It was 1953 when I began my interest in coins. I have always had the collecting instinct. At one time it was pictures of airplanes; another childhood interest was rocks and minerals, while another had to do with the study of snakes and turtles (herpetology). In each instance, I endeavored to dig into the subject as deeply as possible, to learn as much as I could.
One day in 1953, while visiting Robert Rusbar, the tax collector in my home town of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, to see his cabinet of rock and mineral specimens, he showed me his coin collection. In particular, I remember a bright red Lincoln cent, which he stated he paid $ 10 for. Wow! Ten dollars for a penny! I was amazed. This was 1,000 times the face value. I asked about the so-called "penny" and learned that it properly should be called a "cent" (for pennies are something used in England, not in the United States) and that it was formally known as a 1909-S V.D.B. The reason it was so expensive, I was told, was that it was in mint condition, properly called "Uncirculated," and that very few of them could be found.
Being skeptical, I was certain that a little looking in pocket change would bring forth quite a few 1909-S V.D.B. cents, if not Uncirculated, then certainly in one of the other grades I had learned about - such as Fine or Very Fine. Bob Rusbar furnished me with several Whitman folders, and before long I had a sprinkling of Lincoln cents from 1909 onward, missing such things as the 1909-S V.D.B., 1914-D, and 1931-S, but including nearly all if not completely all of the others. I was fascinated by the 1909 V.D.B. (Philadelphia Mint issue - not the rare San Francisco variety) for it was the only year with the initials on the reverse. I found one of them, then found five or ten, and pretty soon had a whole batch. In fact, as strange as it may seem now, back then I felt that the face value was becoming a problem, so I spent the duplicates! Of course, they had no premium value.
My interest then spread to collecting nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, and, eventually, silver dollars. The Forty Fort State Bank and the Kingston National Bank were very cooperative, and many hours were spent sorting through coins on afternoons after my high school classes had ended, or on Saturday mornings. I remember that in one afternoon at the Forty Fort State Bank I picked from circulation a complete set of Liberty Walking half dollars from 1916 through 1947, including the three examples of 1921. All of this seems a bit strange to relate over 30 years later, when one can't even find a common date from the 1940s in circulation - because all were extracted due to their silver value back in the mid-1960s when silver rose to such a high premium.
It was not unusual to find Barber coins in circulation, particularly Barber half dollars. Such pieces were apt to be well-worn, in conditions described as Good or Very Good. Liberty Standing quarters were quite common. Those dated prior to 1924 tended to have the dates worn smooth, but still there were enough around that I found most of them. The 1916, a rarity then and a rarity now, was an exception.
As my eyes were bigger than my pocketbook, and I needed a way to finance my interests, I turned to trading in coins. At first I placed newspaper advertisements, most of them locally in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but some in Denver, Colorado, where I suspected that all sorts of rare mintmarks were in every-day circulation, unnoticed by collectors in the "Wild West"! The advertisements appeared, and each day I watched my mailbox expecting to find news of 1916-D dimes, 1901-S quarters, and the like. The postman came and went, and no such things ever materialized. In fact, I don't recall buying even a single coin from that early effort!
The Wilkes-Barre Coin Club met monthly not far from my home. Shepherded by George P. Williams, who was secretary, I attended many meetings. He instructed me, a youthful lad who had turned dealer, that a dealer must be aware that collectors came first. That is, collectors had priority in the club auction and other transactions. So, at the monthly club auction I would preview the lots, listen when an item came up for sale, and only if a collector did not meet the minimum bid would I enter competition. On one such occasion I bought for $5 a virtually perfect 1879 Uncirculated half dollar, a coin which by the mid-1980s would be worth $5,000 or more! Of course, I didn't keep it - it was passed along with a profit added and was probably sold for $7 or $8 - I don't remember.
