I’m a coin collector. It started when I was a kid and my parents gave me a portfolio for collecting pennies, and I spent hours going through piles of pennies trying to fill it. Unlike most coin collectors I’ve known I haven’t pursued U.S. coins. It’s not that I have anything against U.S. coins, and, in fact, I’m both excited and sad about the end of the Fifty States Quarters program in 2008, as well as other changing U.S. coins, including plans for a new design for the penny in 2009. My collection, though, is mainly coins from around the world, which, for reasons I’ve never understood, just aren’t as popular or desirable among most collectors and sellers. Admittedly part of that is a matter of value. Check out Chester Krause’s Collecting World Coins and you’ll see that a 10 sen from Indonesia, for instance, ain’t worth much even in proof condition.
When I go to a coin dealer the first place I head is usually the small cardboard box at the corner of a table, the one marked, “Foreign Coins” and that offers them at the bargain rate of four, five, six, or even ten for a dollar. Occasionally I feel guilty and will go to the dealer and hold out, say, a British pound, or, with increasing frequency, a Euro, and say, “Do you know how much this one’s worth?” And because most coin dealers I know are nice people they’ll smile and say, “Take a couple more from the box.” Originally I was sad about the Euro, not because I knew it was going to rise against the dollar, but because, as a collector, I hated the thought of so many countries going to a single currency. However each country producing their own designs for one side of each Euro coin means still having almost as many coins to collect. And some countries are more creative than others with their designs. While Greece and Austria, for instance, have come up with multiple designs for their coins, Ireland, surprisingly, just put the harp on all of theirs.
Not all dealers look down their noses at foreign coins, of course. Most that I’ve been to do sort out some of the higher quality coins and sell them individually. And for quality and variety no dealer that I know of beats Joel’s Coins.
What surprises me is that I recently ran across a computer program called Numismatist’s Notebook which promises easy data entry, the ability to sort by coin type, a printable wish-list, and a way to chart your coin-collecting statistics. And the question that comes to my mind is, why? I do try to keep track of my coin collection with a spreadsheet, but, like any collection, it’s the items themselves that matter, not the number or even their values. It’s the sense of place and history I get from the coins that interests me. I got the same thrill as a child, ticking off the years in my penny collection, and seeing that, the further back I went, the harder it became to fill the spaces. And yet I was helping to preserve a small piece of history. I still think I’m doing that. When friends of mine visit another country and ask me if they can bring me anything, I always say, “Some loose change.” They think I’m crazy, but I try to collect every year of every coin. Most don’t change from year to year, but, by collecting every year, I can see when they do. Even small changes are markers of historical events. It says something about the American educational system that I never would have known that 1967 was a significant year for Canada if I hadn’t noticed that all Canadian coins from that year were different. In fact that discovery led me on a ten-year pursuit of 1967 Canadian coins, with the half-dollar being the hardest to find. I can’t call any coin in my collection a favorite, but the 1967 Canadian half-dollar is special because it’s the only coin I actively sought for so long. You may have even heard that the 2004 Canadian quarter, which had a commemorative poppy on one side, was actually briefly believed to be a security threat by the U.S. Defense Department, which thought the design–the first ever colored coin in circulation–might be a bugging device. Hopefully the 2006 quarter, with its pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, didn’t cause as much consternation among the U.S. military. If it did maybe it’s better that we don’t ask and don’t tell.
Coin collecting makes me feel connected to the rest of the world. Places like Turkey, South Africa, or Venezuela are just names on the news, but when I touch their coins, when I wonder who in those countries touched these same coins, they become much more real. I have a set of coins from Tuvalu, a tiny island in the South Pacific. I found it in a box at a flea market, and I can’t help wondering what strange, circuitous route those coins took from their home country to my hands.
If you collect coins, or anything else for that matter, I’m sure it’s a feeling you can understand. And if you can’t, maybe Eric Idle can explain it better:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/7sNJhX0x7yI" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]