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Coin Collecting: The Value That Rubs Off
( Published 1963 )
Value can go up-and value also can rub off. Let's visit a hypothetical coin shop and do a little eavesdropping.
The white-haired old lady came into the shop. Her manner was timid, almost apologetic.
“Are old coins-really old coins-worth anything?” she asked the man behind the counter.
“That all depends, madam.”
“Well, when a coin is so old you can't even be sure about the date--” she began.
“Then 99 times out of a hundred it's just about worthless.”
“It's always worth face value, of course. But a collector won't pay a premium for it. That's what I mean by worthless.”
“I see.” She paused. “Then-then-then that old dollar my grandfather left me isn't any good?”
The dealer was polite.
“I really don't know. Do you have it with you?” She nodded. “May I see it?”
She opened her handbag, fumbled through it, then pulled out an old yellow envelope. Carefully she took out a folded paper and unwrapped a large silver dollar. She handed it to the dealer. He studied it for a few moments, then:
“How much are you asking for it?” The old lady brightened.
“You mean... it's... it's worth something? It's not too worn out?”
The dealer nodded.
“Well, I don't rightly know,” she said. “You see, it belonged to my grandfather. He said his father gave it to him when it was brand new-that was-oh, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago. Grandfather carried it in his pocket for years-called it his good-luck dollar.”
The dealer interrupted gently:
“And, by carrying it in his pocket, he wore off almost all its value.”
The old lady was puzzled. “I… I don't understand.”
“This is a 1794 silver dollar, the first issued by the United States Mint. You can just make out the date. Brand new, this would be worth several thousand dollars. Not now.
“Your grandfather carried it too long as a good-luck piece. In this condition-so worn it couldn't be called better than About Good-well, it's not much more than a space filler.”
“But you do think it's worth more than... just a dollar?” There was a pathetic eagerness in the old lady's manner.
“Yes, it's worth more than just a dollar. How much are you asking for it?”
“Oh, dear, I don't really know.” She paused, then asked timidly: “Would five dollars be too much?”
The dealer waited, then said: “You want five times face value?”
“Well, if that's too much-” she began.
“Not that-it's too little. I'll offer you one hundred dollars for this coin.”
Her eyes widened.
“But even I can see that it isn't in very good condition.” The dealer nodded. “Did you say… one hundred dollars?” He nodded again. “Well, I never! I ask if five dollars would be too much and you offer me a hundred. Are all you coin dealers this nice?”
“I'd like to think so, ma'am. Of course, as in every business, there are some rather sharp characters, and they don't care who they take advantage of--”
“Even white-haired old ladies?” The dealer smiled.
“Sometimes especially white-haired old ladies.” There was a faint frown on the old lady's face.
“You'll be able to sell the dollar? You will get your money out of it?”
“Yes, ma'am-very definitely... I have a customer who specializes in collecting early silver dollars. He's been looking for a 1794 dollar for some time. Of course, he'd rather have one in better condition, but I'm fairly sure he'll buy this one-as a space filler-until a better one comes along.”
So the dealer bought the About Good 1794 dollar, and everyone was happy. Even today, however, the dear old lady sometimes wishes her grandfather hadn't worn off so much of that dollar's value carrying it around in his pocket.
Admittedly, this scene is far from typical. There aren't many dealers who will volunteer a liberal offer to buy a coin. And in most shops, white-haired old ladies have long been considered fair game for sharpshooting.
Every coin, once it leaves the mint, starts to show signs of wear. In the normal course of circulation it goes through the entire scale until it reaches finally the condition known as Poor. The sooner it is rescued from continued circulation, the better its chances to survive as an acceptable collector's coin.
But a coin which has spent its years as a “pocket piece” shows unmistakable evidence of that fact. The rim, instead of being worn down gradually until the “reeding” (or so-called milling) fades and is gone, acquires a peculiar rounded appearance. This probably is caused by the fact that a pocket piece is usually carried in a pocket separate from the spending money. Its weight, as it jostles against the fabric of the pocket, wears down both sides of the edge until it appears almost rounded.
One such specimen encountered was a Lafayette commemorative dollar, a silver coin issued in 1900. The first United States coin authorized to bear the portrait of an American president-George Washington-the Lafayette dollar was sold by the Lafayette Memorial Commission for $2.
Such a dollar now has a catalog value of close to $75, if in Uncirculated condition. But the particular specimen which served some half a century as a pocket piece had a retail value a few years ago of exactly $5, which meant that the original owner spent about a dollar a year for the privilege of carrying it as a pocket piece.
