Jerry Buss: “A Pure Collector”

[photo: Jerry Buss]

Former Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss was an avid collector

He's made millions from his sports and real estate empires, but he doesn't “invest” in coins... he “collects” them

by Bob Lemke, Editor of Numismatic News

It’s hard to tell why more than 200 people showed up at a special Saturday afternoon forum during the Numismatic Association of Southern California (NASC) convention in Los Angeles.

The lone speaker on the program told the audience, “From experiences speaking to different groups, I find that more people are curious about me than actually want to hear what I have to say.”

In this case, the curiosity may stem from the fact that Jerry Buss, Ph.D., is the only modern coin collector to concurrently own the two great American coin rarities: the 1913 Liberty nickel and the 1804 silver dollar.

They may have come to hear him because of his highly visible ownership of such Los Angeles sports properties as the L.A. Lakers of the National Basketball Association, the L.A. Kings of the National Hockey League, the L.A. Lazers of the major Indoor Soccer League, and the 17,000-seat Los Angeles Forum sporting arena.

In an exclusive interview with Numismatic News prior to his appearance at the NASC forum, Buss revealed himself to be an avid, knowledgeable and responsible collector, who doesn’t let his fortune get in the way of his hobby.

For Jerry Buss is, to use his own words, “a pure collector.” While he classifies his sports interests on the investment side, he calls his stamps and coins “toys... even though they are good investments.”

And he does recognize that rare coins are an excellent investment medium – he just doesn’t think of them that way when it comes to his own collection.

“As a pure collector,” he continued, “I don’t think the ups and downs of the market are at all significant or meaningful. You’re fortunate if on occasion, you find the coins you want and the market is somewhat depressed and you buy it low. But at the same time, the next one you find will probably find the market up and you’ll pay for it. In the stock market, they call it dollar averaging.”

For Jerry Buss the good times were long in coming. When he was a year old, his parents were divorced. His mother worked as a waitress to support herself and infant son. By attending night school, she eventually became a bookkeeper. At the time of her death, she was head bookkeeper for her son’s business, supervising 14 people.

In 1945, at age 12, Buss and his mother moved to a small Wyoming mining and sheep ranching town. He worked throughout his school years, but dropped out of high school because of the need to support his family. A sympathetic chemistry teacher urged him to return and Buss realized that without an education all he could look forward to was a life of unskilled labor, a small pension and a gold watch.

He earned a scholarship to the University of Wyoming and an undergraduate degree in just two and a half years. A Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Southern California followed. He helped put himself through school by, among other things, selling tickets at the L.A. Coliseum.

Later, Buss became friends with the man who was responsible for bringing him to the NASC convention as a guest speaker, Lee Kuntz. Kuntz was an early investor in Buss’ enterprises (“To this day I’ve never been sorry,” Kuntz says), and a fellow coin collector.

Buss decided that the assembled collectors might best identify with how he went from plugging Lincoln cents into a penny board to ownership of the hobby’s greatest treasures.

Buss began coin collecting as a 10-year-old in Los Angeles. “What I would do – of course all of you probably started the same way – was save a certain amount of my allowance and once a week I would purchase a coin.”

Buss said he would pore over the “5¢ apiece” box or the “10¢ apiece” box. “I religiously spent several hours every Saturday selecting that 20¢ item,” he said.

“Somewhere in that stage I was first introduced to the penny board, and like so many novice collectors, really began to get thrilled with the idea that I could find a rare coin in circulation.”

The search paid off. “I hold as close to my heart, I think, as any part of my collection, the three original sets – Lincoln Cents, Buffalo Nickels and Mercury Dimes – which were taken totally out of circulation. They were absolutely completed, all out of circulation, with the single exception of the 1909-S VDB,” Buss said. In fact, he added, he began to doubt that the coin was ever placed into circulation.

During his teenage years in Wyoming, Buss began to buy his coins via mail order, answering classified ads in the back of Popular Science and Mechanics Illustrated. He was also introduced to the 1913 Liberty nickel and the 1804 dollar on the cover of a famous numismatic advertising circular.

Buss then related the story of his beginnings in real estate investment and told how he became a millionaire. “There’s really no magic required to become a millionaire,” he said. “What it really requires is hard work, and hard work for a very long time.” His formula states simply, “Get a part-time job on Saturday and do it for 10 years, taking that money and investing it at 12%. Wait 15 more years and you’re a millionaire.” Buss continued, “If I asked who in this room wanted to be a millionaire, most of you would raise your hand. But if I asked at the same time, which of you wanted to work Saturdays for the next 25 years, the hands would drop. I’ve been working Saturdays since I was 16.”

And that Saturday work finally paid off in 1967, when “for the first time I recognized that I could, in fact, be considered a millionaire.”

He continued, “My tastes were becoming somewhat more expensive, but then at the same time, I could afford it. In 1967-1970, the years were becoming more and more lucrative. The million suddenly became two million, which turned into four million which turned into ten million, and of course by this time I was acquiring some really attractive coins.”

In the mid-1970s, Buss continued, “I had the first real trauma that any coin collector can ever have. Namely, I was keeping my coins at my house and, of course, somebody came in and robbed me of my sack of gold coins.” He said the loss of that $150,000- 200,000 worth of coins “hurts more than anything I can imagine in the financial sense,” including some deals in which he has lost $5,000,000. Since that time, he has kept his collections in several bank vaults.

With the late 1970s and the unprecedented boom in southern California real estate property values, Buss saw his personal wealth increase to the $100,000,000+ level, and after 35 years was able to realize his dream of owning the 1913 Liberty nickel and 1804 dollar.

While attending a basketball game in the spring of 1978 with Ira Goldberg of Superior Stamp and Coin Gallery, Goldberg mentioned he had a chance to buy a 1913 Liberty nickel, and asked if he would be interested. “I thought about it for maybe 20-30 seconds, and said ‘yes, I would.’” The coin was his for a reported $200,000, and later that year he acquired the Idler specimen 1804 silver dollar for a similar figure, also through private treaty from Superior.

“One night after I bought the 1804 dollar,” Buss concluded, “I went back to my old, old collections and sat down with my original penny board, my Buffalo nickels and Mercury dimes – the three original boards. I’ve never replaced any of the coins in those boards. I took out my first copy of the Red Book – totally worn, I must have looked at it a million times. And I still had the old pamphlet of B. Max Mehl, with the picture of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, the 1913 ‘V’ nickel and the 1804 dollar on the cover; and I took those three coins and sat the pamphlet right next to them. I sat back and said, ‘My boy, you ain’t doing too badly.’”