Monday, November 12, 2012
Transition to an Intermediate Collector
By Huang Ruiyong
In the previous lecture, we discussed the beginner's approach to collection. I stated that the following points are crucial to a beginner: coin affinity, logical reasoning, coin knowledge, awareness of gem coins, making friends and information symmetry. After stepping over the threshold to gold and silver coin collection, we find ourselves looking out to a brand new world. So, after passing through the beginner stage, how can we smoothly transition to an intermediate collector? Following are some key considerations.
First, we need to decide on the themes. Themes for coin collection are different from those of stamp collection. They can be based on different focal points. We all have limited time, cash and access to the market. As a result, only collecting around themes can enable us to reach an elevated level. For example, we can concentrate on the theme of grottos for our collection, because grottos were the supreme representative of ancient Chinese art of stone sculpture. When they are grafted to gold and silver coins through re-creation, they definitely give out a powerful visual impact. Another example: we can focus on piefort coins based on the theme of technology. So far very few piefort coins have been issued, and they are highly valued. They offer the collector a great opportunity to excel in collection. We can also collect 1/2oz gold coins based on the theme of size. This mainstream size has many gems to offer, too.
Only after the themes are decided on, can we overcome the asymmetry in location, information, market channels, cash and coin knowledge, and advance further in collection. In other words, collectors concentrating on themes will finally be viewed with esteem among coin collectors. Of course, themes should not be decided on blindly. We need to take into consideration our own circumstances. For those well-to-do financially, larger size gold and silver coins can be the target of collection, but even for those focusing on small silver coins, if you persist over a long period of time, you will still stand out, winning respect from fellow collectors.
Now that we have decided on our personal theme after serious thinking, what should we do next?
First, we have to be realistic about the timeline of collecting. Many people are totally overwhelmed when they first get to know gold and silver coins, and would not waste a single moment in their attempt to own the top gems. But cash alone cannot lead to sophisticated collection. Think about it. If collection can be purchased with money alone, then nobody can be better collectors than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. In collection, we emphasize winning out in a marathon. So we need to adjust our expectations: Rome was not built in one day. In the same spirit, our own gem collection cannot be built over a few days. Moreover, the fun about collection is not just the end result, but more of the process. We search everywhere for the coin we desire, far and wide, exhausting ourselves in the process, but without the slightest regret. This searching process will deepen the heart-felt affinity you have towards the hard-to-find gem you finally lay your hand on. In other words, the fun of collecting does not come just from the ultimate ownership, but more from the searching process.
Now let's talk about the priority of collection. For beginners, the collection process is like taking the college entrance exam. They go from the easy parts to the difficult sections. Simply put, when collecting coins, they are more likely to start from the latest years and then trace back. But for intermediate collectors, they must break this conventional thinking, and go for the hard nuts (key dates), to secure better achievements in collection. Once the hard nuts are cracked, it all becomes galloping on a vast open terrain. Key dates are like tesuji in the go game. Once you have them, you have the flexibility of offense or defense. For example, once you have collected the 1982 gold Soccer, you don't have to worry about missing anything in the sports coin set. Take another example, if you have the first series of the Bronze Age gold coins, they will absolutely be admired by other collectors. Anyone who owns the key dates is best positioned for further gains. There is no doubt about it!
When intermediate collectors have had a clear sense of the timeline and priority of collection, they need to learn to give up. This is a critical tactic that distinguishes intermediate collectors from beginners. The old saying goes: nothing given, nothing gained. It is like playing the go game. In a go game, if you have two isolated groups of pieces under fierce attack, you have to make maneuvers to gain advantage. For intermediate collectors, the following motto has to be kept in mind all the time: lose a pawn to save a castle; lose a castle to save the king. Gem coins under the sun cannot be pocketed by any one person. Once we have learned to give up, we have made a solid step to becoming an intermediate collector. Learning to give and take is easier said than done. Wilde once said, "I can resist anything but temptation." For a collector, when presented with an eyeful of glittering gem coins and medals, which tantalize every nerve in the brain, the overwhelming temptation is hard to resist. But our pocket has a fixed size. So even if we cannot turn our back without a blink, we need to remind ourselves all the time of the principle of giving and taking.
