History for Sale

Heritage Auction Galleries made a fortune selling rare coins. Now itís making a mint offering gems from Americaís rich past.

From all accounts, the Forbespiece was widely circulated in the rare coin world. People were amazed that Halperin had owned up to all his misdeeds, which took place back when "the coin industry was more cowboy-ish," as one out-of-town coin dealer puts it. Those who feared him started to respect him, especially as Heritage converted to the religion of "transparency," a word every single person interviewed for this story used. It is, as Rohan says, "our buzzword."

Heritage employees insist that first-time buyers and veteran dealers play by the same rules. They sell the place as the "accessible" auction house that provides every bit of information necessary to make an educated purchase. If there is a reserve--a minimum starting bid--Heritage lists it. If there is an issue with the provenance, Heritage will make that known too. And they will not price you up: If you pre-bid $10,000 on the phone or Web and nobody pushes an item higher than $100, you get it for $110.

"When I was in Boston, my coin company was across from Fidelity Investments," Halperin says. "This was in the late '70s when people didn't have stocks. If they knew a stockbroker they might have a portfolio, but back then it was difficult to trade stocks. You had to know somebody, and Fidelity decided to bring the stock market to the mainstream. That's what we're doing with collecting, the same way Fidelity did by giving people information everyone wanted to keep secret."

Richie for the rich: Ed Jaster expects the cover to the first Richie Rich comic to sell for at least $11,000 in May. The original art will go for no less than $17,500.
Mark Graham
Richie for the rich: Ed Jaster expects the cover to the first Richie Rich comic to sell for at least $11,000 in May. The original art will go for no less than $17,500.
Comics buying, without all the punishing: Actor Thomas 
Jane, center, is a longtime Heritage customer. He’s 
pictured with media director John Petty and one of 
Heritage’s many comics catalog assemblers, Mark 
Walters.
Mark Graham
Comics buying, without all the punishing: Actor Thomas Jane, center, is a longtime Heritage customer. He’s pictured with media director John Petty and one of Heritage’s many comics catalog assemblers, Mark Walters.

In 1996, Halperin published his first of two novels through sci-fi giant Del Rey. It was called The Truth Machine, which referred to the perfect lie detector. Fact is, it just wouldn't look good for the guy to turn out a liar, and to this day, a free copy of The Truth Machineis available on Heritage's Web site.

"I don't know if I wanna say Jim's a reformed guy, but a lot of what he did [in the late 1980s and early '90s] was in a different environment," says Doug Winter, a Tacoma, Washington-based gold-coin dealer who used to work out of Dallas. "People just like to take shots at the guy who's the man and not a nobody, and Jim is the man in this business. Jim will tell you he's not perfect, but there's no denying the guy's really at a different level than everyone else. They're not more transparent than anyone because they're the nicest guys in the world. It was a business decision, but a smart one. They realized by being upfront and giving people all the information available, they would make more money."

Five years ago, a typical coin auction brought in $15 million to $20 million. Today, Heritage can do that in the time it took to read this sentence. Probably just did.


So what happened? Why did Heritage decide to go from selling gold coins to Batman comics and Buffy the Vampire Slayerprop stakes? When did the highbrow start aiming low?

Again, blame it on Halperin--and the fact that by 2001, Heritage and the rest of the world figured out how to sell anything over the Internet. He does not collect coins because he doesn't believe in competing with his customers, but he seeded Heritage's first funny book auction in November 2001 with $500,000 worth of material from his own stash of old Madart and early 1950s chiller comics. His partners made him do it. That was the only way they'd give in to his pleas that Heritage get into the comic book biz. Sell it or shut it.

Despite the fact the auction occurred two months after the September 11 terror attacks and no one showed beside a few locals, the first comic sale brought in just more than a million dollars. The second one did three times that, and by 2002 Heritage had hired a full-time director of its comics division, John Petty. To that point, the entire comics-collecting industry was worth a total of $3.5 million annually.

"I was in the top 10 dealers in the country, and my annual billings were roughly a million," says Ed Jaster, who came to Heritage in 2002 to run the comics department with Petty, who moved into media relations and marketing in 2004. "My first full year here, we did $18 million in comics and comic art." Jaster, like most of the department heads, was a well-known collector and expert when Heritage hired him. Halperin was one of his clients.

But the comics department cemented its rep with two big-name sales almost back to back: Nic Cage decided to sell his collection of important comics (first appearances of Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America and the original Green Lantern--that kinda stuff), and Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee likewise went in for a little spring-cleaning, decades after co-creating the likes of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four.

"So I'm responsible for their enormous growth?" Lee says, laughing. "My attorneys will call them shortly." Halperin and Lee are now such good pals they have lunch together several times a year. Lee got rid of his comics and some original art because he didn't even know he had it. It was up to John Petty to sort through Lee's belongings that had been stuffed into a backyard shed.

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