It's small change - why spend it?: Speculators have got bored with old coins, leaving the market to be reclaimed by the loyal private collectors, says John Windsor

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Old-style collectors are a dying breed: country parsons, headmasters, high-ranking Army officers, members of the aristocracy. Their passions for stamps or coins or cigarette cards began in childhood and were nurtured in the long dark hours that children now spend in front of televisions and computer screens. This month, the world's oldest commercial coin magazine, the Numismatic Circular, published by Spink of London, celebrates its centenary. One wonders who will be reading it in 100 years' time.

Its pages of mail-order bargains and collectors' monographs mirror a market founded by scholars, hijacked by speculators and now being reclaimed by collectors. In the late Seventies the publication had a circulation of 2,500. By the time of the mad coin boom of 1980 to 1982, circulation had dwindled to 1,500. It is now up to 2,500 again. How so? Patrick Finn, director of Spink, explains with disarming frankness: 'In 1980 our coins and medals made more money than any other department (Spink also sells and auctions banknotes and bonds). But we had forgotten about the collectors.

'In the late Seventies and up to 1982, when the City was performing badly and alternative investment was the thing, there were two or three wealthy families who invested pounds 2m to pounds 3m in coins with us. If, say, we bought a collection for pounds 250,000, it was almost like being in the commodities market. We could just pick up the telephone and it was sold.'

The speculative fever meant that collectors' modest 'wants lists' seldom got a look in. 'We never made more than 15 per cent on the big deals,' Mr Finn says, 'so we never felt guilty - but we did feel uncomfortable about letting down the small collector.'

You might imagine the small collectors were quite content to see their coins appreciate tenfold in a decade. Not a bit of it. The psychology of small collectors - which every dealer in collectables should take to heart - is that they actually want to collect rather than speculate. That is, their fun comes from buying regularly out of limited income in the hope of one day completing the set.

Mr Finn says: 'Most collectors resent feeling pressured into buying something now, just because the price is about to double. They prefer stability. What forces collectors to sell more than anything else is the prospect of being unable to buy every week or every month. They stop collecting and get bored.'

That is what happened in 1982. Whereas the bust in the stamp market the previous year had been demand-led, the coin bust was caused by a sudden glut in supply - outpriced collectors dumping the finds of a lifetime.

Mr Finn remembers one collector who suddenly grew weary of the whole thing: the late John Brooker, a headmaster who was a coin collector from the age of 15 and who died in 1986. One day in 1978, says Mr Finn, 'He telephoned and said, 'Patrick, could you come round and pick up the coins? I don't want them any more.' When we went to his home we found the things he'd been buying from us during the previous two years had not even been taken out of their envelopes. He had always been so meticulous about making out tickets.'

Sold individually, the finely documented coins raised pounds 1m.

Those tickets - card discs the diameter of a pill box - record the coin's provenance, from auction to auction, dealer to dealer, collector to collector. A good provenance for a coin is now as desirable as it is for a painting. This is where the added value lies for the small collector prepared to invest 'hours of fun'. For busy dealers such as Mr Finn, it is seldom cost-effective to research the provenance of a coin worth less than pounds 50, even though an addition to its ticket could enhance its value.

He explains: 'I can spare no more than 10 minutes to list the provenance of a coin worth less than pounds 200. By the customer spending his own time on it, he makes the coins he buys more valuable.'

The standard guide to coin provenance is a weighty tome published recently: British Numismatic Auction Catalogues 1710-1984, by Harrington E Manville, published in 1986 jointly by Spink and A H Baldwin. Its index of collectors lists the dates of all the auctions at which the coins they owned were sold and refers the reader to the book's 274-year chronology of auction catalogues in which individual lots are recorded.

Spink spent pounds 35,000 of the proceeds of the John Brooker collection on a catalogue of it, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles, still available at pounds 19. It preserves a record of 1,250 Charles I coins, the most comprehensive collection of the reign ever assembled, which might otherwise have been lost.

Illustrations in both sylloges and auction catalogues enable collectors to prove that the coin they hold is the same one sold, say, by Arthur Napier, Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College, Oxford, at auction in 1880 - the year when coins were first illustrated in auction catalogues.

Between the 1890s and 1938, the illustrations were of higher quality than they are today. To eliminate metallic glare, plaster casts of the coins were made, photographed and printed by Collotype, a now- defunct process which stored the image on gel and printed a continuous image instead of a matrix of dots.

The other way buyers can add value to their coins is highly irregular. It is known as 'adding a very'. A coin sold with a grade of 'fine' (which means 'awful') could, in its new owner's hands, end up tagged 'very fine'. Condition may be borderline but there is nothing borderline about the price difference: a coin in fine condition could sell for pounds 10, in very fine condition pounds 40, and in extremely fine condition pounds 200. Could this be why 40 per cent of buyers over the counter at Spink are dealers?

Today, prices are down 30 to 40 per cent from their boomtime peak, and any reflation of the market seems more likely to be driven from the United States than from here. Americans are already snapping up British milled (as distinct from hammered) silver and gold coins. They are also taking an interest in British copper and bronze.

Numismatic Circular, Spink and Son, 5 King Street, London SW1 (071-930 7888). UK annual subscription pounds 12 (10 issues).

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