Florida dealer favors Early American but serves all ranges of collector specialties
By Kimberly Pichler
For Tom Pilitowski, a dealer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the memory of his introduction to numismatics is something he'll never forget.
"I thought I'd help my brother by taking out his Lincoln cents and, because they were all dirty, cleaning them with a pencil eraser. He kicked my ass when he got home." Pilitowski recalled with a laugh. "I couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 years old."
Such an experience might have caused many a boy to shy away from coins as anything except spending money. A few years down the road, however, Pilitowski was again entrenched in the hobby.
"In 1969, when I was 14, I found a high grade 1833 dime in pocket change," he explained. "I took it to a local coin shop and asked [the owner] how much he would buy it for. He said he'd give me $100. I was so intrigued that I kept the coin!"
Following high school graduation, he briefly attended college and studied history. He eventually took a radio broadcast position in New York. Soon after, thanks to what Pilitowski called "a hot tip from a friend," he switched careers.
"I was getting into diamonds, jewelry and bullion investments." he said. "This was in 1977 or 1978, just before the boom."
A short time later, numismatics crept back into Pilitowski's life. He bought his brother's coin collection, which by then contained much more than Lincoln cents.
"He had complete sets of Indian cents, Mercury dimes, Walkers, Morgans.a real collector's collection. It rekindled my fascination with coins." he recalled.
Inspired by his recent acquisition, Pilitowski spent the next couple of years in transition from jeweler to coin dealer. He eventually opened a coin shop in New Jersey called Top's Numismatics.
"It was probably a silly name, but it was symbolic of Tom and Pop." he explained. "I'd made tons and tons of money with bullion investing [between 1979 and 1980], and my spending habits matched my income. I lost everything in 1981, and my father loaned me the money to open the store."
In 1984, Pilitowski moved to Florida. He didn't find much numismatic business in the Fort Lauderdale area, so he simply began calling around to find collectors. A portion of the clientele that he established, he said, turned out to be people who had once fallen victim to numismatic telephone scams and were happy to find someone they could trust.
Tragedy struck in 1988 when Pilitowski suffered a serious accident. He fell down a flight of stairs and broke two vertebrae, which left him unable to work for a year. Following his recovery, he spent six months as a representative with U.S. Tangible Investment Corp.
"It wasn't a numismatic position; it was more or less a sales position. I wasn't around coins or collectors. I was certainly capable of doing the job, but I was unhappy. I'm more of the collector spirit."
Pilitowski's next career move took him to the Heritage firm in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1990s. After one year, however, he was homesick for Florida, so he loaded up his truck and returned to Fort Lauderdale. There, he found his customer following from the 1980s ready to welcome him back.
Pilitowski's main area of interest is Early American coinage, specifically pre-1810 specimens. For him, the appeal of these pieces lies in their history.
"I believe in the value of Early American coins," he said. "I want coins that are exquisite, of value and not subject to dealer price manipulation. Not to dispute the value on the part of their contemporary counterparts, but those are subject to manipulation."
"Early American coinage tends to have deep-pocketed followers," he continued. "It embodies the beginning of our country. For example, who could have afforded a $10 gold piece in 1795? George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? It's fascinating, and the foundation upon which our nation was built."
Although Pilitowski has developed a clientele for Early Americans, he also works with a wide range of other numismatic niches.
"I've dealt in every facet of numismatics, from the most general to the most specific and esoteric," he said. "It's interesting to change gears from hobo nickels to MS-65 Colombian Expo pieces to rainbow-toned Morgans. I like all coins, and I have customers that buy just about everything."
Among his customer base, Pilitowski is affiliated with several specialists around the world.
"I'm probably positioned with some of the top people in the industry." he commented. "For example, I have a buyer in Hong Kong who purchases pre-1900 Hong Kong currency. And I have one in Canada - the British Historical Society collection is based on his collection. With that type of representation, I have a specialist in every area."
One of Pilitowski's most recent contacts concerned a private treaty sale of Bust Dollars. The connection resulted from an ad that Pilitowski had placed in Numismatic News.
"My free classified ad yielded responses from two of the most prominent early silver dollar collectors in the country," he explained. "They liked my ability to locate material. It's fascinating that from one free ad came the once-in-lifetime opportunity [on the part of the hobbyists] to purchase the Bust dollars in one fell swoop.
"Also, one man's response resulted in a gigantic deal in the way of our writing a book, one that goes way beyond Bolender," he continued, citing the standard reference by Milfred H. Bolender titled United States Early Silver Dollars from 1794 to 1803.
In addition to serving all ranges of numismatic specialties, Pilitowski is a strong proponent of numismatic education. He's fighting what he calls "pop boys," a new breed of numismatic investors who are in it solely for the money.
"I'll get calls from neophytes who have been pitched by a telemarketer. I'll tell them, 'Call Bowers and Merena - because they have a good book department - and spend $75 on Walter Breen's encyclopedia. Don't buy any coins. Put the book in your bathroom, because then I know you'll flip through it. Find designs that you like and call me back. Then we'll discuss what's feasible."
"About 20 percent do get back to me and are thankful. If you don't learn, you're going to lose, and those people are lost to the hobby forever. I try to provide information so people know what they're dealing with. Everyone's got to win or it's not a good deal."
All in all, Pilitowski reflected, his numismatic adventures over the years have been terrific.
"I've been fortunate.this is what I love to do." he said.