Internet discussion groups at their best represent the epitome
of free expression. They give ordinary people, not just politicians, entertainers, journalists, and so on, the
opportunity to air their views in public and receive responses back. It's everybody being able to stand on a stump
in Boston Common and engage in spirited oratory, of anybody playing the role of Demosthenes in the Athenian Agora,
and having your voice heard.
With numismatics, unfortunately, many of the more popular moderated online discussion groups reign in free speech
for commercial reasons. Numismatic discussion groups are typically run by dealers and other business interests.
You're usually not permitted to say anything negative about the person or organization who runs the group and,
more nefariously, it's typically frowned upon to offer a negative opinion about another dealer or a criticism of
a practice of the numismatic establishment.
What happens when your comments run afoul of the dealer who heads the group is that you're warned, your posts are
moderated or completely censored, or you're kicked off the group.
This has happened repeatedly in PCGS Coin Message Boards, PCGS being the most popular U.S. coin grading service;
eBay Feedback Forum, eBay being the most popular auction site; Moneta-L, the most popular email discussion group
about ancient coins run by coin dealer Kevin Barry; CFDL, the most popular email group about coin forgery run by
coin dealer Alan Van Arsdale; FORVM, the most popular Web site with a discussion area about ancient coins run by
coin dealer Joe Sermarini; Ancients.info, another popular web site with a discussion area about ancient coins moderated
by various coin dealers; and elsewhere.
People running these discussion groups typically do so to promote their coin business or the business they're employed
by, investing sometimes considerable time in the group, and they deserve some latitude in how they run the group.
But frequently their control is excessive.
Different discussion groups are run differently and have different internal cultures. CFDL encourages the lambasting
of other dealers but doesn't permit in the discussion group criticism of the dealer running the group or the group
itself. Participants who have done this become moderated, which means that their posts are not permitted to be
distributed to the group without one of the moderators approving each one.
Moneta-L is more subdued, yet it has dozens of collectors moderated, typically without their knowledge, because
they've left posts in the past critical of some aspect of numismatics. Epitomizing the internal culture of the
group, one participating dealer has said, "I believe that it is absolutely essential to maintain the policy
that adverse remarks directed at individuals are not allowed. That of course includes reports of alleged dealer
This is all understandably self-serving, but it has a more troubling side. The thwarting of people's ability to
share opinions is counter to the very essence of our society. A cornerstone of democracy is a free marketplace
of ideas. Such a marketplace is how we learn about government and politicians, companies and their products and
services, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, and so on. Stifling this is
simply wrong-headed. The markets and industries that are strongest are the ones that are open to scrutiny, and
Some people object to the vigorous and sometimes heated point/counterpoint of online discussion. In unmoderated
discussion groups, such debate often reaches the level of flamewars, which are characterized by personal attacks,
name-calling, and outright lying. There's no worse offense in online discussion groups than to deliberately lie
about another participant, as a "debating" technique or to goad. It's the online equivalent of making
coin forgeries and selling them as authentic coins.
There's a healthy balance, however, between these extremes, between anything-goes nastiness on one hand and censorship
in groups controlled too tightly on the other hand. Unless it gets out of hand, there's nothing inherently wrong
with argumentation, except to those afraid of the truth.
If you hear falsity, you should be allowed to correct it with truth. If your attempt to correct what you regard
as falsity is wrong, others should be allowed to correct you. Democracy, by definition, is argumentative, with
the ideal being debate that's both vigorous and civil. In writing about First Amendment issues, Oliver Wendell
Holmes, former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said that the best answer to wrong speech is more speech.
There are a number of falsehoods and deceptive practices that go on in numismatics, some major, some minor, some
borderline, and though much more is committed by the shady characters and the crooks, the toniest auction houses
aren't always guiltless in numismatics and other collectibles areas, as headlines periodically reveal.
These practices include:
- Making forgeries or knowingly selling them as authentic
- Selling questionable coins as authentic without disclosing
that the coins have been questioned even when they've been questioned by an auction house's own people
- Returning a coin or coins condemned as a forgery to the
supplier who in all likelihood will find another way to sell it to a collector as an authentic coin
- Coin doctoring that artificially improves a coin's appearance
in ways generally found unacceptable by the numismatic community, such as fillling in cracks and gouges with epoxy,
whizzing a coin's surfaces with a high-speed drill to simulate luster, reengraving details that has been lost to
- Selling coins knowing they've been doctored without disclosing
- Overgrading a coin, indicating its state of preservation
or overall eye appeal is better than it is
- Overgrading with the help of a fringe grading service that
doesn't adhere to commonly recognized grading standards and appears to be set up specifically to help dealers overgrade
- Selling ancient coins with the help of a grading service
that grades according to more lenient standards than normally used with ancients without disclosing the true grade
- Disparaging the quality of coins when buying them and then
extolling the quality of the same coins when selling them, which includes telling a collector his coin is one grade
when buying it and then assigning the same coin a higher grade when selling it
- Raising a coin's grade after it didn't previously sell
- Taking coins to be appraised, then discovering afterward
that some have been switched with similar ones that are in worse condition, more common dates or varieties, or
otherwise less valuable (a precaution is to take photos or scans first)
- Hype/exaggeration about rarity, indicating a coin is rarer
than it is, with ancient coins sometimes even to the point of describing a coin as unique when the dealer or auction
house knows of other recently discovered coins of the same type in the same hoard that will soon reach the market
- Hype/exaggeration about the future appreciation potential
of the value of a coin or coins
- Misattributions and misleading descriptions in online and
print auction catalogs to make a coin or coin type appear more desirable
