If it’s not already a tradition, find a way to introduce numismatics this holiday season
By Jim Bisognani for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation ……
As this article posts we are about to enjoy a truly American holiday tradition: Thanksgiving. A touch of light snowfall covering the ground only enhances the mood for this great season. While the snow flurries continue, my fondest memories return to my youth being wakened by the aromatic delicacies wafting from the kitchen up to my bedroom–not as a signal to wake up at that ungodly pre-dawn hour, but to enjoy a few more sweet-smelling winks before heading downstairs to assist with some of the dinner prep and festivities. Setting the dining room table was a big event as the white linen and best dinnerware were rolled out from the hutch. It was fun, it was family and everyone got involved.
I remember I had this Thanksgiving poster which I always carefully unrolled and put up in the dining room. Before making its annual appearance at our home it had been on display at a local grocery store. It was actually an ad for Lindsay pitted olives. There was a small image of the product in the lower right corner but the rest of the poster was this glorious looking turkey! I liked it so much that the Dan’s Star Market store manager gifted it to me after the holidays one year. Putting up that poster each Thanksgiving holiday was something that I took great joy in!
Food, family, friends, conversation and–at least when I was a young dinosaur–some gifts, too. I recall mom and dad would give a few silver dollars to each of us before we sat down for the feast. Some of dad’s friends were in the military and one year his friend Danny, who just returned on leave from England, brought me some very interesting coins from the mother country. I especially enjoyed the sixpence and that mammoth copper penny!
When I first held that copper coin and then compared it with our Lincoln cent I couldn’t believe both were pennies! Danny attempted to explain to me the difference in actual value, “Let’s see it was 12 pence per shilling and 20 shillings per pound which equaled 240 pence per British pound, which was worth about $2.50.”
I was fascinated and took it all in. So if the pound was worth about $2.50, each of the large British pennies was worth just over one US cent! Dad could see I was excited and since Danny was returning to England for duty in a few weeks pop asked, “If I gave you a few dollars would you pick up a few hundred British pennies for me when you come back home on leave?” Danny said sure not a problem and with that my dad pulled out his wallet and handed Danny a five dollar bill. “Get what you can for Jimmy.”
I really liked the size and heft of the pennies from our mother country as those large coppers were about the same size as our US Large Cents of the 1793-1857 era. I was so enthused that I collected the large British coppers alongside my prized Lincoln cents.
It was in late January 1967 when Danny returned on leave and brought a small linen sack bulging with several hundred British coppers—pennies and half pennies— even a handful of silver sixpences and shillings! I was so excited, many of the coins were dated from the 1800s–Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and of course Elizabeth II!
I thanked Danny profusely and he informed me that the United Kingdom was converting to the decimal system in a few years. It would be 100 pence per pound and that all of the coins like he brought would be phased out of circulation. With this daunting news looming it was the impetus for me to collect more British coins!
The following year, 1968, Great Britain issued a series of the new pence coins in little blue vinyl folders imprinted “Britain’s First Decimal Coins” prior to the conversion to the decimal system. There were five coins featuring Queen Elizabeth II: ½ pence, 1 pence, 2 pence in bronze and the 5 and 10 pence in cupro-nickel.
Now this was 1968 and while both larger cupro-nickel denominations were dated 1968 all three bronze issues were already dated 1971! I actually had fun bringing that little blue folder set to school and telling some of my classmates that I had coins from the future! Of course there were some non-believers and some small wagers of pocket change and candy were offered. Of course I won.
When my teacher, Ms. Nutting, found out about the coins she became quite interested as her family was from England. I was encouraged by her to have an impromptu show and tell about the outgoing British currency and the new coinage. My first numismatic conference! After my talk 10 classmates became interested in coins as a hobby not just to buy toys and candy.
Today I am still an avid collector of English coins and it dawned on me that collecting coins of the era the pilgrims set sail from England on the Mayflower would be historic and exciting numismatically for this and future Thanksgiving holidays. Talk about a great conversation piece!
A wonderful choice to start with would be a Great Britain shilling circa 1619-25 (KM# 59), the third coinage from the rule of James I. According to the NGC World Coin Price Guide this silver coin is valued at $55 in VG 8 while a solid VF 20 lists at $400. Quite the affordable representative, one which would fit most collectors’ budgets.
Conversely, a shilling from the first coinage of James I (circa 1604-19) exists in three varieties (KM# 13, KM# 14 and KM# 26) with each valued around $50 in VG 8 and around $350 in VF. Personally, I would search for a pleasing low-grade example as just maybe that particular coin may have found its way over on the Mayflower!
For modern day enthusiasts and US collectors there isn’t anything quite as apropos as the 1920 Pilgrim Tercentenary Commemorative half dollar. The obverse features William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth Colony, donning the famous Pilgrim attire and hat. The reverse presents a wonderfully executed rendition of the Mayflower in full sail and, of course, the dates 1620-1920. Interestingly, as the coins were not ready for distribution until late in 1920, approximately 48,000 coins were left from the original allocation and the Tercentenary commission was able to get these melted and re-coined in 1921 with same design except for a small “1921” added to the obverse field.
While the 1920 had a mintage of 152,000, the 1921 with only 80,000 pieces struck is the scarcer and pricier of the two varieties. Yet the classic 1920 version can be found graded NGC MS 60 for about $100. A full Gem NGC MS 65 will only set you back around $200. With a little patience and search, either a satiny white coin or an original patinated one can be yours to enjoy. If it isn’t already a tradition find a way to introduce numismatics this holiday season. Put it out on the table so to speak.
It’s a fabulous time to get motivated! While searching through rolls of standard US coins from local banks is fine, why not buy a few pounds of mixed foreign coins. The mixture of sizes, shapes, denominations and design elements is bound to pique the younger sets curiosity and hopefully a budding new numismatist is born!
Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers and friends in the numismatic community. May this be a wonderful start to a fabulous holiday season.
Until next time, happy collecting!
* * *
Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.
Pilgrim Tercentenary Commemorative Half Dollars Currently Available on eBay