I became an advertiser in the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, the premier publication of the time. Later, I advertised also in The Numismatist and Numismatic News. In 1955, at the age of 16, I was the youngest dealer ever to have a bourse table at the ANA convention, which was held that year in Omaha, Nebraska. Aubrey and Adeline Bebee held the convention auction. I paid $610 for an 1867 with-rays Proof nickel, which caused virtual pandemonium - my, what a staggering price! To put things in perspective, I mention that Aubrey Bebee at the same convention was offered a Prooflike Uncirculated 1796 silver quarter for $200 (today the same coin would be worth closer to $50,000)!
Those days were a lot of fun in coin collecting. If I had a question, such veterans as Abe Kosoff, Abner Kreisberg, Joe and Morton Stack, Art Kelley, Jim Kelly, Max Mehl, and others were happy to help. The numismatic fraternity was closely knit. The attendance at the Omaha convention was about 500 people, enough to make the convention active, but not enough to make it crowded. There was ample time for a youngster such as me to visit an old-timer and to spend five or ten minutes chatting. I have always remembered the kindnesses of those who have gone before me, and today whenever a youngster writes seeking information for a term paper or asking questions about coins I always respond with a personal answer. It is disheartening when I occasionally hear that coin shops and dealers "don't have time for those who aren't spending lots of money." Along the way something seems to be missing.
A few years ago, John J. Ford, Jr., gave a series of talks, "When Coin Collecting Was Fun," implying that, somehow, coin collecting was no longer fun. I agree with that, but just partially. Today I feel that coin collecting and dealing is as much fun as ever, but one has to seek it out. No longer can one go to a large convention and find dealers willing to "talk shop" on a casual basis, for so much business is being transacted that there simply isn't time. The world has changed, and numismatics has changed with it. In the decade from 1953 to 1963 I don't remember even hearing about any collector or dealer suing another, but now, as president of the American Numismatic Association, scarcely a day or two goes by without a complaint crossing my desk - often accompanied by threats of a lawsuit - about some problem that one ANA member has with another. I think that the golden rule - "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" should be applied now more than ever and would solve nearly all the problems. However, too many collectors and dealers want to shoot first and then look at the target or consider the facts later.
Today, the coin hobby has been characterized as an industry by some. And, indeed, it is not at all uncommon to read of multi-million-dollar transactions. I have been part of this scene. I remember in one session of our Garrett Collection sale held for the Johns Hopkins University a few years ago, in the space of three days over $10 million worth of coins crossed the auction block! Or, when I catalogued and sold the Eliasberg Collection of United States gold coins in 1982, $12.4 million worth of coins crossed the auction block in only three days. To properly appreciate this figure, I set about doing some comparisons and came to the stunning realization that the three-day Eliasberg Collections Sale brought in more money than all of the auction sales held over a period of decades by such old-timers as the Chapman Brothers, W. Elliott Woodward, B. Max Mehl, and just about everybody else put together! In fact, although I have never added it up, I suspect that this one sale realized more than the total of all coin auction sales held in the United States from 1850 to 1950, a period of a century!
The growth of the hobby has brought with it some pleasures and also some problems. In the problem category are such things as impersonalization, which is what perhaps leads to threatened lawsuits, exploitation of customers (perhaps caused by dealers having too many customers and no longer knowing them on a personal basis), and, simply, so much going on that no one person can grasp it all. There are more conventions going on now in a given typical weekend than there were all year long back in 1953 when I began my interest! Back then there were probably two or three hundred dealers in coins in the United States, now there are thousands.
Grading has been mentioned as a problem in recent times, but a study of numismatic literature will vividly show that a century ago grading was also a problem. As grading admits a large degree of personal opinion, there will always be differences among buyers and sellers. This is the nature of the beast, and no amount of "scientific precision" will change it, in my opinion. While I think that numbers can make a good shorthand for grades, in my opinion such notations as MS-60, MS-63, MS-65, MS-67, and MS-70 have also spawned a large measure of confusion. And, the numerical grading system is not at all logical, for the Uncirculated span just enumerated runs just 10 points from MS-60 to MS-70, while Very Fine runs from VF-20 all the way up to just before EF-40, a span of nearly 20 points! Perhaps if this makes sense to you, you can explain it to me! And yet, as president of the ANA and also a dealer, I have seen more controversies on the subject of grading than all other numismatic subjects put together. Hobbies such as old cars, prints, antique furniture, and art can be grateful that devotees in those fields don't spend endless hours bickering over whether a Currier & Ives print is "MS-63" or "MS-65"!
