When 28-year-old Patrick Hoolahan opened a coin shop in West Seattle in 1979, he did so to sate an interest in numismatics that dated back to his childhood. At age 16, Hoolahan was so knowledgeable, his coin collection so rare and valuable, that he cashed it in and bought a new Ford Mustang.
Hoolahan went on to become a serial entrepreneur. He owned a lumber yard on Vashon Island, according to his son, Eric, and combed scrap yards locally and across the United States, looking for copper, iron, and precious and semi-precious metals he could resell for a decent profit.
During its first year in operation, West Seattle Coins was a fun side business — a hobby, really. That changed in 1980, when the price of gold quadrupled to $850 per ounce, and Hoolahan’s small coin shop became, well, a money maker.
That West Seattle coin shop is now part of Bellevue Rare Coins, and Eric Hoolahan is the company’s CEO.
“My dad had an ability to negotiate, make deals, and make money at will,” Eric marveled during an interview at the company’s headquarters in downtown Bellevue. Hoolahan’s small and windowless office is a stockpile of sorts for family business mementos: a faded photo of 2-year-old Eric perched on his father’s shoulders during a coin show in Long Beach, California; a blown-up photograph of Patrick seated at a large table and sorting, stacking, and counting piles of shiny coins; and a framed photograph of Eric as a youngster, standing alongside his mother and his aunt, working the counter at West Seattle Coins.
Eric Hoolahan, 37, began to learn the family business when he was 20 years old, and joined his father on cross-country road trips, donning overalls to scout scrap yards before changing into more formal business attire to close deals with coin-shop owners.
Patrick Hoolahan passed away in 2007. Today, Eric and his younger siblings run the family business. Brothers Daniel and Ryan are COO and CFO, respectively; sister Angela is the company’s bullion manager and jewelry specialist.
The family opened Bellevue Rare Coins in 2010, and subsequent stores were opened in Lynnwood in 2012, and Issaquah in 2016, with West Seattle Coins being rebranded to Bellevue Rare Coins in early 2015. A Tacoma location opened in December 2018.
Today, Bellevue Rare Coins employs more than 40 people. In addition to its namesake rare coins, the company buys and sells rare currency, gold, silver, jewelry, loose gemstones, watches, and even vintage baseball cards.
The business is fascinating, especially today, when the price of gold has soared to nearly $1,400 an ounce; rare coins can fetch millions of dollars; and display cases fill Bellevue Rare Coins’ stores, inviting customers to gawk at shiny slabs of gold and silver bars or ancient coins dating back hundreds of years.
Eric discussed with South Sound Business his father’s legacy, industry trends, and some of the most valuable collectibles that have passed through Bellevue Rare Coins over the years.
Q: Bellevue Rare Coins traces back to your father, Patrick, and the coin shop he opened in West Seattle almost 40 years ago. What was your father like?
A: He was a high school dropout, but he was incredibly smart. He was an entrepreneur at heart, always looking for an angle. You could drop him in any town, any city, anywhere, and he was going to find a way to make some money. He had that capability. He prided himself on being able to walk into a trade show with not a dollar in his pocket, and walk out with a pocket full of money.
My father had a scrap-metal business that was real big for him. He used to buy copper wire, aluminum wheels, engine blocks, and decommissioned jet engines. He had a crew that would work for him, and they would go out with big metal saws, cut these things up, and take out the parts and pieces that were valuable as scrap metal.
As that progressed, he never lost his passion for coins. My dad always had a really strong understanding of U.S. coins, and I contribute that to his genius, his ability to take a book and memorize everything in it.
Q: Are there any items that have come through your business that are really neat or cool, or that have taken your breath away?
A: Occasionally, we get a 100-ounce gold bar, which is worth about $130,000, and it’s like, “Yeah, this is cool.” I love big diamonds. I would love to convince some of these people with 20- or 30-carat diamonds to come in. I’ve certainly seen them and handled them, but I’ve never bought one from the public. I’ve dealt with them from other dealers.
We’ve had amazing coins come through. We have bought and sold some of the finest specimens ever discovered, such as one of the Gobrecht dollars from 1836. It was a sample dollar (created by) Christian Gobrecht, the third designer of the United States Mint. He put his name, Gobrecht, just above the date 1836, and a dozen pieces were made for Congress to approve. They did not approve them, as Gobrecht’s name was in plain view and deemed against the law. Once that change was made, the coins went into production, and he put his initials in the ledge under Lady Liberty. We had one of those pieces with his name above the date, and it was the finest known ever found. I think it ended up being worth about $120,000.
Q: Who are your customers? Are they investors, collectors, or another demographic?
A: Most financial advisors say gold and silver are insurances against inflation. You can’t compare it to a stock because it’s not something you can calculate a rate of return. You can invest in gold and silver stocks, mining companies, and things like that. But the people who invest in the hard asset — the physical metal — are worried about inflation. A lot of people just want to own gold and silver. Like the average construction worker who comes in every paycheck, buys a 10-ounce silver bar, or a few 1-ounce silver coins, and puts it in their safe. Also, most financial advisors suggest you have anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of your net worth in gold or silver because it can protect your entire net wealth from hyperinflation.
(Our customers come from) all walks of life. The person who spent too much at Christmas and needs to pay some credit card bills. They went through their old jewelry box and said, “I don’t wear this. I’ve never worn this. What will you give me?” Or it could be someone from a very well-off family who doesn’t want this stuff hanging around their house anymore because they are fearful of being robbed. It’s not that they need the money. It’s just that they no longer have the need for the item, and they don’t want it lying around the house.
One day, we are going to pass away, and our kids are going to go sell (those items). There is going to be that loop of, unfortunately, death and liquidating of assets. That’s a trend we continue to see.
Q: Bellevue Rare Coins offers more than just coins. Are most people aware of that?
A: It’s a big hurdle to get over, for sure. You are absolutely right. It says Bellevue Rare Coins in our name. One discovery that we came to was that if our marketing focuses more on the gold that we are looking for, the watches we are looking for, the diamonds we are looking for, we don’t have to spend money (advertising) that we are looking for coins. It’s in our name. People are going to know that we are looking for rare coins. We can focus on the things that are not in our name to get people to understand that we are the people who buy valuables. That’s what we do.
Unfortunately, one misconception is that we are like a pawn shop. If you come into our stores, you know it’s not a pawn shop. We don’t have tools for sale. There are no TVs for sale. It’s just valuables. We are the evaluators. We are the ones that offer a free evaluation of your valuables, whatever that might be.
Q: Are there other lines of business, other collectibles, that you would like to get into?
A: People bring in all kinds of cool stuff, and I usually have to put the reins on because we don’t have the capacity to deal with it all. My dad used to say, “Make money in your business; lose money in someone else’s.” We want to continue to make money in the business that we know. I love the idea of sticking to our core products and just expanding on that. For example, I love jewelry. We can expand on that (by offering) antique and vintage jewelry. If we’re going to expand the types of things we specialize in, it would be things like that.