Gold coin Winston Churchill

The Literal Historical “Melting Pot” – a Rare Modern Medal revisits a common Coin Dealer Conundrum

A recent addition to our inventory has generated both keen interest as well as renewed discussion on a quandary quite familiar to most professional coin dealers, namely:

to melt, or not to melt?

 

The remarkable item in question is a 52mm commemorative medal struck by the private Canadian Wellings Mint in 1965 to commemorate the life of Sir Winston Churchill.

As esoteric as the known bronze and silver strikings of this issue may be, our example is a virtually unknown version in solid 24K gold.  Beyond being rare – most private gold issues such as these were struck strictly based on pre-orders, and thus usually number in the single-digits – based on the intense pressures of the booming gold market in the ensuing five decades since the medals were issued, our new acquisition is very possibly the sole surviving example.

So wherein lies the quandary here?

Namely, in the fact that as a fine gold medal of 143 grams, the actual intrinsic (or melt) value of the medal currently sits at just under $12,000.  This is hugely-significant, as it presents an almost impossible bench-mark for even the most ardent collector of Churchill medallic history to chase. Thus, a coin dealer in my position is faced with a clear choice between two strategic options: hold out hope that a collector will attach sufficient value and appreciation to the medal that he or she will be willing to offer a price that meets or exceeds this current melt value (while also having the budget to actually do so!), or eliminate risk in a potentially volatile market and send the medal to the refiners.

I raised this issue in casual conversation with a good philatelic colleague earlier this week, and at the mere mention of possibly melting the piece was lightly chided (in my capacity as a representative of the numismatic side of the dealer community) as “never considering the history of items when we are quick to melt things”.

But is it really that simple? One of the key guiding economic principles in business as well as life that has stuck with me over the years is that of “opportunity cost”.  In other words, the opportunities forgone and lost as a result of having made one particular decision over another.

Even in the best of times, coin dealers never have enough working capital. The “opportunity” cost of retaining this Churchill medal in inventory is the tying up of a significant investment, in hopes of what would inevitably be a very marginal return at best.  Of even greater significance, however, is the risk involved in holding such material in a volatile gold market.  To crystallize this point:  if we look back five years ago on this date, the spot market value of an ounce of gold was approximately $1,500 CDN, or roughly 40% lower than current rates.

Thus, in the complete absence of any factors that would cause this commemorative medal to be any more or less desirable from the perspective of a collector of such things, its intrinsic value none-the-less increased in this comparatively short period of time by a staggering $4,900. ! Fabulous, one might think, from the perspective of the recent seller, however from the view of a coin dealer whose living depends on making the right decisions in a market area of extremely tight margins, this serves as a reminder of how quickly “speculation” can take an abrupt turn into negative territory.

All this to say, the pressures to melt such a medal, realize a small margin, and preserve the availability of precious limited operating capital is quite intense.

Melting History

But back to my colleague’s chiding comment about “melting history”.  Is this really the case in this example?  Some purists would enthusiastically concur; but objectively, could this really be said in the case of a privately-issued modern medal, with no official ties to either government or indeed, the commemorated subject matter at hand? As with many subjects, there is certainly room for engaging debate on both sides of the topic.  I certainly would never be naive enough to deny that “sins of the historical melting pot” have not and do not occur.

Although only a young collector during the first great silver boom of 1980, etched in my memory are stories of people lining up at coin shops and refinery agents, waiting to melt not only their coins and old tea pots, but also the military and agricultural medals of campaigns and accomplishments of past eras, etc.  Without a doubt, the unfortunate seduction of the record-high metal prices of the time did indeed temper the ethics and commonsense of what should and should not have been destined for the melt-pot.  Indeed, my current quite passion of collecting sterling cigarette cases began in my early years as a sensitive and somewhat naive coin dealer. In those days (from the late 1980s into the 1990s), silver was cheap. No one cared about these neat and eclectic artifacts, and my conscience simply couldn’t let me send them off to the melt pot.  In hindsight, I am glad that I made those decisions which set me on a particular collecting path I continue to enjoy, but honestly – had silver been much higher, and I hadn’t quickly learned to temper my enthusiasm for preservation with the realities of being in business, I would probably today be living under a bridge somewhere with cases of canned beans and my fabulous collection of cigarette cases.

But I have digressed here. Of the numerous similarities we numismatists share with our philatelic colleagues, one of the most striking differences is this issue of intrinsic value.

