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Halperin Put His Stamp on Coins
By Debbie Bradley, Numismatic News
August 02, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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First, it was selling blueberries door-to door. Jim Halperin was 6.

Then it was putting on astronomy shows and neighborhood circuses.

At age 12, Halperin was selling stamp and comic books and publishing fanzines.

By the time he was in high school he was operating a print shop supplying business cards and sale fliers.

Halperin, co-founder of Heritage Auctions, has been in business almost all his life.

“I just wanted to be like my Dad,” said Halperin, who is following in the footsteps of his father, a forward thinking businessman who cared as much about the people who worked for him as for the company he owned.

Halperin’s association with coins began the summer before his senior year of high school when he converted his print shop into a stamp business. Wanting to attract a wide customer base, he brazenly named it Jim’s Stamp & Coin Shop, even though he didn’t know anything about coins.

But when Gary Walls walked into the store and asked about coins, Halperin had to admit he didn’t have any. So Walls volunteered to help get the coin business off the ground, and almost immediately became Halperin’s new company’s first employee.

It wasn’t long before Halperin was studying Numismatic News, Coin World, the Red Book and using Brown & Dunn for grading. What he quickly learned was that he had an affinity for coins.

“Every time I saw a coin I remembered what it looked like,” he said. “When I saw another one, I remembered whether – and why – it was better or worse than the first one.”

During his senior year at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., he ran the coin business in the afternoons, attended coin shows on weekends and amassed an inventory of about $100,000 with no debt.

But more opportunity lay ahead. Halperin was accepted into Harvard University.

“Harvard was great,” he said. “One thing about it though was that I was no longer the smartest person in the room. I didn’t like that. But even worse, I couldn’t attract a girlfriend to save my life. I had gone to an all-boys private high school and I didn’t know how to talk to women at all. And I loved coin dealing.”

So, after three semesters he told his Dad he was leaving school to sell coins full-time and opened New England Rare Coin Galleries in Framingham, Mass. That was late 1971.

Halperin gives credit to a number of coin dealers who helped him out and offered advice in those early years. Dealers like Joe Lipson, and Ed Leventhal of J.J. Teaparty, who took him to his first coin show away from home.

“Coin dealers were, and still are, very nice to new colleagues,” Halperin said.”

Then there was the tall Texan, Steve Ivy, whom Halperin met when Ivy was 19 and already a famous coin dealer. Halperin was 16 at the time. The friendly rivals continued to keep in touch.

By the time Halperin was in his mid-20s he was a millionaire and ready to move his company to Boston. That’s when he hired Charlie Lidman to be his operations manager. Lidman and Halperin remain friends to this day.

Around the same time he hired Marc Emory, who had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. A “savvy coin collector,” he now lives in Germany and remains a part owner of Heritage overseeing all of Heritage’s European operations.

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The late 1970s were magic for New England Rare Coin Galleries. At its peak it employed almost 200 people and brought in close to $35 million annually. It was doing so well, in fact, that in 1979 Sotheby’s came calling and offered Halperin $22 million for his company. Halperin declined.

But with the good comes the bad, and within a few years the company that Sotheby’s had coveted was now insolvent – almost $2 million under water.

“I was unwilling to consider bankruptcy,” Halperin said, “and determined to pay all of New England’s creditors in full.”

Fortunately, Halperin wasn’t alone. His Texan friend and rival Ivy called because his business, although in better shape than Halperin’s, wasn’t doing all that well either. Ivy’s proposal was to join forces, move Halperin’s operations to Dallas and cut overhead expenses. That was 1982.

“It’s one of the best things I ever did,” Halperin said.

Along with the wholesale coin business, Halperin brought his auction company to Dallas where Bob Merrill, who ran Heritage’s auctions, rolled it into the business.

Halperin was interested in seeing the auction side of the business grow, but it was tough. Bowers and Merena, Stack’s and Superior were already well established.

So to get their foot farther in the auction door, Heritage Rare Coin Galleries started out-bidding its competitors for the rights to the American Numismatic Association auctions. It took a few years, Halperin said, but Heritage made progress and before long was the fourth or fifth largest coin auctioneer in the country.

But Halperin was always looking ahead. In 1985 he started a coin grading service, Numismatic Certification Institute, and wrote the NCI Grading Guide, which was later renamed How to Grade Coins.

The grading business was lucrative, but a year later another grading company was formed by David Hall. Professional Coin Grading Service utilized tighter standards, Halperin said, and basically offered a better product. Then NGC joined the fray, and after a few years, NCI was closed down.

In the mid-1990s, Halperin undertook another adventure. Stepping back from the coin business for a couple years, he turned to writing science fiction. His first book, The Truth Machine, was a novel about a foolproof lie detector and its impact on the world.

The Internet was just coming into its own, so Halperin decided to share his novel for free online. All he asked was that readers take a survey about the book. Within a few weeks, 15,000 surveys were returned. The buzz had started.

Although he had planned to self-publish the book, Random House called and offered to make it its lead book in its fall lineup. The book went on to sell 300,000 copies.

Halperin’s big take-away from the writing project was the impact of the Internet.

“I just noticed all kinds of things about Amazon that I thought were absolutely brilliant,” he said. “Like letting people give bad reviews of books you’re trying to sell. It’s counter intuitive, but I could see how smart that was right away. In a macro sense you sell more books, and people who buy the books are happier.”

So in 1998, with Halperin’s input, Heritage launched a website geared for the collector. “I gave away information that nobody was used to getting for free,” Halperin said. Auction records, a price guide, a grading guide, a collection management system – all were available on the website.

“Once we launched our website I was no longer interested in writing, I was interested in making Heritage something I always wanted it to be,” he said.

He wanted to emulate the impact Fidelity Investment had on the whole investment market in America. The firm was across the street from his in Boston.

“I thought Fidelity was a fabulous company,” Halperin said. They were trying to bring stocks mainstream so everybody could invest with them, not just people who had relationships with stockbrokers.

“I want to do this with all kinds of collectibles. We have to make the market more liquid and transparent, and at Heritage that’s our goal.”

While Heritage Auctions is known for handling high-end coin auctions, like the recent auction of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel that sold for $3.2 million, Halperin said it really wants to be there for the average collectors.

That means they don’t have to “know somebody” to get a fair deal. And they don’t need a boat load of money either.

“Consider collecting die varieties in various series where they haven’t really been studied yet,” he said.

“Or learn as much as you can about the history of the period and you may be able to figure out the most historically significant coins, or learn about the artists and you’ll be able to choose a series that has potential from art collectors, like Saint-Gaudens designs.”

Some people have put together fabulous collections by specializing, and they end up knowing more than dealers, he said.

“The more you know and the more affinity you have for what you’re collecting the better you’ll do because you will naturally be able to discern good deals,” he said. “And that’s not just for coins, but for any collectible.”

Over the years Heritage Auctions has expanded its categories from coins, currency and comics to include art, jewelry, rare books, photography, firearms and wine.

“We are continuing to evolve,” he said, “and we have a long way to go.”

Somehow, you’ve got to think he’ll get there.

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