What about the pleasures: Growth to the hobby has brought with it many fine things, not the least of which is a proliferation of numismatic literature. There are more reference books in print than ever before in collecting history. Interested in tokens of Virginia? Or paper money of Vermont? Or Morgan silver dollars? Or half cents? Or mint errors? Chances are good that you can find a dandy book on these and other areas of interest. It is probably true to say that there are more newsletters, books, and investment guides to Morgan and Peace dollars available now than there were on all American silver coins of all denominations 30 years ago. Of course, some things in print aren't worth the paper of which they are made, but there are numerous glorious exceptions. Collectors with an intellectual turn of mind have but to subscribe to Penny-Wise, the journal of the Early American Coppers Club, or to The Colonial Newsletter to derive an evening of enjoyment, with one reading often leading to a desire to learn even more. Similarly, Penny Whimsy, the revision of Dr. Sheldon's 1949 Early American Cents book, stands today as a monument to numismatic excellence. Here is a book which has it all - detailed information on die varieties for those seeking that, thoughts on the psychology of collecting, information on grading, and much more. I have always suggested to clients that even if they aren't the slightest bit interested in American large cents of the 1793-1814 years (the main topic of the Sheldon book), they must acquire a copy of Penny Whimsy anyway - just for enjoyable reading and to appreciate the enjoyment of coin study and research. In 1984, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents made an appearance, setting a new high standard in the photography and description of die varieties of a particular series. How much like paradise it would be if comparable references were available on everything else from Massachusetts silver coins minted in 1652 right down to Jefferson nickels and Lincoln cents! This will probably never happen, but at least it is something we can all aspire to.
The proliferation of conventions has made it possible for citizens of Dubuque, Iowa or Sacramento, California or Tallahassee, Florida to attend a show in their own area - if not this week, then perhaps next week. Years ago it required traveling a great distance to attend a show. The same is true of auctions. Now there are at least a couple dozen major coin auctions per year, many more than there were a few decades ago. And, the larger number of dealers has resulted in a larger number of auctions. If you want to go shopping for a relatively common coin - an 1881-S Uncirculated silver dollar comes to mind - you probably can get price quotations from 500 different sources! All of this has benefits to the buyer.
Many fine specialized organizations have been formed. If you are interested in coins of Israel, there is a club for you. The same goes if you are interested in Liberty Seated silver coins, or Capped Bust half dollars, or tokens, or colonial coins, or commemoratives, or "love tokens," or any one of many other specialties.
The run-up in coin values over the years has made coin collecting and dealing big business. When a 1796 quarter dollar was worth $200, it was tough to be a professional numismatist. It was a darn hard way to eke out a living. Now, professional numismatics can be competitive with other walks of life such as engineering, executive positions in other businesses, teaching, and the like. One can seriously study numismatics as a profession, and make a career of it, earning a nice income in the process.
The weekly appearance of Coin World, Numismatic News, and The Coin Dealer Newsletter makes possible the acquisition of more information than ever before. In fact, at my office I receive so many things that it has been impossible to even scan them all! But, these weekly news and market publications, plus dealers' catalogues, plus other things are a virtual gold mine of information. Several clients have reported starting "clip and save" files - whereby news on a particluar specialty, whether it be Standing Liberty quarters or commemorative half dollars - is pasted in a scrapbook. Reading about coins is just as much fun as owning them, in my opinion. In fact, in the long run, it can be more fun. As advice to the beginning collector I have always suggested that the first order of priority is to build a numismatic library. I challenge anyone to prove wrong my statement that $500 worth of books is a lot more enjoyable than $500 worth of coins!
It has been fun to have been part of the coin hobby since the 1950s. And, as I enjoy every minute of what I do in the coin profession in the 1980s, I keep my fingers crossed that I can look forward to more decades of coin research, meeting fine collectors and dealers, and, in general, having a great time!