Antiques Trade Talks – coin expert Robert Parkinson

Coin expert Robert Parkinson’s first foray into numismatics began at age ten, when he ran a stall selling coins and fossils outside his house to raise money for the 2004 Tsunami Appeal. At sixteen, he began numismatic consultation work, advising clients on the value of their coins and the best routes to buy and sell. “I started coin dealing throughout my study of Forensic Science and Archaeology at University College London. After graduation, I started a role in auction production and coin cataloguing at the London and New York offices of Spink & Son.” He then went on to work in Dallas, Texas as Senior Numismatist at Heritage Auctions, specialising in British coins. After Heritage he moved to the role of Head of Auctions for the London firm Sovereign Rarities Ltd. He is currently working at eBay UK as Category Manager for Coins, Stamps and Bullion as part of the platform’s Collectables team. Last year, his guide to the numismatic market ECoinomics was published by Spink, and he has been writing the monthly NumisMarket column for Coin News magazine since January 2020 covering the health of the numismatic market.

How did you start collecting coins? 

I’ve collected antiques since I was about three years old, and coins logically formed a part of that curiosity about the past. Most of the Victorian pennies and other oddments that I collected were sold at my little Tsunami stall, but my interest was reignited at age fifteen when I bought a selection of old coins from Camden market and happened upon a 1799 halfpenny in the group. I couldn’t believe that I owned an artefact from the 18th century! From then, I was hooked, and would check eBay multiple times a day for new listings.

What, for you, is their unique appeal?

Coins have the longest history of nearly all man-made collectables, dating back to the 7th century BC. An interest in history as told by physical objects must include coins; they carry evidence of the cultural, social, and economic climate at the time and place of their production, as well as often clearly stating their age and origin. They were instrumental in the foundation of society and trade as we know it today.

What factors can drive demand?

The four main elements are Rarity: the lower the supply of a certain coin, the more that collectors have to compete for examples at auction, raising the price. Preservation: collectors want the best examples possible, with the least evidence of handling, scratches, cleaning or other damage. Eye appeal; this relates to the beauty of a coin’s designs, how well it is struck, and any attractive toning that sets it apart from the rest. Finally, the economic status of the country of origin: the US coin market, for example, is the world’s strongest due to its citizens often having a good deal of disposable income and an interest in their national history. Coins that meet all of these elements can generate unbelievable sums. Last year at Sotheby’s, the 1933 gold Double Eagle ($20), a famous US coin unique in private hands, sold for $19,000,000.

What areas/coins are currently selling well or in demand?

High-grade British coins have been growing in appreciation for years; even flawless modern coins, fresh from the Royal Mint, are generating significant interest from collectors on eBay. The Sovereign coin and its multiples is one of the world’s most popular denominations, as it was made nearly every year for over a century and produced in Australia, Canada, South Africa, India and London, spreading its appeal across many markets. As a result, they are often the most searched for British coin on our platform.

Which coins are the ones to watch/future sellers?

Buying the best/rarest coins you can afford will give you the best chance of a profitable resale. This applies across all markets and eras. I would say, keep an eye on the market for Double Sovereigns and Two Guineas. These odd denominations have never been as popular as the single Sovereign/Guinea or Five Sovereign/Guineas, but in high grade they are becoming increasingly sought-after.

How do collectors and investors in the market differ? 

Collectors buy what they are passionate about, following their interests and attempting to complete the series they are collecting. Investors trail behind the collectors, trying to gauge their interests so they can buy in that area and hope to make a profit. The truth is that both groups are essential for a healthy trade. Collectors typically have their own careers and can’t be everywhere at once, meaning they will often miss coins at auction. Investors, who rely on the trade for their income, are more likely to cover all the bases and buy what they know has value in order to sell for a profit later. This helps the market as a whole.

What coins do you collect and why?

Originally, I only collected British coins pre-1714 (before the Georgian period). Coins held my fascination for their history, and so I specialised in this earlier area and ignored what came afterwards. Over the last few years in the industry, I have developed a greater appreciation for ancient coins, world coins and even more modern coins, and so I now collect anything that takes my fancy and seems like a good buy for the future.

How is the coin market changing and are you optimistic for its future?

I am very optimistic about the future of the market. A commonly held opinion is that with the rise of contactless payments and a smaller focus on hard cash, coin collecting as a hobby will suffer. This is often compared to the stamp market which has seen a slump with the reduced focus on physical mail. Where coins differ, however, is in their 2,500+ years of history and millennia of appreciation and study. Any interest in the physical past will logically lead to coins, as they are some of the most ubiquitous and diagnostic artefacts available. Additionally, the growing presence of third-party grading, companies who authenticate and encapsulate coins and give them a ‘score’ for their preservation and eye appeal, also helps the numismatic market by facilitating international trade and injecting confidence.

