The Art of Coin Collecting
Katherine Mullen is a longtime GRAPE member who runs the business side of Mullen Coins. We talked with her husband Pat Mullen of Mullen Coins about his business and his passion for coin collecting.
What kinds of products and services does Mullen Coins provide?
Our specialty is United States coins and currency, as well as obsolete U.S. currency, but we do a fair amount of work with foreign coins and currency too.
Tell us a little about the history of your business.
I have been a collector my entire life. Through my adult life I’ve been an avid collector. I’ve built some substantial collections, sold them at auction, and built others again. About 15 or 20 years ago, I started negotiating for friends and family members who had collections and wanted to sell them, but had no idea how to do so. I’ve seen too many people with coin collections get ripped off, selling them for far less than their real value. I began representing them. I shopped their collections to coin dealers, and then received a small commission.
Over time word of mouth built to the point where I was getting busier and busier with it, so about 5 years ago we launched Mullen Coins as an ecommerce business. We buy lots of collections here in West Michigan, and then sell them all across the country. We are really busy!
What is the West Michigan market for coins like?
There are a good many local collectors, and I would say that our sales market is really more national than international. We sell a lot of coins in Michigan, we sell a lot of coins across the entire United States, and can ship internationally too. Most of the collections that we have purchased our local, bought from collectors, and also customers who have inherited collections.
It’s a lot easier for customers to take a collection to a trusted source and sell it, rather than to try to ship and sell it across the country to a dealer they don’t know. These collections vary in size, and you never really know what your next purchase will be. You’ll get a call, and it could be for a $100 worth of coins or a $100,000 worth of coins. Everybody has a different interest.
What effect has fluctuations in the price of gold had?
Much of the risk of the coin collecting business is due to the large influence of the price of silver and gold. With some coins, their entire value is based upon their silver or gold content. Other coins have numismatic value above their silver or gold content. As the price of gold goes up, the numismatic value of the coins rides on top of that, as it goes down the value will ride down with it. So as gold and silver, over the last two years for example, have lost significant value, that has created a softer coin market. And when gold and silver go up, it’s just the reverse.
What coins have you found to be most in demand?
That’s cyclical too. There is always a demand for bullion coins and bulk gold and silver… for people who just like to invest in gold and silver. But that is not really numismatics. For numismatic coins, I think what are the most in demand are always going to be Lincoln cents. That’s what people start collecting and continue to collect. Morgan Dollars are probably one of the most popular series. The trends over the past 10 to 20 years have changed to favoring the truly rare coins, the key date coins from those series and particularly the key date coins in the best condition. So as an example, the rarest Morgan Dollar is an 1893-S(San Francisco Mint) coin.
That coin in a heavily circulated condition is still a $2000 coin. But from there it goes up dramatically, so that one that is “Gem Uncirculated” condition will be valued from between $750,000 and $1 million. That’s what condition will do. With every increase in the quality of the coin you might get a significant bump in the value. But that is only for the rarest coins.
The generic coins might have less price appreciation between grades. For example, the 1885-O Morgan (New Orleans Mint) is a very common date: the price of that coin in Gem Uncirculated condition is only between $150 and $160. But the 1893-S Morgan is $750,000. So it gives you an idea of the added value of a rare date in addition to the condition.
Because of all the price ranges, a lot of people have the opportunity to be collectors. You can collect at any end of it. For a lot of people who get into collecting coins today, it’s challenging to go out and find rare-date coins. You can’t find Morgan silver dollars in circulation. However, a lot of today’s collectors are trying to find coins in circulation or are searching for errors and varieties.
There are certain little errors in coins that make them unique. An example would be a 2000-P Sacagawea dollar. There is a variety out there that has a die gouge in the breast of the eagle (on the reverse). Hence, it’s name, the “Wounded Eagle,” worth $200-$300. A regular one without the die gouge is worth only $1. There are people out there searching for that kind of stuff just for fun, to see if they can find the rare varieties.
Do you have a favorite coin collecting story?
A few years ago, a young man in Michigan bought a roll of 1969-S Lincoln pennies. It’s a very common date, but there is a very rare 1969-S variety, a double die, that he found. It was an uncirculated one that sold for about $45,000 at auction! There are only about 20 of them known, so it’s not the type of thing that you can go searching for and hope to find one, but when you do they’re very valuable.
Are there any challenges that Mullen Coins anticipates having to address as a business over the next few years?
In this business the most important thing over the life of the business is its reputation. If you lose that, you lose everything. In coin dealing, a company’s integrity and honesty will drive a business’s success. If you don’t treat people right, if you’re not fair in what you’re doing, it will catch up with you, and you won’t have a business. Our approach is simple, in that we try to look at coins and let people know what we would pay for them, what they’re worth to us as a dealer, and what we would expect to sell them for (what they’re worth on the retail market.)
I think someone selling a collection of coins has the right to know what a dealer expects to make when they sell the coin. Obviously we have to make a profit or we would go out of business. But I think it’s very fair for people to ask a question and understand what margin a dealer expects. So, when I buy a coin or a full collection, I normally go through it with the client, I’ll pull one aside and say, “I would pay X for this coin, and when I sell it I would probably sell it for about Y.” So they get a full understanding, and I find by doing that they’re comfortable knowing that I’m paying a fair value, and yet I’ve got coins that I know when I sell I’m make a little bit of a profit on them. I think this transparency helps the reputation of the business.
What do you love about collecting coins?
I’ve always loved coins especially the rare coins and the “treasure hunts.” I love going through the hoards of coins and looking for little specialties. I’ve also bought some very expensive coins over the years for my own collection. If you buy high quality coins over a period of time, they’ll normally go up in value. My wife would just about kill me when I came home and tell her I just spent X amount of dollars on a coin. She would say it had just better work, and fortunately, it usually has.