The most successful coin collectors take time to learn as much as they can about numismatics. They not only study coins but the dynamics of the market as well. To learn about coins, I strongly suggest that you buy and read as many books as possible. You can supplement these books with specific catalogs that relate to your chosen field of specialization. A serious collector might even go as far as creating a database of prices that relate to his specialty. Other suggestions for new collectors include subscribing to periodicals such as Coin World and Numismatic News. You should join the American Numismatic Association and use their library (they will send books by mail to members). Become friendly with other collectors and communicate with them by phone or e-mail. And don't be afraid to ask questions.
It is too hard to begin a coin collection without having goals and boundaries. I have always been a strong believer that it is better to view numismatics with a "micro" perspective as opposed to a "macro" perspective. As an example, if you start by collecting Charlotte gold coinage, your "world of focus" becomes 52 specific issues. It is realistic to assume that an intelligent individual who is willing to commit time to this area of study could become relatively knowledgeable within a year or two. To become similarly knowledgeable in a larger field of study (such as all branch mint US gold coins produced between 1838 and 1907) requires many more years. Becoming a well-versed specialist will allow you to level the playing field between you and dealers and it should enable you to make better purchases.
We live in an era of immediate gratification. New collectors often have the urge to jump in very quickly and complete their sets as fast as they can. The best coin collections are built over the course of many years. Sometimes, it is possible to purchase a number of great coins in a very short period of time. But most times, the opportunities to purchase great coins are few and far between. The new collector should avoid the temptation to buy the "wrong coin" just because he needs it for his set and he does not want to wait. Impetuous decisions are invariably incorrect and usually prove costly over the course of time.
It amazes me how many serious collectors get their "meatiest" information on topics such as pricing, market conditions and future trends from such third-hand sources as newsletters, coin magazines and coin brokers. This information is almost always well out of date and totally biased. (Remember that most newsletters which recommend specific coins are written by dealers who have taken a position in what they are touting). The only way to get real information about the coin market is from a dealer or collector who regularly attends shows and auctions. This discounts most coin brokers/salesmen as they get diluted information from their superiors and then pass on these half-baked "truths" to the masses. I personally view it as my duty to pass on accurate information to good clients. Conversely, I will not willing pass this information onto "tire kickers." The best way to get good information is to establish a good working relationship with a well-connected, reliable dealer.
V. Thinking Like A Collector:
Anyone who approaches numismatics with a dispassionate attitude is a virtual certainty to lose money. Conversely, most pure collectors make money; often times in spite of themselves. This is because they buy coins for the right reason: they love them. They what interests them and they carefully research their purchases. They know for example, that a coin similar to one they just purchased sold for 10% more at a major auction. They know that they are not buying overhyped coins at the height of a promotional period. They are not buying coins just because a voice at the other end of the phone told them to and they are not buying them because this person told them their new coins would "increase in value 50-75% over the next three years." Remember this rule because it may be the most important one of the ten listed here: learn to think and act like a true collector and you will have more fun now and have a better chance to expect a reasonable profit on your purchases over the course of time.
I define connoisseurship as the ability to discern true quality in a specific field. In numismatics, the connoisseur is able to determine which coins have the most aesthetic eye appeal and which, literally, stand apart from the "typical" piece. A numismatic connoisseur, for instance, is able to appreciate a truly original gold coin with rich, "crusty" coloration. He is able to innately sense that 150 year old coins do not have to be big and bright in order to be desirable. Connoisseurship is a natural ability. You either are able to naturally determine the "best" or you are not. If you are not a born connoisseur (and very few people are) then you should find a dealer who has this ability to assist you with your purchases. I would estimate that less than 5% of all coin collections are "connoisseur quality" and those that are typically the ones that show the greatest financial appreciation over the course of time.
VII. Learning to Grade:
I have seen people spend millions of dollars on rare coins without having the slightest idea how to grade. They put their complete trust in dealers and in third-party grading. Frankly, this attitude leaves me baffled. If I do not feel very comfortable grading a specific type of coin, I do not buy it. As an example, I think Indian Head half eagles are extremely hard to grade. To be totally honest, I can't grade the damn things. My solution? I don't buy them. By the same token, I feel that I am a world-class grader of Liberty Head half eagles. So I buy a lot of them. There are some simple rules when it comes to grading. First--and foremost--you need to view as many coins as possible. I would recommend that you attend shows and auctions and carefully look at coins. Secondly, I would take one of the grading classes offered by the American Numismatic Association at their annual Summer Seminars. Thirdly, I would make the decision to specialize, so that you have fewer types of coins to learn to grade. Fourthly, I would try to learn grading tips from the dealer(s) that I buy the majority of my coins from. Finally, I would always remember that while third-party grading is a great safety net for the beginner, there is nothing like your own knowledge.
VIII. Thinking Long Term:
Coins are a terrible short-term investment. Even if you buy coins at a fair "retail" mark-up, you are still paying at least 10-20% over typical wholesale prices. This means that any coins that you purchase have to go up at least 10-20% for you to break even. When coins were heavily touted as investments in the 1980's, the common logic was that you needed to hold at least three to five years. I would suggest that you should plan to hold your coins at least ten years and preferably more. The greatest collections (Eliasberg, Pittman, Norweb, etc.) were built over the course of fifty+ years.
IX. Quality Not Quantity:
Let's say that you have a coin budget of $20,000 per year. I would suggest that you purchase four or five really nice $4000-$5000 coins each year than twenty $1000 pieces. The coin market of the future will be even more predicated on quality than it already is. High quality coins will become harder to find and, consequently, more expensive. The decision to purchase the best coins you can afford will prove to be very intelligent over the course of time. A few years ago, another dealer had an advertising campaign that basically said that your entire collection should be able to fit into a PCGS shipping box (i.e., it would be twenty coins). While this never really caught on, I think his idea actually has some merit. If you have decided to be more of a "generalist" buyer than a "specialist," I like the concept of having a small collection of great coins instead of a large collection of nondescript coins.
X. Buying the Best You Can:
Understand if you are new to coin collecting and you know next to nothing about coins and the coin market, you have no business purchasing $10,000+ items. I would strongly suggest that you start small and take at least three to six months to study the market. Once you feel more comfortable, you can take a bigger plunge into the coin market.
Conclusion: The regimen that I have discussed above is not easy to follow. Most people are not willing (or able) to follow this approach as it requires considerable discipline and a major commitment of time. If some of these steps seem practical to you and others do not, then I suggest you follow what you can and keep the other steps in the back of your mind as you become better acquainted with numismatics.