Coin show vendors often find themselves the targets of thieves

jkovac@macon.comJanuary 26, 2014 

PERRY -- When you deal in silver and gold, and your wares include an honest-to-goodness $100 trillion dollar bill, you can never be too careful.

As much as collecting coins can be a hobby, coin shows like the one the Middle Georgia Coin Club hosted during the weekend at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter can be a target for thieves.

The collectibles, after all, are money.

Glass displays at the Perry showcased gold coins worth thousands and included an 1893 silver dollar estimated at $15,000. There were $20 U.S. gold pieces from the early 1900s going for $1,300 and up.

Precautions must be taken. Seven years ago, knife-wielding bandits in surgical masks pulled off a $4 million heist at a coin convention in Orlando.

“It’s organized crime,” collector Phil Comer, who helped put on the Perry event, said Sunday. “There are all sorts of ruses, people working in teams.”

Security, he said, is one of the Perry show’s biggest expenses, which includes pay for plainclothes security guards and a police dog named Chaos.

Comer noted that some of the collectibles are “crazy-valuable.”

“The coins are beautiful, they’re shiny, they’re desirable things,” he said.

One of the measures some vendors take was evident Sunday morning. The show didn’t end until late afternoon, but some had packed up by noon and hit the road for home, to places such as Florida and Tennessee. They couldn’t risk spending the night on the road in motels with their untold thousands worth of coins in tow.

“They don’t even stop to eat,” Comer said.

While the show is on, their wares are guarded around the clock in a convention hall.

“They’re comfortable leaving things here,” Comer said.

Mark G. Thompson, a dealer at the show from Marietta, was peddling all manner of old coins, but one of his more curious items was a $100 trillion bill.

It’s out-of-circulation cash from Zimbabwe, where it wouldn’t have been worth “an empty Coke bottle” when the economy there tanked, he said. Thompson considers the thing a novelty and had a $25.99 price tag on it. He didn’t mind taking it out of a plastic sleeve and showing it off.

As for his more valuable merchandise, Thompson takes no chances.

“You stay within 2 feet of your coins,” he said. “Most of us are well-armed.”

He takes care to make sure he isn’t being followed -- ever.

“We have to live that way. ... When we leave McDonald’s on a normal day, you look behind you,” Thompson said.

“I have to assume that (crooks) assume I’ve got money all the time. ... The problem with us is that gold and silver are an untraceable liquid asset. Your Krugerrand looks the same as his Krugerrand. ... It’s precious metal and it’s not traceable and it’s liquid anywhere in the world. So because of that, we’ve always been a target.”

Randy Campbell, a coin grader and authenticator from Tampa, says counterfeiters are another criminal element who go after collectors.

“The average collector doesn’t have a chance against these high-tech counterfeiters,” Campbell said.

At the weekend show alone he saw more than 300 fakes, some of them phony silver dollars from the 1800s.

“If you go to a flea market or a garage sale to buy coins, you need your head examined,” Campbell said. “The chances of you getting your money’s worth are slightly less than zero.”

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