A stamp dealer who somehow ends up with $10,000 worth of a particular 8-cent stamp in his or her inventory has three clear paths from which to choose.  One can either expand one’s Christmas card list to include the population of a small city, and use the stamps in the way they were naturally intended, or simply keep them in stock and hope to piecemeal them all out at a retail level by the time one reaches the point of “Freedom 95”.  The only other alternative is to simply blow them out (to the extent that is even possible) at a massive discount, which would presumably result in an economic loss, once cost and effort is all accounted for. What one cannot do is immediately extract oneself from the tie-up of funds by either putting them into the fireplace, or presenting them at the local post office for cashing out at a cent under face (etc.).

As coin dealers, however, we are both fortunate and somewhat cursed to have to consider the bullion-value implications of everything we add or extract from inventory, and make both prudent and calculating timing decisions in how we handle complex coins and medals.

In the case of our impressive and possibly unique Winston Churchill Gold medal, with serial number “4”, I will respect the significance of the subject-matter at hand and the efforts devoted to designing and striking the piece by making a good-faith effort to find it a home in the hands of an appreciative collector (or indeed, an investor, if one is so inclined). At the end of day, however, there remains a 50/50 chance that we will make the strategic and necessary decision to send it to that great “historical melting-pot” in the literal sense.  After 30 years of dealing you learn to trust your judgment on such things, and to continuously explore that comfortable balancing point between the stark realities of opportunity cost in business, and the ethical appreciation for the medallic and numismatic history that is all around us.

Sean Isaacs

Authentic and counterfeit gold coins side by side

All that Glitters: The Scourge of Bullion and Numismatic Counterfeits

A recent story that broke in Ottawa caused significant ripples in the public interest, but only scratched the surface on a problem that has been plaguing our industry and hobby for the past few years. See the article here on the CBC website.

In this case, a jeweller in downtown Ottawa visited his nearby Royal Bank branch and purchased a purported one-ounce gold wafer manufactured by the Royal Canadian Mint. Upon beginning to process the bar for use in his jewellery-crafting, however, the piece was quickly revealed to be counterfeit. In other words, neither an authentic Royal Canadian Mint product nor an item with any actual gold content.

There is no debating the importance of this story to casual investors and the bullion/numismatic industry at large, however – as is often the case when the press chews down on a juicy news-bone – the key points to be taken became diluted and misdirected.

First and foremost, the issue of counterfeit bullion is not a new story. Indeed, a search of the CBC’s own online archives reveals several references to counterfeit gold (both bars and jewellery) being peddled to inexperienced purchasers in the Canadian market over the past few years. Further, in one of the most glaring examples of the experts themselves being duped, gold-dealers in Midtown New York found themselves victims in 2012 of a rash of fraudulent 10-ounce gold bars, each with a then-value of almost $20,000. Even with their experience and intuitive understanding of the material, complacency led to a failure in standard due-diligence, with somewhat devastating financial results. Indeed, as gold-refiner and trader Ibrahim Fadl reflected in the aftermath of his $80,000 loss, “I and the others on the street work off trust; now that trust is strained”. Thus, this is not a new concern to present-day consumers, as further evidenced by the ongoing offering of outright counterfeit Royal Canadian Mint gold bars on websites such as wish.com, referred to as “replicas” and sold at correspondingly cheap prices. In fact, this very point causes me to take significant issue with perhaps the most erroneous statement to come out of this most recent press coverage, namely the Mint’s assertion that “counterfeiting of the Royal Canadian Mint’s gold bullion is very rare”. We will return to this point, however.

The involvement of the Royal Canadian Mint (or lack thereof) in this current fake gold scandal brings me to my second observation of CBC’s coverage. Although the Mint and I don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to their Numismatic policies, having to listen to them steadfastly deny any responsibility for Royal Bank’s counterfeit sale made me cringe. To say they had nothing to do with this singular issue is simply a given. Certainly, to ask them the question is fair game in journalistic due-diligence, but once answered, it really is time to move on to the more pertinent facts and concerns.

Yes, the RCM was somewhat on the hot-seat as it was their product, trade-mark and reputation being abused here, but make no mistake – counterfeit products do not, and simply never will originate from within the walls of their venerable Sussex drive institution. Quite aside from their stellar international reputation, this is a business where security protocol requires both staff and management on the refining side of the plant to exit in sock feet at the end of their work-day, so that even their shoes can be separately x-rayed. Not-withstanding a crafty employee’s recent rectal smuggling campaign, the design, production and distribution of counterfeit gold bars at the Mint with either tacit or covert approval could simply never happen. Thus, to continue to look in their direction on this is an unproductive red herring.

