Next to the United States Mint, Littleton Coin Company is perhaps the best-known coin dealer in America. Their advertising can be found across a broad spectrum of magazines and media. They employ more than 350 people at their 85,000 square foot facility. Compare that to your local coin shop! The truth, however, is that all those employee salaries, expensive advertising, and the gigantic facility are all paid for by coin collectors! Littleton's prices aren't just high; they're stratospheric! But is Littleton worth it?
How Littleton Coin Company Works
Since I was aware that Littleton's primary business model was the coins on approval system, I signed up for their service more than a year ago, so I could give them a fair, long-term trial when I wrote my review of Littleton's services. (They kicked me off their approval program because I wasn't buying enough coins, but they did it nicely, and I knew they were right).
Although they earned an excellent rating overall, as soon as my review was published, I began getting emails from readers. One even sent a formal letter on business letterhead, as a "letter to the editor" type of thing. I was surprised at how strongly people felt about this common complaint they expressed, but I should have foreseen it because these very same practices are listed in my Top 5 Worst Coin Investments article.
Since the carefully-crafted business-type letter is so well written and describes the same concerns that nearly two dozen other readers expressed, I've included the entire message written by Bill Davenport:
"Dear Ms. Headley:
Regarding your article about the Littleton Coin Company of Littleton, New Hampshire (The Bottom Line, 9/10/08), you were absolutely correct that "their coin prices are very high!" In my view, there is much more about this company that coin collectors should know.
As a prefatory note, my first experience with Littleton (then Littleton Stamp & Coin Co.) was in 1970, when I first purchased coins by mail order. Like many people, I built up some of my collection with coins from Littleton. More recently, I have been extremely disappointed to see the company selling coins for anywhere between 25 to 200 percent over the listed and advertised prices. At this writing, for example, the company is selling uncirculated Silver Eagles for $43, for example. This is twice the price of the same coins advertised in leading numismatic trade publications.
It is also very troubling to me that the company is selling “colorized coins,” gold plated coins, and a plethora of products that are very basic, commodity coins offered in special packaging, and sold for even higher premiums.
More recently, the company has started packaging groups of coins according to different themes and then offering those as "club" offerings. From my perspective, collectors could purchase these “club” coins almost anywhere else for a fraction of the price. Collectors should never confuse convenience with added value.
Among the most offensive offerings are "Colorized Presidential Dollars with Case," and more specifically, dollar coins that have been printed or painted with images of Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama. The problem with these and other novelties is they will never increase in value. After all, why would any coin collector pay $16.95 for a coin that will be worth only $1 long after either candidate leaves office? I recognize Littleton is in business to make money, but I believe outrageously high prices and the ever-increasing quantity of “novelties” are rapidly eroding the company’s erstwhile solid reputation for conservative grading. In my view, these low-value product offerings are also ruining the company’s reputation as a serious coin dealer.
There should be federal laws that prohibit companies or individuals from selling painted, enameled, flash-plated, or otherwise adulterated coins. In my opinion, Littleton should be leading the fight against adulterated coins, not selling them.
It is unfortunate that this company, to which so many collectors turned to because of its reputation, is the last place on earth I would ever buy coins.
Littleton Sells More Than Just Standard Coins
The reason I shared this letter is that I agree wholeheartedly with Bill. I bought my first coins and stamps from Littleton in the late '60s as a child, and I've always had a certain fondness for them. I've always seen their widespread advertising efforts as a sort of "missionary" effort to bring new collectors into the fold. I know this view seems naive, but if nobody is reaching out to people outside our marketplace, how can the hobby grow? In recent years, though, Littleton has strayed from the solid numismatic material it built its grand foundation upon, and the colorized coins and spurious sets actually sadden me.
I presented the reader feedback I had received to a Littleton executive (although he didn't see Bill's letter) and asked for Littleton's response. The executive, who didn't want to be named, said that the reason Littleton is selling this kind of stuff is that the customers have asked for it. He said the merchandise sells very well, which is why Littleton has been increasing their offerings along these lines.
What do you think about this issue? Is Littleton out of line to be marketing this kind of stuff, or are they just keeping up with the times and so let the "buyer beware?" Is this venerable grand patriarch of our hobby selling out and forgetting its roots?
However, in all fairness, Littleton provides a service that few coin dealers whatever offer. Giving coin collectors a "purchase upon approval" option is a very risky business. Some people never return the coins, and Littleton must absorb the loss of those coins. Additionally, it takes a vast amount of manpower to package these coins in order to ship to customers for their approval. Coins that are returned must be re-inventoried and placed back in stock. This is another labor cost that must be absorbed by all of Littleton's customers. If you are looking for a purchase-upon-approval type of coin shop, then Littleton is for you.
Edited by: James Bucki