Wholesale vs. Retail vs. Auction by Andy Lustig

There is much confusion as to how coins are valued. Because the market for patterns is more thin and erratic than the markets for most other coins, the confusion is even greater for pattern collectors.

The following framework for defining values may be helpful:

Retail – This is the highest price that a specific dealer will quote non-dealers. The potential buyer may be a knowledgeable collector, a novice or an investor.

High Wholesale – This is the price that a specific dealer will pay if he has a customer lined up for the coin, or if he at least has a pretty good idea where he can profitably resell the coin on a retail or discounted retail basis.

Low Wholesale – This is the price that a specific dealer will pay to stock a coin, i.e. without having a specific customer in mind for the coin.

Naturally, each dealer will have his own opinion as to what the retail and wholesale values are for each given item. It would not be unusual for one dealer to quote his high wholesale price to another dealer, thinking that that was a good place to begin negotiations, and for that other dealer to consider the price exorbitant and in excess of retail. Conversely, many of us have at one time or another happily paid a dealer’s retail quote, knowing that the coin was actually a bargain.

That said, assuming that the buyer and seller agree on the value of a coin (an unusual situation, but it happens),one would expect many dealer-to-collector sales take place between high wholesale and retail prices. Similarly, many dealer-to-dealer sales would take place between low wholesale and high wholesale prices.

So what about auctions? The answer here is far more confusing.

At an auction, there may be any number of dealers, collectors and investors vying for each coin. Each of the bidders has estimated the value of the item, and each has decided how aggressive he wants to be in pursuing the lot. Some bidders will refuse to bid on a lot unless they can “steal” it, other bidders may be willing to pay way over “retail” for the privilege of ownership. I.e., each bidder will, based on numerous considerations, determine a bid on the continuum between zero and infinity.

Things become even more convoluted, however, as the auction progresses. Potential bidders may run out of money, or they may just “chicken out”. Conversely, bidders may succumb to “auction fever”, increasing their bids out of frustration, enthusiasm, and/or an increased level of confidence brought about by seeing other people bidding. In short, bidders’ predetermined bids often do not equal their actual bids, and their actual bids reflect far more than their appraisal of the coins "market" value. Two of the most commonly heard lines in an auction room are “That was cheap!” and “Why did I buy that?”

Allow me to make one last observation about auctions. When a lot is hammered down, we rarely know how high the winner was going to go. All we know is where the second highest bidder was willing to go. If a lot is sold for $5000, but the highest bidder would have gone to $20,000, what is the lot worth?

The answer is that it depends. If you’re the consignor, we know the answer: $5000, less commissions to the auctioneer. If you’re the second highest bidder: about $5000. What if you’re the highest bidder? Could be a lot of different numbers. If you’re a dealer, you might come to realize that you made a mistake when you figured the lot, and be happy to break even. You might be convinced that you were right, but find that the publication of the price realized will make it difficult for you to resell the item for a big profit. You might stick to your guns and get a big profit, especially if you can find a buyer who didn’t attend the auction. Or you might be lucky enough to already have a customer waiting to buy the coin for $25,000.

So, what’s it worth?