- Fabrication of the provenance and other stories behind
- Deceptive coin photography that hides defects or makes
a coin's surfaces look more attractive than in person
- Inflated pricing in coin price guides, which purportedly
provide market pricing when the intention seems to be to help dealer/advertisers maximize margins
- Dealers selling and buying the same coin among themselves
to establish an artificially high price to collectors, particularly with coin types or varieties that haven't been
on the market lately
- Dealers or auction houses artificially bidding up their
own or clients' coins, sometimes with the help of colleagues in online or traditional auctions (shilling), a practice
that may be permitted by the auction house or not but that happens regularly, sometimes when a dealer spots a collector
bidding feverishly on the dealer's lot, sometimes when the auctioneer spots a collector feverishly bidding on a
lot and accepts higher "bids" from an imaginary bidder ("bidding against the chandelier")
- Auction houses "buying" their own rare or pricey
coins to establish a new market price for the type/variety then selling the coin privately through a proxy at a
price only slightly above the new market price
- Auction houses conspiring with one another to set buyer's
or seller's fees at the same fixed rate (price fixing)
- Auction houses setting reserves higher than estimates and
thereby misleading bidders about the likely selling price of a coin
- Auction houses failing to honor proxy bids in which an
off-site bidder directs the auction house to bid for him at one increment above the high bidder up to a specified
amount. One scenario is the auction house starting floor bidding close to or at the proxy bidder's highest allowable
On the flip side, dishonest collectors engage in deception
and other misdeeds as well, including but not limited to claiming a coin never arrived in the mail when it did,
pocketing coins without paying for them at coin shows, looking at a coin at a coin show and replacing it with a
similar looking but less valuable coin, at auctions agreeing among themselves to keep the hammer price down on
specific lots by not bidding against one another, and treating auctions as approval sales by returning coins unreasonably
Deception has always been a part of the larger world of money and the smaller world of collecting money. Some collectors,
finding deception in numismatics unsavory and wishing it didn't exist, want nothing to do with discussion of it
and don't appear to like seeing others discuss it either. Other collectors, seemingly for the fun of it, exaggerate
and sensationalize the negatives. Still others learn what they can to become savvy consumers and enjoy sharing
what they know. Dealers typically downplay deception and discourage discussion of it to avoid scarring off collectors,
expressing the feeling that such talk is undignified. Those dealers who freely share what they know are rightfully
rewarded for it through customer loyalty.
Numismatics is an argumentative field, one in which high-stakes wheeling and dealing, negotiation, and haggling
are central. In numismatics, more than many fields, arguments can escalate into litigation. Dealers sue one another,
dealers sue numismatic associations and grading services, grading services sue numismatic associations and dealers,
collectors sue grading services, grading services sue collectors, officials of numismatic associations sue one
another, states sue dealers, dealers sue states, collectors sue dealers, and dealers sue collectors. To be fair,
if you collect coins for a lifetime, chances are very high that the closest you'd ever come to one of these lawsuits
is reading about it in the newspaper or online.
Despite the inevitable negatives, according to all appearances, indications, and credible reports, the vast majority
of coin dealers and auction houses are highly honorable, do the right thing in the vast majority of instances,
and are people you can trust. The same applies to collectors. But not everybody is perfect all of the time. Coin
dealers are like any other merchants, with some more ethical than others, as a group for the most part being very
decent and honest people but sometimes slipping in trying to put themselves or their coins in the best possible
One of numerous examples is the attribution by many auction houses and dealers of all Kroisos-style coins as being
minted by Kroisos of Lydia despite the fact that scholars in the literature over the past 30 years have conclusively
shown that most were minted by the Persians after Kroisos. Instead of being Lydian and the world's first silver
coinage, and widely desirable, most of these coins are the first Persian/Iranian coinage. Yet many dealers identify
all Kroisos-style coins they sell as being minted by the Lydians, in some cases with full knowledge of the published
studies. Another example is attributing an Alexander the Great coin by including the years of his reign but not
the years when the particular variety was issued, despite having knowledge of this and including a reference to
the standard catalog of these coins by Martin Price, creating the impression that the coin is older and a more
desirable lifetime issue when it's not.
In all of this, truth is core, as it is in numismatics in general. Online, if untruths go unanswered or if the
corrections are censored, the untruths can take on the quality of truth. Some dealers have expressed the view that
if they make a mistake, they should be contacted privately rather than having their mistake mentioned in a public
online discussion group. This would make sense if they would then publicly correct the mistake they made to prevent
the misinformation from spreading. But this doesn't typically happen.
One exception are the errata that some conscientious auction houses publish, correcting mistakes in their auction
catalogs with mailings sent to those who received the catalog, though even here not all mistakes are corrected.
The hiding from the truth that sometimes happens can get carried to an extreme with the practice of some auction
houses in refusing to withdraw a coin that has been shown to be false until after the auction's close to avoid
having to publicly admit that they didn't catch the forgery in the first place.
Along with truth, also key is the freedom of speech to express it. But freedom without responsibility is anarchy,
and even a freedom as core to democracy as speech has its limits. As usual, balance is needed. Coin dealers have
every right to promote themselves and maximize their profits. Coin collectors have every right, or should have
every right, to share their observations and opinions about the coin marketplace, even if those opinions are sometimes
Just as collectors shouldn't run away from the hobby because of the existence of counterfeits, they also shouldn't
run away because of the existence of other untruths and the barriers sometimes put up against correcting them.
Finding the truth, like scoring deals on coins, can be one of the enjoyable challenges of numismatics, a wonderful
hobby and profession, a pastime that's culturally, intellectually, and socially enriching.