by Scott Balson
If there is a sure thing, like death and taxes, it is that the Internet has forever changed the face of numismatics.
It is out with the old and in with the new. In the past serious coin collectors and investors relied upon printed auction catalogues and coin books to evaluate and acquire rare and valuable coins for their collection. This has changed in the last few years and this change is destined to have a major detrimental impact on coin dealers who do not embrace the change in technology and the new world of on-line databases, search capabilities and PDFs.
As a young man in the 1970s I depended upon the local coin dealer or fellow collectors at the Pietermaritzburg Numismatic Society to source new pieces for my collection of South African coins. In many ways the coin dealer had a monopoly over me - because he was the only real source I had. Part of that dependence was his ability to set prices aimed at maximising his margins and profit.
Now this has all changed - in fact the coin dealer who has not already embraced the Internet is fast becoming irrelevant and, I believe, will go out of business if he does not wake up to the communication revolution.
As a serious collector for over 25 years who has been acquiring numismatic pieces in his specialist area of interest - that of pre-Union coinage and bank notes in South Africa and, coincidentally, as a pioneer of the world wide web (my company pioneered computer based marketing in Australia) I believe that I am well qualified to talk on this subject.
Today nearly all my acquisitions happen on the Internet and if a coin dealer is not there with a web page, presence on eBay or email then he is persona non gratia. And this is important because most of my purchases are still made from South African Collectors and dealers - despite the fact that I now live in Australia. You see search engines like Google rule... that's how I do my research, find my leads, coin dealers and subsequently acquire the pieces I am looking for...
Of all the coin-related web sites in the world the most informative web site is the US-based Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers and, to me, their most valuable services is the ability to search over 800,000 past auction sales. This enables me to determine real value on those rare and elusive Griqua and South African pieces. A word of warning - you need to register with Heritage to access this facility - but it costs nothing and you get their newsletter as a bonus, so who cares!
Among the coin grading companies NGC is the clear leader because it allows me to access its population reports for free - something that the others still have to cotton on to. Providing free services on the Internet creates goodwill and when I get coins graded I don't look past NGC. (A word of warning NGC have advised me that their population reports are not up to date - something I noted when an NGC slabbed 1890 Griqua Town pattern penny I own did not appear on their population report.)
Just five years ago who would have ever even considered access to powerful services like these on-line? Yet, the most powerful, and my daily favourite source of exploration is eBay. Over 80% of my numismatic purchases, under the pseudonym of "tokensa1", are made on eBay. This service, when linked with its financial arm, PayPal, has no equal in the world when it comes to sourcing and paying on-line for rare and valuable pieces for your coin collection.
All these on-line services reflect leaders in their own areas of speciality - they are so far ahead of traditional leading coin dealers and service providers of the past that they have now made them largely irrelevant. Big names like Spink and, in South Africa, the long-established City Coins of Cape Town have only recently got this right by offering PDFs of current auctions on-line. Many other coin dealers like Eastgate Universal Stamp and Coin in the Transvaal (South Africa) now run most of their sales through eBay with spectacular success.
In fact I purchased a Veld Pond from Eastgate earlier this year as a direct result of having done previous business with them through eBay - an email was all it took - and they had a major sale worth over US$10,000 from an Australian-based numismatist who would never have walked into their shop in a thousand years!
First and foremost the Internet is a research-driven vehicle and the number of web sites that now present mountains of valuable on-line information on specialised areas in numismatics is growing at an incredible rate. My own web site on pre-Union South African coins is based on 25 years of research and the careful study of some fifty related books (many of which I have acquired through the Internet). This research and its publication on the Internet has resulted in an extraordinary following for the trade tokens of Strachan and Company which are today recognised as South Africa's first bona-fide circulating currency of origin. Now the reason I am labouring on about this web site is because of the impact that it has had - not only on the trade tokens of Strachan and Company but on all the pieces in my area of research. Today Griqua pieces, including the Strachan and Co trade tokens, which were until recently largely unknown, command very high prices - co-incidentally in the last five years over two million people have visited my website covering the history of early South African coins and bank notes.