Understandably they are feeling the intense pressure at the optics of having their name bandied around in the press. In the third of three interviews I did for CBC on the story, I met a news crew on a dark Sussex Street corner in the rain, just a few paces from the Mint’s main gate. I had not been there for two minutes when the door of the guard-house popped open, and a trench coat with an umbrella walked over to see me. It was the Mint’s director of communications, and – like myself – he wasn’t entirely clear what the CBC was doing on their doorstep in the early evening. We chatted briefly, and it was clear he was just looking for reassurance that we weren’t there on a Mint-bashing exercise. I clarified my own position (that I was steadfastly in their corner), although he did make one comment on the seemingly limited concern he had for those counterfeit RCM numismatic (i.e. “collector”) coins being sold online from overseas that were described and priced as “Replicas”. In reality, our dealer association feels these coins are every bit as damaging to the integrity of our hobby as are counterfeit gold bullion products, and I will return to this point shortly.

Perhaps obscured in CBC’s focus on the Mint and the perceived “new” threat of counterfeit gold, however, are the two most fundamentally pressing questions:

What was Royal Bank doing selling precious metals across the counter, and what are they doing purchasing gold bullion from the public, both of these activities evidently without the prerequisite product knowledge that the bullion business demands? Let me expand on both of these issues.

Banks & Bullion

Firstly, it has been years (even decades) since the chartered banks in Canada were active retail bullion traders. Back “in the day”, I remember walking to my local TD branch in Westboro and ordering a ten-ounce bar of silver. I would pay the fee, and some days later a brand-new TD bar would arrive for pickup. This was similar with most banks. Most especially, Scotiabank was so active in the precious-metal business in the 1970s and later, that you could even purchase older European gold coinage from them of all sizes and varieties. And this makes perfect sense. After all, in a trading business so dependent on secure facilities and abundant operating cash, who better to make a market for themselves in precious-metals than the banks? Over the past decade or so this has changed considerably, however, with most banks abandoning the retail trade of metals entirely. Even Scotiabank, who continues to maintain (I believe) a visible bullion counter at their main Ottawa branch, appears far less interested in dealing in metals and has become quite uncompetitive, making even the selling to them of products originally purchased there quite difficult. The product-knowledge seems to have evaporated at the front-line level, with Scotiabank usually requiring the “sending of coins/bars to head office for verification” before consummating a purchase from the public.

Thus, on the one hand, it came as both a surprise and significant concern to our Canadian Association of Numismatic Dealers that the Royal Bank was suddenly re-entering the bullion business. And I hasten to clarify this is not in the least an issue of concern for competition, but rather – as the core issue of this story hammers home in spades – an issue of product knowledge and, most critically, consumer protection and confidence.

The question, ultimately, is both a simple and important one. Where did this counterfeit bar come from? As we know definitively that it did not originate from the Mint at any time or in any scenario, it could only have come from a front-line, across-the-counter purchase from the public (assuming we eliminate the legitimate possibility of an internal “switcheroo” by staff). For numerous reasons, including some already highlighted above, this prompts some significant ethical and procedural questions. For a chartered bank to be purchasing precious-metals directly from the public in this way is fairly unprecedented in recent times. The controls put in place to manage inventory have to be effective, and most important of all, the product knowledge has to be rock-solid. The current police investigation into this particular incident will certainly shed light on the former; on the produce-knowledge side, we already have our verdict. As a bullion dealer myself, I have little tolerance or sympathy for Royal on this one. On numerous levels this crappy bar should never have made it past first review, and certainly never, ever have been sold to the public as authentic. Any dealer worth their weight should have had concerns on encountering this bar. True, this particular piece (as with most newer RCM Bars) was sealed in a plastic holder, making the rudimentary test of weighing the piece ineffective. As I demonstrated on CBC television, however, the simple $1,200 electrical conductivity tester we keep in our gallery would have permitted the successful scanning of the piece through the plastic, without having to necessarily compromise the integrity of the holder. Every recognized fineness of silver and gold gives off a different footprint, and – while nothing is a 100% replacement for experience and product knowledge – a ten-second scanning of this piece at the point of Bank purchase (and indeed, at point of sale) would have definitively identified the piece as counterfeit. There is no grey area here. True, the net dollars at risk here were fairly small potatoes (certainly in the eyes of Royal Bank), and the customer was promptly refunded his money. The irony is, however, that this particular purchaser was a working jeweller, rather than the typical casual investor. He was, therefore, the “one in a thousand” that would have immediate need to breakdown his gold purchase for crafting use, and hence almost immediately be able to identify the piece as fraudulent. How many other purchasers would simply have added the piece to the contents of their safety-deposit-boxes, perhaps not to be revisited for years or even decades? For this happenstance we are particularly fortunate.