In addition to the theme, timeline, priority and the tactic of giving up, the training process of an intermediate collector includes handling physical coins. This is of utmost importance, which should never be missed. It is because in any collection of artistic works, looking at catalogs and visiting websites only is far from enough. It is like a commander talking about stratagems on paper, who would have his army routed in the end. Only by touching physical coins can we appreciate the exquisiteness of many modern coins and medals. For example, by looking at the catalog alone, it is impossible to realize that the engravers of the 1983 1/3oz Marco Polo gold coin did such a great job in bringing out the profound and wise expression in his eyes, leaving the viewer with an everlasting impression. Another example is the 1989 Guanyin silver medal. If you do not see the actual medal, it is hard to imagine the benign and stately posture of the Buddha. Take one more example. The 1990 Eight Immortals Offering Gift silver medal has the God of Longevity on the obverse, and the eight immortals offering gifts on the reverse. The looks of each immortal are presented vividly before our eyes. The physical medal is simply gorgeous. In addition, some special technologies, such as piefort, coin alignment and coin edge lettering, can never be displayed on the catalog. Besides, for intermediate collectors to start appreciating more subtle features of a gem coin, such as high relief, multi-layer frosting, and line carving, catalogs have proved to be very inadequate. Of course, only the physical item can bring out the strikingly beautiful effect of various toning, such as plain toning and rainbow toning, which adds to the inherent charm of the gem coins. Such toning cannot be cloned by catalogs. Our ancestors said, "Read ten thousand volumes of books, and travel ten thousand miles." The implication is that whatever we learn from books is shallow. Real knowledge comes from physical action. In order to become more sophisticated in collection, intermediate collectors must constantly meet coin-collecting friends, observing, asking questions, and collecting data as much as they can. Remember: the treasured images of some rare gems exist only in our mind. Only on the occasion when a physical coin makes its rare appearance, are we swept away by the feeling of adrenalin being madly pumped into our system.
In the actual practice of collection, an intermediate collector must not overlook the most common category: the panda coins. A MCC collector will not be able to feel the powerful depth and breadth of modern Chinese coins without truly understanding panda coins. There are literally too many gems among panda coins, which include all the exceptional categories we can think of: piefort coins, coins with coin alignment, bi-metal coins, colored coins, palladium coins, platinum coins… Once we have a full understanding of panda coins, we will naturally be qualified to make our own judgment on other coins. It is like going to restaurants. Panda coins provide the chance for us to taste all types of food and their ingredients. Once we have experienced panda coins, we should feel at home with other coin families.
Intermediate collectors should not dismiss gold and silver medals from the PRC, because coins and medals share the same source. Many early medals were designed and issued specifically for seasoned foreign collectors and numismatists. These medals with very low mintage achieved a great feat when they passed their critical eyes. On foreign markets, gem medals have never lost to coins in their price. What medals should we focus on? We focus primarily on the "official medals." These "official medals" are those from institutes that can issue medals on international markets on behalf of the PRC, such as China Mint Company, China Gold Coins Co. and China Coins Limited. Of course, early medals (before 1997) from China Arts&Crafts Import and Export Corp, Shenyang Mint and Shanghai Mint are very outstanding, too. They qualify as "semi-official" medals. Many of the early medals are gems, such as the Hong Kong, ANA and Munich Expo medals, medals with religious themes, and vault protector medals. These are all top picks. Now they are still available now and then on the market. Knowledgeable collectors should pick them up and look after them with great care. In time, they will become treasure of the house.
Intermediate collectors should not limit their interest to coins only. They need to broaden their view, to include medals, which are offshoots from coins. Of course, we will only pick gems from medals, while rejecting the mediocre ones among them. Generally speaking, new technologies, such as slanted edge reeding, irregular shapes and latent engraving, are tested on medals first. So the study of medals will in turn advance our expertise in coin collection.
(The lecture has a section discussing price discovery, which is omitted from the same topic in Huang's book, for good reasons. It is too technical and confusing. I am omitting it here, too.)
To summarize this lecture, I believe that for anyone to shed the naivety of a beginner and transition to an intermediate collector, the following points need to be fully heeded:
1. Focus on collection with themes;
2. Establish an appropriate timeline expectation for target collection;
3. Collect based on the optimal order;
4. Learn to give up;
5. Physical contact is of paramount importance;
6. Pandas are far from common;
7. Do not dismiss early official medals;
8. Establish one's own price comparison theory.
Once collectors have mastered all these essentials, with the help of good luck, effort and wealth, they will have the opportunity to uplift themselves, and gradually ascend to admirable heights.