But a dollar a year is cheap compared to the price paid by the person who used a $4 gold “Stella” as a pocket piece. The current price of a Stella. (a short-lived experiment in an unusual denomination) is between $5,00 and $19,000, depending on whether it was issued in 1879 or 1880 and whether the particular specimen is of the Barber design (a total of 430 struck in both years) or the Morgan design (only 20 struck in the two years).
This particular Stella, which may have served as a pocket piece for as long as 80 years, when finally rescued from oblivion, was so worn that only the distinctive 5-pointed star could be made out. The date was gone and it was impossible to tell whether it was Barber or Morgan design.
With an effort, one could make out that there once had been a portrait on the obverse side, but whether it was the less scarce 1879 with flowing hair, or the extremely valuable 1880 with coiled hair, was lost forever. Even the gold weight was far below what it should have been-all due to wear in some man's pocket.
What was its value? Although in original Proof condition it would be worth thousands of dollars today, a dealer had difficulty finding someone willing to pay $25 for it! At that rate of depreciation, the cost of carrying that pocket piece was somewhere between $55 and $112 a year.
There are many coins which have proved popular as pocket pieces: the Columbian half dollars, the Stone Mountain Memorial halves and the Washington-Carver issues. That such coins lead a happy-go-lucky life in the depths of a man's pocket is of no particular concern. They were issued in such quantities that the irrevocable loss of many such specimens is a mere drop in the numismatic bucket.
Early coins sometimes have value literally bounced off. The early United States silver dollars were large and quite heavy. If dropped onto a hard surface from a considerable height, edge dents or “bumps” appear. While these may not deflate a good coin's market value greatly, they will tend to make the coin “less desirable,” and consequently it will not command as high a price as the same coin in similar condition free of such edge bumps.
For years, a coin with a hole was looked upon with disfavor by U.S. collectors. As recently as 10 years ago, dealers sometimes had difficulty selling them for 10 per cent of their catalog value.
No one knows for certain why many of the earlier coins of the United States were holed. They couldn't all be worn as charms on a necklace or bracelet. Some may have been used as makeshift teething rings; a holed dollar of the 1790s was found with what appear to be nicks such as might have been left as a result of use by many teething babies.
Holing of dollars and quarters and halves and large cents appears to have been fairly widespread as late as 1876. One collector has found a quarter, a half dollar and a trade dollar of that year, 1876, each with a neat hole at the top of the obverse. And all were in nearly Extremely Fine condition. Could these holes have been drilled recently? It hardly appears likely, since the catalog value of the three is close to $50, and not many persons tamper with that much value, even for the girl friend's bangle bracelet.
This is not to say that drilling holes in coins stopped abruptly in 1876; late-date Indian cents, a Buffalo nickel and a Walking Liberty half dollar have been encountered so holed.
Do holed coins have a future? It would appear that the early United States specimens have a very bright future. Whereas the io per cent of catalog was the old rule of thumb, many dealers today are asking-and getting-as much as 10 per cent of catalog value.
In Europe today, an ancient Roman or Greek coin with a hole is often displayed alongside those which are completely sound. And the price asked is exactly the same with hole or without.
Early American coins with holes have had a steady increase in value because there simply aren't enough fine, sound coins to go around. When collectors of United States coins could be counted in the hundreds or low thousands, there were enough coins for all. Today, although the exact figure is anybody's guess, the number of serious coin collectors in this country is estimated to be well into the hundreds of thousands.
While it might be a wonderful state of affairs if every collector who wanted a prime specimen of, say, a 1795 half dollar could get it, it just can't be done today. So the early half with a hole is being looked upon with more and more favor.
In 1800, the United States Mint reported that it turned out 11,622 Half Eagles-$5 gold pieces. How many have survived is not known. Its catalog value today ranges from $175 in Fine condition to $375 in Uncirculated.
How much would such a coin, in Extremely Fine condition but with a small neat hole in it, be worth? Under the old schedule, it would be valued at about $25- But don't be surprised that that early gold piece, even with a hole, is valued by its present owner at more than $150. And he doesn't want to sell it.
The moral of all this is:
1. Don't carry a potentially valuable coin as a pocket piece.
2. Avoid dropping that 1797 silver dollar on the tile floor.
3. Holes in classic American coins aren't as damaging as they used to be.