Counterfeiting is not modern

The most important irony in all of this, and hence the source of our industry’s most acute concern? Fraudulent and counterfeit gold and silver have plagued our economy for hundreds if not thousands of years, and therefore – as stressed above – is far from being a modern threat. As a result, the stock answer we, and past generations of bullion dealers have given when asked how one can have confidence in their purchase and minimize risk is very straight-forward: always buy from reputable sources! If not the manufacturers themselves (where possible), then established bullion/coin dealers of good reputation, or the Chartered Banks.

And therein lays both my main point as well as the fundamental issue with this incident and resulting news coverage. It is not the $1,600 potentially lost by the duped consumer, nor the fantasy of our national Mint possibly manufacturing counterfeit gold bars, and not even the possible petty internal theft of a teller gone rogue. What threatens to come out of this is a seismic shock-wave to public confidence, and it is in the interest of neutralizing this that all stops have to be pulled out to resolve this “Royal Bank incident”. For this I am quite appreciative of the CBC’s extensive coverage, were it only able to focus on the true core-issues at hand here. Believe it or not, I was asked point-blank on live CBC television during that Sussex Drive interview if my advice was for people to stop buying gold. I am a micro-player in the precious-metals market who of course presented the common-sense response to that question, but just imagine: had I instead, for whatever reason, chosen to use that 30-second soap-box to launch a calm tirade on the profound risks involved in purchasing physical gold, the possible and immediate impact on at least our local bullion industry might well have been more than immaterial.

Thus is the power of public perception and confidence, and in turn, the critical importance of the integrity of the retail precious-metals business.

Counterfeit Commemorative Coins

In closing, I want to briefly return to the parallel scourge of counterfeit commemorative coins being massed-produced in China. Being offered as “replicas” at a fraction of corresponding Royal Canadian Mint issue prices, there are literally hundreds of different coins entering our market, often within just weeks of official RCM launches in Canada. While I suspect it is just a brave face during this overwhelming assault on both the Mint’s propriety designs and the potential “after-market” pocket-books of collectors, I take significant issue with their communication director’s position that they are not especially concerned with these items being sold as “replicas”, rather than as purported originals. This not only makes absolutely no sense to me from a business-perspective (after all, a dollar spent on this fraudulent crap is a dollar not spent with either the Mint or their distributors, such as ourselves), but the Mint is also dead wrong if they believe no concrete harm comes to our collecting community as a result of these replicas.

Never was this more evident to me than a couple weeks back, when a young collector came to the shop with a three-piece set of the earliest Superman coins in silver and gold. We had pre-negotiated over the telephone to purchase them for $1,200, however when presented to me, I had to break the news that they were clearly counterfeit, and effectively worthless. I have no sense that the seller was trying to defraud me – the Chinese producers had chosen to make the gold coin the same diameter as the silver (or about 3 times normal size!). However the quality was good, and the collector clearly lacked the skills to tell fine silver/gold from precious-metal plated. The kid remained composed and didn’t share with me the context of how he acquired the coins, but my gut told me he had been duped. He had done his basic research, and was probably conned into spending $200 or $300 on the set thinking he had scored, only to become one of the scorned who might possibly never spend another dollar on numismatic coins.

And indeed, it is not only the unenlightened who always gets defrauded by these replicas. I remember one bizarre incident a couple years back where I thought we had discovered a unique variety of one of the coloured base-metal “bird” twenty-five cent coins. It was a current issue, and our example had a distinct raised ring around the outside rim on the bird side of the piece, which was not present on the actual issued piece as depicted on the leading website of a good dealer colleague. This continued to stump us until we made a surprising discovery – the piece depicted on the website was actually a Chinese-made counterfeit, and hence the piece I had in hand was the normal issued piece! With no malice or intent to deceive involved, our colleagues – with their busy dealership and numerous staff – had simply had the piece enter their inventory at one point, and then make its way through the several steps involved in getting it scanned and posted, without being detected. The quality was that good, and the possibility of perpetuating accidental fraud thus that easy.

Our entire industry and fraternal hobby is united in our position concerning Canadian coin “replicas”, in that they are bad news all the way. In addition to being outright assaults on the proprietary design copyrights of the Royal Canadian Mint, the opportunities for fraud and deceit as outlined above far outweigh any possible argument for permitting such items to be sold. Additionally, every single “replica” of a legal-tender Canadian coin that is not clearly marked “copy” remains illegal to both possess and trade; as overworked as they are on this front, both Canadian Border Services and the RCMP therefore have both a right and a mandate to seize these coins when encountered.

I invite all our readers, customers and colleagues to help us maintain a legitimate and safe collecting environment by outright rejecting these counterfeit coins. And, finally, on the subject of precious-metal investing, all that glitters is certainly not gold (or silver, for that matter), and the rules are simple:

Know what you are buying, and buy from a trusted source!

End of rant – happy collecting!

Sean Isaacs