By Anna Lothson
Pick almost any coin of any metal from nearly any country, and Harlan Berk can probably tell you its story. The year; the history; how many were, or are, in circulation; and why the particular person or animal was picked for the engraving — he knows it all. His expertise in the field is vast, but his personal collection is nothing to brag about.
That's because it doesn't exist.
Despite collecting since he was a 7-year-old and being in business as a coin and antique seller since 1964, the 70-year-old Berk knows his customers must come first.
"If I kept the best for myself, I would be giving my customer second-rate coins," he said. "I'd be a second-rate dealer."
But that's not what has kept him in business for almost five decades. And it's not what has allowed him to open his second shop last month — the first being his well-known store in Chicago's financial district. He is also represented at auctions and markets nationwide and worldwide.
Any business owner knows the nuances of keeping an establishment open, especially those who've done it most of their adult life, but Berk said he found the secret: turn a childhood hobby into a career.
"I've never worked a day in my life," he said, sitting in his newly opened Oak Park shop at 455 N. Harlem Ave. (the former coffeeshop in the Borders/Marshall Field's building), a freshly painted gallery-themed studio with walls painted a rich red with orange undertones. It's clear after one step inside the store that coins are just the beginning of the collection.
"I wanted people to know this is not an ordinary place. This is an extraordinary place," Berk said.
The gallery style with skylights makes the space look like more than just a coin shop. Shoppers can peruse paintings and rare figurines before making their way to the coin cases. The elaborate design is entirely intentional — to highlight his vibrant personality.
"I love to buy things, I love to sell things, and I love the research," he said. "It's fun, it keeps my mind going, and it's always interesting. We're doing something different. After 49 years in the business, I'm always seeing things I've never seen before and never knew existed."
Berk doesn't stop with coins though; the shop is filled with antiques, original artwork, collectibles and more. This includes, among others, ancient coins from Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire, rare finds in the United States, out-of-print currency, autographs, and antique figures.
"I wanted to do something really exceptional. I wanted to do something very beautiful," he said.
At the age of 7, he probably didn't see it, but the Indian Head coins from his grandma was the beginning of a lifelong passion. It didn't take long to become addicted, he said, especially after one coin he found was worth about a year's worth of allowance (35 cents a week).
"I realized there was something there," he recalled.
At 22, he became the coin expert at Carson Prairie Scott, and his efforts continued to gain recognition. He sits on museum boards as an expert to verify the value of coins, rare and real, and he's published books about collecting.
The secret to finding the hot commodity in the coin market? It's pretty simple.
"Rare coins are found rarely. Common coins are found commonly," he said, and it's important to note, "Age does not make value."
It's all about aesthetics and rarity.
Berk makes sure his staff is knowledgeable enough to assess what a coin or collectible is worth and where it's from. If they don't, they'll find out fast.
"We always know what we're selling. If we cannot know for sure, if it's not correct, we don't deal it," he said. "You cannot offer things to people that you don't know is right and you don't understand."