Whenever I start waxing eloquent about the good old days, bemoaning how things have recently gone to hell in the proverbial handbasket, my kids wink and say, “Blame it on the ‘Interweb’.” This family joke tells me I’ve gone far enough in my affection for bygone times. Lately, in numismatics, I’ve noticed that people are blaming the Internet for changes they dislike, even fingering the Web as the thing that will end coin collecting as we have known it. This will come as a shock my children, but I disagree: far from blaming the “Interweb,” we should applaud the World Wide Web as the best thing that has ever happened to coin dealers, collectors, and numismatics.

In just the last few months, I’ve heard more bad things blamed on the Internet than on the bossa nova. When I attended the 2016 ANA Convention in Anaheim, the bourse would have tempted Greta Garbo to go there to be alone. Several people explained scant attendance by saying

Everyone buys coins on line these days.

Similarly, formerly packed auction rooms now look like Johnstown after the flood. “Most bidders connect through the Internet,” people say. Young collectors are rarely in evidence, but it appears that there are some who operate—naturally—on the Web. It seems like everything we once loved about numismatics—the camaraderie at a convention, the competition at an auction, the excitement of intergenerational collecting—has been disrupted by the Internet. What was once real is now virtual. Most ominously, that very Web has now enabled entire nations—led by Sweden, with Denmark and Norway close behind—to aim for a cashless future, in which all transactions will be Internet-enabled by app and by card. When coins and bills disappear from everyday use, they surely will suck numismatics down the drain with them.

In these descriptions, conventional wisdom tells us that the Internet is as heartless as Snidely Whiplash, but if we look closer, we will see that these “Net effects” look more like Tom Terrific. Far from wrecking coin collecting, they are having precisely the opposite effect of strengthening the hobby.

Take that deserted bourse in Anaheim as an example. Because it is becoming increasingly possible to connect remotely, “being there” no longer requires physical attendance. One of my sons-in-law is an avid online gamer who regularly plays with friends all over the globe he has never met personally. He never sits in the same room with them, but because he doesn’t have to pay for travel and lodging, he can virtually visit them frequently, and visits can last as long as he wants. In the old days, an empty bourse was truly empty. Now, it can be teeming with virtual activity. That dealer
sitting all by his lonesome at his table may doing a land office business with customers on his mobile device.

I admit to being a fossil of the Silurian Age, who loves face-to-face interaction. I would rather talk to people about type coins than Skype people to talk about coins. But not everyone is as social as I am, or as able to travel. Internet-enabled collecting is different, but it’s more inclusive, and grows the base of potential dealers and collectors.

Deserted auction rooms are likewise different, but not worse. Even back in the day, absentee bidders usually outnumbered direct participants, but mail and phone bids occasionally misfired, so there was a strong incentive to bid in person. And the auction room drama! The excitement of a head-to-head bidding battle, or the euphoria of a new world’s record realization, was definitely worth the price of admission.

But then came bidding in real time over the Net, which means you no longer have to be there to be sure of your bids. Now you can bid at home, in your pajamas, and use the two grand that you didn’t spend traveling to the auction to add to your coin-buying budget. Not nearly as exciting, of course, but much more economical, and it makes participation possible for many folks who are, for whatever reason, reluctant to attend in person. Once again, the Internet has grown the base of customers.

The seemingly missing young collector? Also hiding in plain sight on the Web. Listen to the testimony of youthful numismatist Ken Lepper, in a letter to Coin World published on March 9, 2015. Lepper praises the VAMworld.com website for posting attribution information free to all.

People of younger generations, are accustomed to having access to information electronically from multiple mobile platforms. VAMworld has taken a step in the right direction for attracting a significant number of new collectors to the Morgan and Peace dollar series by sharing its specialized knowledge openly.

As an old-school author, I wish that young people turned first to books, but they were weaned on Google, and they expect their searches for information to be quick, painless, and free. We can now offer them the Newman Numismatic Portal, undoubtedly the most powerful recruiting tool in the history of numismatics. Perhaps in time these young collectors will be attracted to attend conventions and auctions; maybe, like my son-in-law, they will continue to keep their friendships virtual. Either way, it is better to have them (to paraphrase LBJ), “inside the tent peeing out, than outside the tent peeing in.”

But isn’t the Internet actually enabling those cold-blooded Scandinavians on their cash-killing mission? What an irony that Sweden, the first European nation to use bank notes (1661) now plans to be the first to stop accepting coins and paper money! When cash disappears from daily transactions, won’t the gateway to numismatic collecting clang shut quicker than you can say “kronor?” If it happens in Scandinavia, it will surely happen in the US, right?

I doubt that it will actually happen in America, but here’s another irony: if the federal government ever tries to go cashless, numismatics will get a gigantic boost. Think of the unpopularity of those who would benefit: bankers would rake in fees on plastic transactions; cybercriminals would have a target-rich environment; the nanny state would be able to collect more taxes, put an end to citizen privacy, and even shame consumers for their choices (you buy too little organic kale and too many deep-fried Twinkies). Dare the feds try cashlessness, there will be a Bunyanesque blow-back. The virtues of cash—fee-free, hack-proof, tax-free, and private—will resist the all-electronic approach, and in the process, focus so much attention on coins and notes that it will stimulate a numismatic collecting renaissance.

So, don’t fear the Internet. It is thinning attendance at conventions and auctions, causing youth to collect differently, and may appear to threaten the very existence of cash, but in the end, it will bring a bright new day to numismatics. It has attracted collectors we haven’t yet seen, but whose presence is already being felt. It is recruiting youth to our hobby, and any attempt to go cashless will inspire a widespread rebirth of coin collecting. No need to blame anything on the “Interweb”: instead, let’s recognize it for what it is: a gift from the numismatic gods.

BY JOEL J. OROSZ, GUEST CONTRIBUTER