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Coin collecting is making a comeback

coins and bills
Ralph Gardner, Jr.

There are lots of things that don’t make sense to me, more of them every day. One of them, admittedly it’s minor given the other challenges facing the planet, occurs when national currencies are discontinued. For example, the twelve replaced by the Euro. Among them the German Mark, the Italian Lira and the French Franc. What are you supposed to do with those coins you accumulated on travels abroad when they’re no longer worth anything?

I can’t get myself to recycle them, let alone throw them away. Not that I consider money sacred. I tend to concur with Bob Dylan that “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Still, there’s something about the sheer thingness of coins, with their images of kings and queens and bristling eagles that makes tossing them in the trash feel vaguely sacrilegious.

So I decided to take them to Ferris Coin & Jewelry in Albany to see what my leather pouch of old defunct coins from long ago foreign vacations was worth, if anything. Dealer Geoffrey Demis gently admonished me about my coins’ mode of transportation. He was referring to their leather pouch, not my 2017 Honda CR-V. “Leather is treated with tannic acid,” he explained. “That’s not good for coins.”

Using a practiced hand and eye he quickly separated the small minority that contained silver from the vast majority that didn’t. Value fluctuates based on the daily price of silver, as well as the condition and rarity of the coins. A Dutch 2½ guilder silver piece was worth around fifteen bucks; a German 5 Mark coin from 1951 four dollars and a thin Canadian silver dime from 1960 about a buck and a quarter.

Ferris offered to buy the steel, copper and aluminum stuff at $3 a pound. The good news is that coins and even defunct banknotes, depending on condition, are hot these days or should I say collectable. Geoff Demis told me: “The market for coins and currency is the strongest it’s been for many years. People want to deal with something that’s tangible.” There are apparently several reasons why coins are making a comeback after years when collecting seemed a passion increasingly limited to geezers. The pandemic had people, including kids, searching for socially distanced hobbies. It’s also a painless way to study history. And the value of the dollar is declining due to inflation. So gold and silver coins are one way to hedge your bets, to diversify your assets.

In the end, I decided not to part with my foreign coins, suddenly becoming sentimental about them. Speaking of history, a coffee-colored copper Irish penny from 1960 with a chicken on one side and a harp on the other reminded me of the summer I spent my entire allowance in a single week in Ireland after discovering Cadbury Flake and Dairy Milk bars. A bunch of almost weightless and worthless aluminum two and five old French Franc coins recalled the time, circa 1971, that we left a tower of them as a tip at a café in Aix-en-Provence. Our waiter offered to value them on the spot by quite literally throwing them in our face and confirming our worst suspicions about French waiters.

Starting on or slightly before 1965 when the U.S. Mint replaced silver coins, such as dimes, quarters and half dollars, with composite materials my father shrewdly collected as many as he could from his everyday change. I’ve inherited them and they provide some small piece of mind. Less because of their so-called “melt value” but because I understand that come the apocalypse, when paper money is worthless and cyberattacks have rendered ATMs and online banking useless, the shiny silver Washington quarter and 1964 Kennedy half dollar will once again become the coin of the realm.

I brought along a bunch of them to Ferris, as well as a handful of silver dollars. They’re all worth a premium above melt value, Geoff explained, because the market is strong. A silver dime is worth $1.85 and up, a silver quarter in excess of $4.50, and a silver half dollar approximately $9 bucks. Silver dollars start at around $19. I found one of those silver dollars, from 1891, the “O” mint mark signifying that it was struck in New Orleans, under my pillow the morning after my first baby tooth fell out. Turns out the tooth fairy is also a coin collector. Subsequent lost teeth warranted less fuss and decreasing denominations of coinage.

Geoff Demis scolded me for polishing one or two of my silver dollars years ago. I know. I know. You’re not supposed to. “The moral of the story is don’t clean your coins,” he told me. “I have people who clean them up before they bring them here.”

I guess I understand why even though I may not agree since I’ve never met a piece of silver I didn’t want to polish. But condition is key and you want your coins to remain as close to their original state as possible. Don’t think of yourself as only a collector, Geoff explained, but also as a curator. You’re preserving them for future generations.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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