When Jeff Garrett was about 12 years old, he was given an album so he could start collecting Lincoln head pennies. But unlike many other boys in the 1970s, he never stopped.
His hobby became a passion, then a business. For more than 30 years, Garrett has owned one of the nation’s largest dealerships, Mid-America Rare Coin Galleries in Lexington.
“I love the thrill of the chase,” he said. “When I finished that first album, I wanted to do another album. When I start something I just get obsessed by it.”
Garrett, 57, is the author of many books about rare coins. He is on the advisory board of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History, where he helped organize the rare coin exhibit that opened in July. On Aug. 12, he will begin a two-year term as president of the American Numismatic Association, the nation’s largest organization of coin collectors with about 25,000 members.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I’ve been able to turn a hobby into a living.”
The ANA presidency is an unpaid job that comes with a lot of responsibility: the 124-year-old organization has a $6 million annual budget and more than 30 employees. Its mission is numismatic education and promoting the hobby.
Garrett said he is proud to head the organization responsible for his first airplane trip. As a boy, he won a scholarship to an ANA summer seminar in Colorado Springs, the organization’s headquarters.
“That really helped jump-start my interest in coins,” he said, adding that the organization gives away 50 seminar scholarships each year to young collectors.
His main goal as ANA president is to bring more young people into the hobby — and bring back “dormant” collectors who lost interest or got busy with other things.
When Garrett was growing up in Florida, there were several local coin shops, and their owners became his mentors. By age 17, he was a full-time dealer.
“By the time I was 19 or 20, I owned part of the biggest (coin) company in Florida,” he said. “I just had a knack for it.”
Garrett’s interest also was fueled by a Florida coin-collecting club. That prompted him to help start the Bluegrass Coin Club in 1994. It meets at 6:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. More information: Bluegrasscoinclub.com.
As a young man, Garrett became friends with Jonathan Kern, who has been a rare coin dealer in Lexington for decades. “I had a blind date with his sister-in-law,” Garrett said. They married and settled in Lexington.
“Lexington is a great place to live,” he said. “And because I travel to big cities a lot, it’s a great place to come home to.”
Much of Garrett’s work is buying and selling coins with other dealers around the country and doing appraisals.
“Sometimes a rare coin might show up that hasn’t been around for 20 years and you’ve got to do some research and find out how really rare it is,” he said. “It’s one of the things I love about my business. Every day is almost like an Antiques Road Show.”
Garrett specializes in American gold coins, which were made from 1795 until 1933. They are rare because, during the Great Depression, federal officials urged people to turn them in so they could be melted into bars and stored at Fort Knox.
“That gold would be worth a whole lot more if they had just put the coins in bags and stashed them away,” he said.
Garrett made international headlines in 2013 when, on behalf of a client, he paid more than $3 million for a 1913 Liberty nickel, one of five made by a rogue mint employee. It was once owned by an heir of Hetty Green, the infamous “Witch of Wall Street,” and later belonged to a collector who died in a car wreck. The nickel went missing for decades amid speculation that it was a fake.
“What makes really rare coins expensive are the stories attached to them,” he said. “The better a story a coin has, the more desirable it is.”
Precious metal prices rise and fall, but the value of rare coins has remained steady.
“I don’t encourage people to buy coins as an investment,” Garrett said. “I encourage people to collect coins. And if you collect coins, I think they’ll become a good investment. It’s like anything: you need to understand what you’re buying. Do it at your own pace and enjoy the journey.”