I began my career in numismatics in the mid-1970s. At the time, precious metal prices played a relatively small role in the market for rare coins. Gold sold for around $150-200 per ounce and silver hovered in $4-6 per ounce range. The rare coin market was a quiet, cottage industry. The most accurate and widely used price guide was the Red Book which was published just once per year and highly anticipated. Many coin dealers would not price their coins until the new edition arrived.
The market for rare coins was also much smaller, and investors had barely given numismatics a glance. Rare coins were also incredibly inexpensive in the mid-1970’s. A superb 1879 Four Dollar Stella could be purchased for under $10,000 and many rare coins were a fraction of today’s levels. Rare coin grading was still evolving, with most still using adjective grading. By the late 1970s inflation had become the number one problem in the U.S. The numismatic world was about to change almost overnight!
1980 Metal Boom
Gold and silver prices began a sharp rise in the middle part of 1979, and by January of 1980 prices had peaked to over $850 for gold and nearly $50 for silver. Famously, the Bunker Hunt brothers had attempted to corner the market for silver. Prices nearly quadrupled in a few months. This began one of the most exciting booms to ever hit the numismatic world.
Anyone with a coin shop now was making fantastic sums of money. Most were greeted each morning with lines around the corner of individuals desperate to cash in. The only limit of how much money that could be made was capitalization. Many dealers were out of money by lunch time. The public was selling anything and everything made of silver. Sterling sets that had been on the family for generations were now headed to the refinery. I still have an incredibly beautiful champagne bucket that I rescued from a shipment.
The large crowds of sellers also brought rare coins with them. Coins were now in the spotlight like never before. Incredible collections, coin hoards and numismatic delicacies were now coming over the counter in record numbers. Many of the great rarities seen today made their first appearance during this time. The unique 1870-S Half Dime was somehow sold over the counter in a Chicago coin shop and later discovered in a junk box. These were truly exciting times in the rare coin market.
An Exciting Time for Numismatics
Unfortunately, the gold and silver boom was very short lived. By March, 1980 silver had fallen to below $11 per ounce again. Obviously, speculation had played a large role in the rise of gold and silver at the time. The numismatic impact of the 1980 gold and silver boom was multi-faceted. Coin prices soared along with metal prices. Many rare coins traded hands for prices that would not be seen again for two decades. The absolute peak was the auction sale of the Garrett collection. Coins were bringing six figure prices with regularity. Most of the buyers were rare coin dealers who were newly minted millionaires from precious metals trading.
This was a very exciting time to be a rare coin dealer. Many of today’s household names in the numismatic world were very young, making incredible sums and living large! Like someone who had won the lottery, a few could not handle the new found wealth and lost it all due to drugs, gambling and a decadent lifestyle. Maybe someday someone will write a book about this incredible part of numismatic history. It would make a great movie!