By Q. David Bowers – Stack’s Bowers ……
As I write these words I enjoy numismatics every bit as much as I did when I was a kid in junior high school in 1952. Given two blue Whitman folders for Lincoln pennies and told that if I found a 1909-S V.D.B. cent in pocket change it would be worth 10 dollars, I went on a treasure hunt. Back and forth to the Forty Fort (Pennsylvania) State Bank with rolls of cents to look through–then return—kept me busy. A kind teller appreciated my interest and was glad to help.
Within a few weeks I had dozens of 1909 V.D.B. cents, but none had an “S”. I noticed that these particular cents tended to be in high grades and sharp, what we would call VF or EF today. In contrast, cents of 1910, 1911, and other early dates were often Good, Very Good, or occasionally Fine. I wondered why the V.D.B. coins were nicer.
Eventually, I found all of the cent dates and mintmarks except 1909-S V.D.B., 1914-D, and 1931-S. My capital, if it could be called that, was very small, so I returned my pile of 1909 V.D.B. cents to circulation.
At that time there were a few stray Indian Head cents in circulation, and I kept those.
In the meantime I had purchased the 1952 edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins. What a treasure this was. In front of me, page-by-page, were wondrous coins such as a 1652 Massachusetts Pine Tree shilling, a 1793 cent with a chain on the reverse, and a kingly 1804 silver dollar. I did not know that most of these existed.
I have been gifted with a sharp memory and a love for interesting things. By 1952 I had read through the several collected books of Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” newspaper column, all of the Hardy Boys novels, and all 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories and the four Holmes long stories. I was deeply influenced by A. Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” and felt that the narrative placed me squarely in an “I am there as it happens” scenario. I have always loved words, word puzzles, and writing, and still do. I enjoyed writing little stories.
I collected rocks and minerals and reptiles. Seeking more information on minerals I went to the Osterhout Library in Wilkes-Barre to borrow a copy of the standard work, Dana’s System of Mineralogy. No luck. Books could not be loaned out to youngsters. So, whatever information it had was lost to me.
Not so with Raymond L. Ditmars’ Reptiles of North America, a copy of which my mother bought me. In it snakes, turtles, and lizards were described in detail, Latin names assigned, and a narrative given about their life habits and ranges. I read every word, and without trying I memorized the Latin names of the various species found in and around northeastern Pennsylvania.
With the above having been done, now came the Guide Book. Unlike rocks, minerals, and reptiles, a nice collection required little space and not much care. A new world was opened to me. Before long I starting building a library of coin books, auction catalogs, and magazines. I joined the Wilkes-Barre Coin Club. There was hardly any market for used coin books at the time, and most were gifts from club members. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now it is 2017. The world is different. I am not sure many in the younger set have even heard of Ripley and his Believe It or Not curiosities, or have read a Sherlock Holmes story. Much pleasure is in electronic form—on a screen.
Somehow, today in 2017 most of the serious numismatists I knew as a kid are still as active as ever, if they still live. One of them, Ken Bressett, editor of the Guide Book, is in constant touch. In 1952 I could not have dreamed that someday my name would be on the cover of this book as research editor.
This brings me to the point of longevity of interest in coins. With electronic media satisfying the need for amusement and activity, the idea of collecting Lincoln pennies and putting them in a Whitman folder or, for that matter, asking friends for envelopes, removing them and putting them in an album–after-school activities of the children of the 1940s through the ’60s–seem impossibly remote.
Today, most newcomers to numismatics are attracted by gold or silver or the idea of making quick profits on investments. Droves of people pay high prices for modern Mint products in plastic holders marked MS-69 or 70.
I have always maintained that to deeply know numismatics is to love it. Deeply knowing involves reading and studying art, history, romance, and other aspects. As readers of this message know, learning about a Libertas Americana medal or other early coin, token, medal, or bank note will bring it to life. This is why nearly everyone who has gone beyond quick coin investments, gold and silver, and such attractions, and has built a library and studied coins has made numismatics a part of their lives. It has an incredibly strong holding power—amazing
There is good news. In fact, great news! Tapping into numismatics in depth can be done today much more easily than it was back in the 1950s. If this interests you, here is a formula:
Start by taking the current Guide Book and reading it from cover to cover, starting with the historical information in the front. As to the coin and price listings, skim those, but read the introduction to each type. Continue through to the back of the book.
Then go back and re-read the front material–about colonial days, about lost treasures, and more. Go back and spend time with some of the designs that interest you. For example, look at the listing of Morgan dollars and see which are common and which are rare. Some are amazing. Why is an 1886-O cheap if well-worn but costs more than a new Mercedes if in Mint State?
Among copper cents, why do some of 1801 have errors on the reverse. Throughout all series, why were some made with overdates, such as the 1887/6 nickel three-cent pieces. And, why in 1866 did we have three-cent and five-cent pieces in nickel and, at the same time in silver? Seems strange!
Contemplate some of the above and you may realize why numismatics was so fascinating to me in 1952 and why, today, it remains equally so. Go for it!