Do coins appeal to younger collectors?

Yes – the ‘buried treasure’ appeal of coins often appeals to children, and one’s imagination runs wild holding a coin several hundred years old. Not leaving it up to chance, the Royal Mint has also released a number of coins featuring popular children’s characters which also serve to interest younger collectors and give them a tase of numismatics.

In what ways is new technology good for the trade and collectors?

In the late 1980s, the coin market crashed. This was due to third-party grading being introduced and investors buying up the graded coins without much understanding of price/the actual collector demand for their purchases. The market only recovered in the mid-1990s, with the invention and spread of the internet and websites such as eBay. Finally, price transparency was achieved on a larger scale, allowing the market to settle down and prices to become reflective of real-time trends. Technology continues to influence the trade, with grading and online censuses allowing ranking of coins, building of competitive ‘registry sets’ and keeping values standardised. Despite its relation to mostly historical artefacts, the science of numismatics is cutting edge and ever-advancing.

As a new coin collector, what key questions should buyers be asking?

When contemplating purchasing a coin, first ask yourself: is it genuine? If you aren’t confident, ensure that it has either been graded by a third-party certification service or alternatively that the seller is reputable with a good feedback score or testimonials. Secondly, is it a good example of the type? Make sure that it is of good quality, and any damage/wear is factored into the price. Finally, is the coin worth what is being charged? Explore how many other examples are on the market and what they are being priced at, and compare with sold items. Auctions give good market transparency, but fixed price listings require scrutiny to ensure they are priced in line with the quality and rarity of the coin.

Where are the best places for new collectors to learn more and start their collection?

There are numerous online resources available to help the new collector. The Royal Mint offers information on their website about coin collecting in general, and browsing eBay’s listings can shed light on rarity and prices and allow you to start buying when you are ready. Books can also provide a good background to numismatics and allow a deeper dive into your chosen area of collecting. Another numismatic adage: “buy the book before you buy the coin!”

How do collectors tend to organise their coin collections?

A multitude of different ways – traditional, serious collectors use coin cabinets, specialised pieces of furniture with several draws with fitted inserts for coins. More casual collectors use albums with slots for coins, a good way of viewing them all at once. Collectors who use third-party grading store their encapsulated coins in specialised boxes. Within these methods, coins are organised by denomination, date, type, value, any which way that the collector decides. That’s part of the fun!

What coins would you buy if money were no object?

I would buy a Julius Caesar ‘Dictator Perpetuo’ Denarius and a Brutus ‘Ides of March’ Denarius. The first of these coins was struck in 44 BC, bearing the portrait of Caesar and inscribed CAESAR-DICT•PERPETVO (Caesar, dictator for life), reflecting his appointment of himself as leader forever. This coin was struck one month before his assassination at the hands of Brutus and is sometimes dubbed ‘the coin that killed Caesar’. The second coin was struck in 42 BC and bears the portrait of Brutus, the reverse showing two daggers either side of a Pileus (a brimless hat representing freedom) with the legend EID•MAR (the Ides of March, the date on which Caesar was assassinated). These are two of the most historically significant coins ever produced.

You’re down to your last few quid – what coins would you buy hoping for a good return?

I would probably buy common 20th-century British coins but in the best quality that I could find, e.g. 1937 proofs, 1953 proofs, high-grade circulating currency etc. There’s an adage in numismatics: ‘if you buy the best, then collectors will have to come to you when they want the best’. By buying the absolute top quality possible within your price range, you stand a good chance of your coins appealing to collectors and attracting a return.

Where are your favourite coin hunting destinations and why?

I may be biased – but eBay! I have checked the platform multiple times a day for many, many years, long before I started my role here. Nowhere else are new coins added so frequently and can be purchased so quickly. I will also check major numismatic auctions, but these take place far less regularly. I also attend most numismatic trade shows in the UK as it’s a great opportunity to see coins in person before buying.

What do you consider the high point of your career in coins thus far?

My career high point is likely the release of my book ECoinomics in 2022 after three years of work. Published by Spink & Son, my first numismatic employer, the book draws together my experience across the numismatic market. Holding it in my hand after so much work was a delight!

Any predictions for the coin market in 2023?

If 2023 is anything like 2022, 2021 or 2020, it will bring further exceptional numismatic rarities to light. The market strength since the pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented flow of superb coins being offered, often after long absences. In 2021, the US gold 1933 Double Eagle sold for the first time in 19 years. I suspect we will see it offered again much sooner than last time!