The following is excerpted with permission from Ed Reiter's article Norman Shultz: Longtime Dean of American Coin Dealers. Thanks!
Shultz was in his mid-90s when he passed away in 1988, and spent nearly three-quarters of a century in the coin business, amply justifying his unofficial title as “the dean of American dealers.” He began his career a year before the U.S. Mint started making the Standing Liberty quarter, and remained active right up to the dawn of third-party certified coin grading.
He was still going strong when I interviewed him for a New York Times column in 1981.
Things were far different in the business – and the hobby – in 1915, when Shultz ran his first advertisement in a publication called Philatelic West.
Shultz shook his head when he contemplated how different the coin business was in the early 1980s.
“You can’t imagine how much things have changed,” he declared. “There’s been such a change in the last 10 years or so that I hardly can believe it.
“Fifty years ago, I used to go to California and they’d charge me 10 cents apiece for 1909-S VDB Lincoln cents – and I’d tell them they saw me coming and raised the price. Now, of course, those same coins sell for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
“I can remember buying 1879-CC silver dollars by the sack in the 1940s for a dollar-and-a-half apiece. Now I see them priced in the thousands. One time, a fellow from Reno brought me a sack of them, and after buying the best ones for $1.50 each, I told him the rest were too scratched to be worth anything. I wouldn’t even buy them for $1.25.”
There were, of course, far fewer collectors in the “good old days” – so in terms of the demand, the supply of most coins was ample. And during the Depression, money was so tight that even at rock-bottom prices, few people could afford to buy coins.
That helps explain how Shultz got such a deal on those 1931-S Lincoln cents – and why he found it difficult to sell them.
“It was 1935,” he recalled, “and a fellow from the Federal Reserve branch bank in Salt Lake City called and said a ton of 1931-S cents had just come in and I could have all I wanted for face value. He had 500,000 of them, so I could have bought the whole lot for $5,000. And keep in mind that the entire mintage of the coin was only 866,000.
“Well, money was pretty scarce in 1935, so I only took one sack – $50 worth. My bank wouldn’t lend me money to buy them all – and the funny thing is, they wouldn’t even take the coins at face value for security; they said they didn’t want the stuff cluttering up the bank.
“I ended up selling the sack to an attorney in California for 40 cents a coin; he had ideas of cornering the market. But things didn’t work out, and he sold them back to me a year later for 30 cents each. After that, I simply peddled them out a few at a time.”
Nowadays, it would take the $50 face value of that bag to buy a single ’31-S cent in mint condition, and several hundred dollars to buy one graded Mint State-65 Red. At $50 per coin, the sack Shultz bought for $50 would now be worth roughly $250,000. And the half-million pieces he could have bought for $5,000 would be worth a cool $25 million.
Although he bought coins through the years at prices that now seem cheap, Shultz sold them cheaply, too. And he wasn’t exactly besieged by buyers, either. Take those proof Morgan dollars, for example.
“I’d buy them for $1.15 in auction sales,” he said, “and I’d have an awful time getting $1.25 for them.”
Those Liberty Seated proofs proved to be slow movers, too.
“Max Mehl, one of the biggest dealers in the country, used to send me cigar boxes full of dimes, quarters and halves -- all brilliant proofs – from the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s,” Shultz related, “and I bought them for just slightly over face. But they didn’t sell fast at all.”
Wayne Homren, Editor
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