potential scope is. Fortunately I have a good numismatic library built up over many years, and this is always my first port of call. Next I have to assess the all-important condition of a piece, as this is essential in determining value. The difference in value between a worn coin and the same one in good condition can be very wide indeed. Finally, is there a commercial market for the piece? For example, most 20th century coins command almost no collector interest regardless of condition, probably because they are so readily available.

Does your approach differ when valuing medals from coins?

The main difference is that because medals were intended as presentation pieces, rather than suffering damage through circulation, they tend to be preserved in better condition. This means you can more or less disregard worn or battered medals as having little or no value (unless of truly exceptional historical importance). However you do have to assess what the commercial appeal of a medal is in a slightly different way to a coin. The pool of collectors is much smaller than for coins, so the subject matter has to be interesting. For instance, a medal for the 75th anniversary of an obscure industrial manufacturing company will probably command little interest regardless of its condition or rarity

Are there any books or guides you would recommend for a novice collector?

There are plenty, generally dating from the 1960s and 1970s and thus mostly out of print – but probably available from an online book retailer. A few I recommend are (general) Numismatics by Philip Grierson (1975), (coins) The Story of British Coinage by Peter Seaby (1985), Coins for Pleasure and Investment by Anthony Dowle & Patrick Finn (1969), and (Commemorative Medals) An Introduction to Commemorative Medals by Christopher Eimer (1989). However if the novice browses in a secondhand bookshop often they will find something suitable. In terms of prices, most countries have their own published price guides. In the UK these are Spink’s Coins of England and the United Kingdom (published annually) or Coins Market Values (published annually) and for commemorative medals I recommend British Commemorative Medals & their Values (2nd edition) by Christopher Eimer (2010). For banknotes I suggest Pam West’s English Paper Money, currently in its 8th edition.

How much does the value of a coin depend on the current cost of gold and silver scrap metal?

Of course the bullion content provides a basic level of value, and for common coins such as modern issues or most gold sovereigns, that will be the item’s value. However for items which are more ‘numismatic’, that is to say, they are truly collectors pieces, then they will have a value over and above their intrinsic metal content and this will usually be unaffected by swings in the market value of gold or silver.

How should coin or medal collections both old and new be cared for?

In an ideal world the collection should be stored in a purpose-made mahogany coin cabinet. These are often available in coin auctions and the most highly regarded make is probably Swann. Mahogany is important as unlike hardwoods it doesn’t damage the coins stored. A cheaper alternative is felt-lined plastic storage trays designed for coins or medals, and these are readily available for purchase online. Acid-free 2-inch square paper envelopes stored in suitable rectangular boxes are another possibility, but it’s not very convenient for looking at your collection. I would not recommend plastic storage albums as these tend to turn coins green over time!

  Are there any rare coins that are currently in circulation?

In the United Kingdom I would say not. A few years ago there was a lot of hype surrounding dateless 20-Pence coins that were released by accident into general circulation. Some examples were reportedly making large sums on online auction sites. However the Royal Mint estimated that over 200,000 of these went into circulation, so the coin is certainly not rare. By contrast on two occasions in the past 20 years I’ve been shown gold Half-Sovereigns by members of the public which they claimed had been given to them in small change in shops in error for a penny – so anything is possible!

How important is the age of the coins in terms of value?

Contrary to popular perception, it’s barely a factor at all. Often members of the public tell me they’ve got a ‘very old coin’ so it ‘must be valuable’, but the truth is that coins were made en masse and in metal, so they survive in large numbers regardless of age. What counts is the condition that they’re in: a 2,000-year old Roman coin in mint state would be almost unheard of and thus immensely valuable but the same coin worn flat would be very common and of no value at all.

What are common mistakes made by collectors and/or buyers?

I think a common error made by beginners is to buy lots of mediocre coins when for the same money you could have bought one really nice coin in good condition. Quality will always win in the end when the time comes to sell your collection. Sometimes, with regard to the general public, there can be a certain amount of ‘wishful thinking’ when it comes to the coins they have. Recently someone assured me they had a very rare Threepence dated 1937: if this had been the one of Edward VIII as they claimed, it would be extremely valuable. It was of course the worthless 1937 one issued by George VI.

What ‘type’ of coins are most sought after?

Strange to say, but coin collecting fields are subject to changing ‘fashion’ and cycles. In the past two decades Russian coins and medals have had peaks and troughs, so have English milled coins, amongst others. To an extent it’s a reflection of supply and demand as with anything else. However the common factor is good condition and rarity, in that order. Numismatic coins in top grades will always sell well.

What is next for coin collecting?

Some of the classic collecting fields of yesteryear, such as ancient Greek coins or even Anglo-Saxon coins are now mostly beyond the pocket of the average collector. However if you accept the premise that what unites most coin collectors is a love of history, then there is still plenty of scope. Coins and medals of the French Revolution are still inexpensive for example or perhaps niche collections such as 19th century Italy before unification in 1860: the possibilities for using coins to learn about fascinating areas of history are legion. At the other end of the scale there has been a tendency in recent years for the high-end of the market to outpace the rest. In no small part this is due to wealthy individuals seeking to put money into a ‘safe investment’ and this is almost certain to continue.

Do you have a private collection and what is your personal area of interest?

I used to collect regional French medieval coins, but sold my collection to subsidise the meagre salary of a specialist auction cataloguer at the start of his career. However once a collector, always a collector – it’s a life sentence. I began collecting Welsh-language medallions in 1992. This may seem an odd choice for an Englishman with limited knowledge of Welsh, but I had to collect something numismatic. I’d been holidaying in a Welsh-speaking part of Wales annually since 1970 which sparked my initial interest – and I wanted to collect something that you didn’t see every day across your work desk. It seemed an obvious choice and I still collect these. Along the way it has taught me a great deal about Wales, Welsh culture, history and indeed some of the language.

What is the most important piece or collection you have seen to date?

Without question this was a collection I was approached about by the owners in 2012. I received a telephone message on my answerphone one weekend which eventually led to the London auction sale the next year of an ‘oldtime’ collection of quality British coins, realising a million pounds. One item alone sold for a hammer price of £160,000. The collection had been formed in the 1950s and early 1960s, and been in storage ever since. That was probably a once in a lifetime event for me, but you live in hope!

Is there any piece or collection you would like to see?

I would love to examine the collections of both The Royal Mint and HM The Queen. However the Mint’s collection has very restricted access, and the Royal Collection is all but inaccessible. Nevertheless what treasures must lie within.

Where would you recommend collectors to buy coins & bank notes from, is it safe to buy online?

As a rule I would recommend that collectors buy from dealers or auctioneers who are members of their respective national trade organizations. In the UK this is the British Numismatic Trade Association (BNTA). Such members guarantee their coins as authentic (or a money-back guarantee) and there is a regulatory body behind them in the unlikely event that a customer has a serious complaint that can’t be resolved easily. This is not to say that non-members should be avoided, far from it, but at least with a registered member you know in advance that you’re in safe hands. As regards online-only dealers or auction sites, then it is very much ‘caveat emptor’. A colleague once described a well-known online auction site as ‘the wild west of numismatics’ and I think that is about right: you need to know your stuff and if in doubt, ask the right questions before bidding.

What do you like most about working with ValueMyStuff?

One of the great pleasures is that the frontline staff and founder Patrick have such a helpful and positive attitude! As regards the expertise side, I love the random nature of the items I’m asked to value: it keeps me on my toes and means I’m always learning (even after 25 years in this field).

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