Yes, the Griqua Pond bank note is in itself a fascinating example of how useful the Internet can be for the serious numismatist or investor. The few remaining original bank notes are bound into the extremely rare book "The Early Annals of Kokstad" (NOTE 1902 - not the 1978 Killie Campbell Library reprint which carries a facsimile of the note). The book was written by the Rev William Dower, who lived and worked among the Griquas from the 1860s to the 1890s. In 25 years I only came across one copy of this book after scouring all the antiquarian book stores in South Africa, yet by using the Internet I was able to acquire two more copies in just months through this incredible link to millions of old and rare books held in thousands of bookstores around the world. The note in the near Unc condition that it is normally found in the book sells for thousands of US$ yet I crossed the boundary from numismatics to books when seeking it out and got the books for just US$50 each. Not bad when less than twenty copies of the bank note are believed to be in existence today! (The rest of these unissued pieces were burnt).
Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I first started collecting you practically had to wash your mouth out if you mentioned "token coins" at a meeting of numismatists in fact there was a great debate as to whether I should be allowed to give a talk on the trade tokens of Strachan and Company in 1978. In those days the collectors were just starting to get into medals (which have never really excited me) but that principle is right. Today, with the Internet, you can cast yourself back in time and not just acquire rare numismatic pieces, but books of that age, memorabilia, letters of prominent people associated with your collection, title deeds, documents and so much more. Only the Internet has opened up these doors.
My special area of interest is non-mainstream South African coins and bank notes preceding 1900 with my place of birth (Dar-es-Salaam) expanding my interest to German East Africa. The fascinating exploits of Baron von Lettow Vorbeck, the only German Commander never defeated by the Allies (World War One) has led to my interest in the gun metal coins and bank notes struck in the field by this extraordinary man. Last year on eBay I was able to acquire an extraordinary and historic card signed by von Lettow Vorbeck shortly after World War Two in which he thanks an American donor for helping him with a parcel of food - quite extraordinary for a German war hero who denounced the Nazi regime - and the unique card cost me just US$100.
It is quite clear to me that the Internet has opened up a whole new area for philatelists, numismatists, card and document collectors, antiquarian book collectors and the like. Just like computer-based multimedia where all the media are becoming one I believe that the face of numismatics is changing with serious collectors now embracing the opportunity that the Internet provides them to become specialist "theme" based collectors... themes embracing all these collectible areas whether it be the American Civil War, the obscure Griqua or an interest in the middle ages.
Better still, like me, you can now document and display your collections to the world through the Internet and create your own following of collectors who have similar interests.
The Internet is all about information and communication. The company that is going to wrap up the area of numismatics in the future, like eBay has in on-line auctions, is the one that provides access to related research materials and articles for numismatists as well as
mintages of all coins, with images, from around the world
updating values of all coins and bank notes based on recent auctions (including eBay)
providing buy and sell capabilities for numismatists
sending out newsletters aimed at their area of interest
providing forums for discussion, and
providing financial services for those major purchases by investors.
It was the web browser Mosaic which revolutionised the Internet in 1994. Mosaic was soon surpassed by Netscape in 1995 which in turn has been over-run by Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The latest browser to make a run at Internet Explorer is Firefox... as you can see the world of web browsers is in a state of flux just like the morass of specialist web sites aimed at coin collectors and investors. Whoever gets it right is going to make some serious bucks!
The biggest collective winners in this Internet evolution are the astute investors with a growing army of new collectors gleaning new found interest from the information on the Internet and driving prices of well researched and interesting numismatic items ever higher. As a result, a new factor in the investment calculation has been introduced - going beyond scarcity and condition.
Numismatics is in an exciting state of evolution - driven by the age of enlightenment.