Like millions of others, when we were forced to shut the door of our coin and stamp shop in Hungerford in March, my main emotions were apprehension and sadness. I headed home to self-isolating work from the shed and what I – wrongly – thought would be a very lean time.
Up until that point we had been extremely busy buying and selling all aspects of collectable coins and stamps. There had also been a growing interest in gold and silver coins as the bullion price kept nudging up – and the stock market nudging down – ahead of the pandemic. In my former City life I would have heavily shorted the FTSE 100 in excess of 7,300, looking for a drop towards the potential target of 5,000. I would also have been invested in precious metals, especially silver.
However, those hectic days of bullion and share certificates are over for me: the precious metals I tend to deal with now are cast with a monarch’s head and the printed items I buy and sell have perforated edges and a postmark. The first thing I did when I got home was to appraise this stock and to list online just about everything that had been lying around in the shop for a while. I specialise in acquiring large collections and accumulations of coins and stamps. Often these are family inheritances, parents having subscribed to the various Mints which promote collectables heavily in the media. We usually then break these collections down so that they find a new home at the ‘secondary market price level’.
(It is sometimes difficult to explain to families just how much over the odds some of these Mints charge for Commemorative coinage. The Royal Mint, for example, charges £99.50 for a Silver £5 coin in a presentation box with a certificate. In the secondary market we sell these for £15 each. The Mints justify their high prices by referring to the exceptional design work and packaging. If their products are so great, I sometimes ask, why don’t they buy them back themselves?)
The sorting and pricing up took several days. Then we started to list online. As well as using our own website to promote coins and stamps we are also very active on many Facebook groups. I was expecting things to be pretty quiet: after all, people had a lot of other things on their minds. From what I saw in the papers, toilet rolls and dried pasta rather than silver sixpences and Penny Blacks were what people were after. Like so many businesses, I sensed this might be a time for things to do little more than tick over.
How wrong I was. Almost immediately, there was a huge surge in interest from all over the world in the items we put up for sale. It was common to see people fighting over coins and stamps within seconds of their appearing. At first I thought this was as a result of lockdown boredom, but soon began to realise that the collectable market was starting to generate huge new interest. There was also a change in the way the major auction houses were having to conduct their business after lockdown. Gone were the days of browsing and viewing: now everything was online which created an immediacy that even the busiest auction house, dealing with one item at a time, can never match. Sites were changing by the minute with ‘sold’ banners flashing up all over the place: click now or forever hold your peace was the implied message. I watched with interest as the first of a few major houses offered their catalogues in an online format only. Prices soared, and then a few days later soared again. It was clear there was a massive scramble for collectables.
Around this time, the Chancellor announced rescue packages for small businesses. Credits of £10,000 and £50,000 started to appear in small businesses bank accounts. The stock markets continued to plummet, and gold and silver to rise. The ratio between gold and silver was narrowing having touched 130 to 1 was now heading to 100. Gold Sovereigns, which had traded at around £280 pre-lockdown, were now approaching £400 a piece. I was receiving phone calls and emails asking if I could supply £50,000 of gold coins in one hit. Articles appeared in the media suggesting that stamp collecting was the new ‘cool’ amongst the millennials. Our online volumes trebled from before lockdown. One big aspect was missing, though, as I was missing the interaction with visitors to the shop.
The next big auction was at Hansons in Derby. Charles Hanson is a well know figure in the antiques world. One of the key coin lots was an 1887 Gold and Silver Set. The estimate was £2,000 to £3,000: in fact, it hammered out at £11,000. When you add the buyer’s premium, this made the set a lofty £14,000+. If I’d suggested to Charles six months ago that the set might fetch that kind of sum he’s have told me to get my head examined.
New sellers were appearing, too, including those who had fallen through the cracks of the government bail outs and needed to raise urgent funds. If they were lucky enough to have a half-forgotten collection of stamps or coins, we have been able to accommodate them. (It is possible to arrange visits to our shop by appointment on a one-to-one basis with social-distancing regulations being observed).
I think we have entered a new era of strategy with regard to collectables being the new norm. A lack of trust in banks, near zero interest rates and the scramble for possessions that are tangible has added fuel to the fire. When we reopen I will be delighted to assist with any enquiry, whether you wish to buy or sell, invest or simply have a chat.
In the meantime, this is great opportunity to dig out that collection that you might have in their attic or lumber room. Coronavirus has changed many aspects of life. I’ve seen a few ups and downs in the various markets I’ve worked in but I certainly wasn’t expecting the virus to change the world of coins and stamps as much as it has done.
Images: (L) Victoria 1887 Gold and Silver coin set sold at Hansons Auctioneers 6 May during lockdown (estimate £2,500-£3,000) sold for £14,300 (including buyer’s premium); (R) Silver Proof UNA and the Lion issued by the Royal Mint in December 2019 for £180 latest auction price £1,000 during lockdown.